To Warm Your Hearts

There is to be a Women’s March on Washington, D.C., happening soon after 2017’s presidential inauguration. There will also be sympathetic marches happening at most, if not all, state capitals the same day. Living in one state capital alongside political activists, I live in a milieu anticipating the march.

After church on Sunday, my family went downtown to one of the top concert venues for a matinee. We had extra time, so we hung out at a small park whose central feature is a fountain with a bronze statue of a young woman in the middle. This park is one place around the city where handmade warm things appear on trees, and on Sunday, the statue wore a flaming pink hat tucked between her braids and shoulders. At church, we’d learned that the marching crowds intend on wearing pink hats to show the incoming president that his actions and remarks denigrating women have been heard. Here was a pink hat, giving the statue appropriate garb for the march! Two women were arranging the hat in various ways and taking pictures of the statue with the hat; they saw us and quickly said, “It was here before us!” Their remarks led me to believe that they also saw political symbolism in the statue’s hat, and I couldn’t help but take a photo in glee.

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The Statue and Her Hat

Soon, my family left the park and went to our performance, thinking among ourselves that we hope that someone gets to use that hat (as appropriate for knit-bombing) and yet hoping for the hat to stick around until the march. Waiting for the bus home, two people puttered past us, clearly down on their luck. One of them wore a flaming pink hat – the statue’s hat! We stared until the bus came, mulling over how the hat served more than one purpose.

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A City Dweller

This is a retrospective post, originally created in October of 2015 and then lost. I still think the idea of connectedness and living in a city through all senses is worthwhile sharing.

I spent much of the winter months last year wondering whether I needed to change my habits to live to the fullest in my new city-home. Here was the thought process: I remembered living in Egypt, where my default routine was going to school (or work) in the morning, running errands on the way home, and spending my evening at home. Learning of my daily routine, my language partner in Egypt made a point of introducing me to the night life of Alexandria – an essential part of life in a big city, she said. Duly impressed, I began to experiment with going out at night, perceiving my evening excursions to businesses or the harbor as the defining characteristic of a city dweller.

But my explorations into city life were cut short just as I began them, as the last month of my semester abroad coincided with massive political protests. I lived through an adjustment that was unfinished, interrupted too soon, but was it truly simply an adjustment to Alexandria, Egypt? Was I not also adjusting to life in a huge metropolis? Perhaps, now that I live again in a ~4 million-strong city, I can complete that process. I can remember the behavior adjustments I made abroad and incorporate them into my life here, changing my behavior to fit the urban setting. And in the end, I’ll have a better life as I exploit the opportunities inside this city.

Now I know different: a nightlife outside my home requires a social life outside my home. Regarding a social life, with my language partner I had a reason to venture into the cafés, the restaurants, the outdoor shopping malls. Without her, I knew no one other than the three men living directly beneath me and with whom I spent most evenings. In the States, I have friends living all over my metropolis, and we have the means (cars, public transit, a bike) to get together. And friends and I do get together – I have social gatherings at my house or theirs maybe once a week. But I also live with friends, so again the hub of my social life is in my home. Yes, my routine is still a steady commute out, commute home, stay home, but this winter I don’t feel as if I’m missing out on something better. I know I’m doing just fine.

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Changing the Definition of “Success”

Success is an abstract concept that humans continually try to quantify. With a quantifiable metric, success becomes something we can grade ourselves against, see how far we fall short, and something hopefully we can achieve. Throughout my life, I have worked in institutions that define themselves by what made the organization successful. For example, I began working for Outward Bound at a wilderness base in Oregon. Outward Bound’s tagline is “Learning through Challenge and Adventure,” and at that wilderness base, courses were deemed successful when their students learned about themselves in tangible ways, changed their behaviors, and lived as an independent, autonomous group for a few days. When I moved to Voyageur Outward Bound School’s Twin Cities Center (TCC), my definition of success changed, becoming differently institutionalized.

Transitioning from a wilderness base to an urban center took many courses. The TCC’s student population not only was more diverse in age, ethnicity, and experience outdoors; I also worked with students for shorter time periods. I quickly learned to adjust my expectations of what instructors could teach on course (no curing arachnophobia, for instance). I learned to place more emphasis on what makes folk safe outside (e.g. sleeping warm) and to be as transparent as possible about what is going to happen. I have since worked over three seasons with the TCC, yet at nearly every course planning session I have to remember to appear in front of students with a blank slate of expectations.

Delving into past courses for an example, I remembered one of my most successful courses at the TCC. In late May 2016, I backpacked at the back of a line of young women from an environmentally focused high school. The young women, unused to the weight of their packs or the Northwoods through which we hiked, hadn’t stopped complaining since we arrived two days previously. Our course included hills triggering fears of heights, unusual food and sleeping situations, and half of the women’s friends had stayed home. Lessons on communication styles, Leave No Trace ethics, and forest ecology flopped. Our second day included hot sun, cold rain, and back to hot sun. Yet I found myself thinking, “This is a supremely successful course,” on our longest day, when we had to lengthen our hike by three miles to find an unoccupied campsite. I had realized that success is different for each course, and is defined through collaboration between students and instructors. (Herein is why I need a blank slate at the start of course.) Success depends on how well instructors identify where students are at and meet students’ needs, but also on how far the students are willing or able to adapt to instructors. On this late spring backpacking course, the group was successful in creating a situation where students stepped into leadership roles, supported each other, and most importantly, everyone was safe.

I now understand success to encompass not just the big ideas of financial solvency and personal fulfillment but also whether food is available at an appropriate time, laughter happens, and interactions are respectful. Success can include everyone making a destination by a preset time or someone afraid of heights stepping to the bottom of a cliff in a climbing harness. When a supervisor recently told me how they’d had fun that day, I went home on cloud nine, my perception of a dismal day flipped on its head as successful. Later, I realized how that interaction spoke of the truth behind a TCC mantra: “even the smallest moments of success are worth celebrating.” The TCC, like other OB bases, lives by the tagline of “Learning through Challenge and Adventure,” but the TCC doesn’t define success by that metric. We wait to define success until our students arrive.

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Being Sick Sucks.

I experience life in cycles, which is another way to say I learn from past experiences to better live now. I recently added another cycle – getting massively sick thanks to the wilderness. I have giardiasis. From contracting the disease on expedition to diagnosis took three weeks total, lightening fast when compared to my original wilderness-related illness, described as it happened in the blog I kept in Egypt. I’ve learned how to recognize wilderness-related illnesses, and I learned something about the big city through this cycle.

Four years ago I studied abroad in Egypt and started feeling ill. Between late September and mid-October 2012, and then in small week-long waves for the next three months, my large joints became excruciatingly painful. (Stomach flu, diarrhea, and allergic reactions that made my legs swell and itch also were companions.) I visited doctors around class, and eventually I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; I learned in March 2013 that I was, in fact, living with Lyme Disease. I unwittingly had been bitten by a deer tick in late August 2012 while leading a backcountry expeditions in Wisconsin.

This year, my first symptom was awful diarrhea. I lived with diarrhea for a week before finally calling in sick to work to visit a clinic. Again, I had a Muslim doctor, and she also ordered tests to be done on me. However, in Egypt the tests were x-rays; in Minnesota the tests were tissue samples. Two days later, my test results came back – giardiasis. Again, my pharmacist was a Muslim woman. Again, I had led a backcountry expedition in late August in the Upper Midwest.

The rest of this illness is different. The expedition at fault took me backpacking in Minnesota, and I apparently consumed non-purified water. I lived with the ailment for a shorter period because I live in a city whose doctors are familiar with the disease I presented – giardiasis is not rare in Minnesota. Lyme Disease is more complex – there are countries that don’t have the disease for reasons of ecology and climate, yet there are doctors in the appropriate climate who refuse to recognize Lyme Disease as legitimate! Lastly, the treatment that killed Lyme Disease took thirty days, whereas my giardiasis prescription will take me only five days total.

One major learning from the first wilderness-related illness: big cities offer resources of which I, as a resident, can take advantage. In Egypt, I refused to believe that I needed the help of a doctor for my joint pain – I am no wimp! I also didn’t believe doctors would or could diagnose a disease after a single visit from a patient. Because I’ve vomited in big cities across the world, I know now that the medical system exists for the exclusive purpose of freeing a population from as much distress as possible, no matter how many times a patient sees a doctor.

 

Note: having friends and family with chronic ailments, I see long-term relationships between doctors and their patients as healthy, and I know that doctors won’t judge a person for their pain tolerance. I still struggle from the “no-wimp!” syndrome, but I’m learning.

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Has My Moment Come?

I have a quote by Maria Lugones (2003) celebrating “…bi- and multilingual experimentation;/code-switching;…caricaturizing (sic) of the fragmented selves we are in our groups…crossing cultures; etc.” I recently read it and disagreed with it for the first time. Messing with the cultural norms as they stand may be a worthwhile endeavor, and living between jokes at home and jargon at work is reality for everyone, even monolingual humans. However, I bounce between two different work environments and have learned that living in the language and culture of both workplaces is tough. Additionally, my bosses recently caught me in a crossroads, demanding that I choose one primary work culture, language, and set of norms. I wonder: how do I relinquish pieces of myself?

Let me explain further. I identify as an outdoor educator because I work for the nearby Outward Bound school and spent the last few years revolving around outdoor education jobs. I step into the Outward Bound warehouse/office complex and settle into a distinct language cemented by training expeditions and time invested in those co-instructors, trainers, supervisors, and students. I have deep relationships with most of my coworkers, with whom I plan for and instruct low privilege, inner city students on expeditions. I am dedicated to the mission of character and leadership development through challenge and adventure.

But Outward Bound only schedules me to work sporadically. After several months of living in my metropolis without constant work from Outward Bound, I finally acquired another job. Now, most of my days are spent inside a bicycle shop, where I work as a bike mechanic. Since March, I have became separated from Outward Bound’s community, culture, relationships, and inside jokes. I wasn’t there during the busiest season in Outward Bound’s year, which means I can’t fully speak my coworkers’ codes anymore. I more frequently speak the language, inside jokes, stories, and drama of my bike shop, even though I don’t identify easily as a bike mechanic.

The backbone of an outdoor education job is seasonal employment, as students and programs are driven by access to activities outside. In most places, these jobs last two to five months, and outdoor educators must move on to another place, another job in order to eat and ply their trade. This unattached, unsettled life is tough, and eventually outdoor educators (dare I extrapolate to anyone living a seasonally employed life by choice?) find themselves at a crossroads: do they live a settled life with family and community, using personal resources and vacation time to take trips to where they want to go with whom they want to expedition? Or do they continue to use organizational gear and transportation and get paid to scratch the outdoorsy itch, sharing the outdoors with others while remaining seasonally unsettled and unattached?

I meant for this summer to chart a different path: balancing the financially stable, settled life of a bike mechanic with the seasonal life of an Outward Bound instructor. I have lived the summer of a bike mechanic with only bits and spurts of Outward Bound – not enough scratching to fully satisfy the itch but only enough to make the itch worse. As the summer winds to a close, I know that I’ve entered the next stage of my outdoor educator crossroads: I tried to create a third route and have been stymied. Where do I go from here?

I want to emphasize that living as an outdoor educator is a privileged life – folk may be living beneath the poverty line and stressing about nothing in bank accounts, but they actively choose to live this way. Every outdoor educator has alternative options, unlike seasonally employed folk such as migrant farm workers. However, after spending my career as an outdoor educator teaching folk to love their lives, I struggle to reconcile that message with my job reality.

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Remember, and Use, Your Able-ness!

Take a moment and evaluate your physical body. Can you use your arms? Check if you don’t think so. What about your legs? Fingers, toes, spine and back muscles? Are you breathing? Your brain works, because you’re reading these sentences. Ok. You have a functioning body – congrats! Now, before you go into spirals of “I wish my body was ______,” continue reading as to why I am grateful and inspired to use my functioning body.

I volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), a world-class science museum whose staffing and volunteering policies are cutting edge. One way they role model excellence to other institutions is their recruitment of minorities – ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation, from difference age groups, various socioeconomic classes, and disabled folk. To visitors, whether we are abled or disabled shouldn’t matter, as long as we can effectively answer questions and meet their needs. Yet I find visitors consistently prefer communicating with me rather than interacting with the volunteer sitting next to me who has learning disorders affecting his eyes and speech. I have watched visitors completely ignore a beautifully kind staff member who struggles to walk with a walker, instead asking the able-bodied volunteers questions that only a staff could answer. Many visitors do choose to interact with the nearest museum personnel, regardless of ability – and probably we who choose to interact across abilities come away better people. Inevitably I leave my volunteer shifts profoundly grateful for my body’s responsiveness and ability to move.

An opportunity came last week to learn lessons from two Croatian social justice activists working with Syrian refugees over the past four years. Near the end of the powerful workshop, one participant asked how we, although removed from the conflict zone and the main concentrations of refugees, can support both aid workers and refugees. The activists immediately responded, “You are able, no? You can use that ability to come to a refugee camp and work, to promote organizations who do just that, to contact your political representatives, to chat with your neighbors about it, to start food and clothing drives.” Her response struck a chord: there are so many reasons to passionately engage with the greater world, and yet so many of us who are able forget to look beyond our suburban realities.

I am inspired to use my able-bodied-ness to help make someone else’s life easier – I do not need for you to throw yourself behind helping international refugees. I ask only that you take time to reflect on how you use your abilities currently…are there passions you wish to pursue? Where in your life can you make someone else’s life, even a sibling, neighbor, or child, better? Now do it!

 

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Moorish Spain

Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. New York City: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1992. 178 pages.

Fletcher’s book is less a historiographic treatise and more a detailed travelogue for the modern province of Andalucia, Spain. Nevertheless, the book traces political, social, intellectual, cultural, and religious history from the Muslim Berber conquest of Visigothic Iberia in early 700s to the last episode of Morisco expulsion and conversion in 1600s-1750s. Fletcher, a renowned Hispanic scholar, focused primarily on the Muslim dynasties, communities, and culture, but he also included relevant monarchies, religious orders, and cultural ideologies from Latin Christianity and Western Europe. Upon completing the book, the lasting impression is that Moorish Spain’s history is extremely convoluted. The book serves well as an accessible introduction, but this book is not useful for research.

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