Thursday, August 29, 2013

Absorbing Multiple Worlds: A Response to MSF leaving Somalia

This recent op-ed on MSF's departure from Somalia filled me with sadness. It's not totally distant- I felt like I knew and understood, at some level, the players involved- because much of my academic and work life is with Somalis who are currently outside of Somalia.

Despite having thought about it for a few days, I have no idea how to move forward in this sadness in a helpful and productive way. The best thing I've come up with is to write about the tension and try to be more intentional about praying; prayer that not only changes the reality on the ground but also prayer that changes me to know better how to live my life. This is my attempt at the writing part.

There's a whole field that deals with vicarious trauma- trauma that one hasn't actually experienced, and I'm not trying to reinvent all those wise thoughts in a blog. Using the trauma of others to reassert an enjoyment of one's own privilege also leaves me with an icky feeling- like, isn't it enough that we're lucky, do we need to constantly feel smug about it?- though perhaps that is closer to what I'm trying to do here.

This past year, I have been doing my fieldwork. I've been going into homes and interviewing migrant women. Whereas in past settings as a researcher I tried to learn everything I could about a person, now I tread more carefully. When I first started working with refugees, it was tempting to think that by hearing about suffering I was doing something about it- being a listening ear or something. I was quite proud that I was "safe" enough to hear about FGC or domestic violence or fleeing one's home country or seeing one's family killed. There was an innocence in my approach- I really thought maybe I could be helpful- but the innocence was arrogance. I grew into a realization of my arrogance as time went on, particularly since I was always involved in project planning/management/research rather than direct service provision.

So when I chose my PhD topic, I chose something that put the participant women and I on [more?] equal footing, particularly as mothers. What foods did they like to eat when they were pregnant? I did not claim the right to women's deeper stories, especially women's trauma. But there was still the reality that when I got home from an interview, I always said to Eug "wow, we have it good.", and I always meant it.

There seems to be a delicate balance between absorbing stories as a kind of disaster tourism- which is exploitative and imperialistic- and absorbing worlds as a means of taking our place in the world. If you haven't done already, the global rich list is one tool for helping understand this place. This article by Annie Leonard provides another opportunity to connect buying choices to outcomes.

What do I mean by "taking our place in the world"? I am not sure exactly. It probably means gratitude and trying to give more generously. {It's hard to force gratitude so I'm not pushing that on you. BE GRATEFUL DAMMIT! Anyway}. A recent quirky thing it has meant for our family has been for the four of us to move into one bedroom, so that we have a guest room (it connects mainly in the sense that I realize we have a lot of space, whereas before I thought our house was relatively small for our family).

Perhaps it means that we can peek out, every now and then, from the hustle and bustle of cooking and cleaning and laundry and mopping and work and breastfeeding and love and amazement-at-brilliant-babies and diaper changing, and the stupid-always-broken-car... and claim a small part in a larger story.  For me, hopefully a story that God might suggest to Eug and I. Who knows. In prayers for places without basic security, services, food, I do feel a tiny bit empowered not to be too concerned or hung up about those things for myself. And we'll probably buy a bike for Noah at Christmas and the contradictions and tension will persist; but over time, we're changing. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leaning in to what?

There's been a lot of talk in Wellesley alum circles about "Leaning in": about women working or not working, and why. Then there are those who "Opt in" or out. And a friend recently shared Elizabeth Gilbert's refreshingly humble and down-to-earth 2011 speech.

What's striking to me in these discussions is the overt sense of disempowerment and resignation. These are powerful, well-qualified women who feel they have little choice than to do what they do (which might be working or raising children or both) (I'm not going to call raising children work because I think it plays into this idea that work is the only identity that's legitimate, and plus when I called it work it made me consider hanging out in the household with my kids drudgery.)

There's a paradox about wading into this territory, and women's experiences of lack of choice are valid; saying that women have a choice when they feel like they don't just makes things worse. But I sincerely believe that this overblown value that is placed on one's work- particularly in the U.S.- identity makes it feel like a lose-lose to many women with children. Like making a home and raising children has to get the label "work" to legitimate it. And this wonky value system also makes it hard for men to work less, makes working less about more than just a drop in pay or benefits. This, in turn plays into speedy pace of life and a consumer culture.

The discussion is seldom a discussion over meaning, or the impact one believes one's work to have. It is primarily a discussion about identity and power/money. It's a discussion laced with guilt. Perhaps if it is framed in other terms- in terms of meaningful contributions, however small- we can all be emancipated from the many jobs that shouldn't exist. And perhaps we can each make that call for ourselves. In these terms, perhaps men don't have to work so much either, and they can be freed to pursue meaningful work.

Then there's the discussion over "well what if death or divorce forces you back to work?" And I generally hate this discussion. It generally excludes the notion that you could, well, get used to spending very little now. It assumes a lot of things: that you have to save a million dollars for college for your kids, that you have to have a certain standard of living. Even if preparing for an unknown future makes people absurdly busy and conflicted. I'm not saying that one shouldn't work because we can live on less. I'm saying that both men and women can be emancipated to work less because we can live on less, and because most meaningful work is most meaningful in small-ish doses, to prevent burn-out.

I think if the conversation is reframed in these two ways: towards meaning, rather than power, and towards a sense of relative abundance, rather than scarcity, the discussion will look very different. The women in this discussion are powerful, rich women. Our struggles are real, sure. But to reframe the discussion can be empowering, not diminishing.

What does this look like? I think it means taking a long hard look at the reasons for school (school and work are inextricably linked), for long hours at work, and the like. And maybe deciding to opt out of some of those things, even if only in a few years, once debts are paid. Living on my PhD scholarship has been one of the best things we've ever done, because I know that there are about a million ways we can make the meager amount we currently live on. For Eug and I, not having to worry too much about a boss's perspective on our lives has been scary and emancipating.

To close, because this has been much more opinionated than I intended, here is Elizabeth Gilbert's speech:


Vegetarianism and Problem Resolution

We talk quite a bit about having a farm one day. About a month ago, as we planned our farm, Noah gradually became vegetarian: he wanted cows, but not for eating (in fact, he wanted to live with the cows). A pigsty, but of course you wouldn't eat pigs, just feed them. Fish was ok to eat. They can't look you in the eyes the same way.

We eat meat once a week, so for a couple of weeks our meat has been fish.

Then he asked for biltong (like beef jerky but 208523 times better). I explained that there was cow biltong and kudu and springbok biltong, but in all cases the animal had died so that we could get the meat. He said he'd like beef biltong. So I got him and Eli each a piece, and as he was chewing it in the car, I could tell he was thinking about the cow. There was a a pause, then he said, "I only eat BAD cows. I run after them, chase them, then eat them." Trying to be a good parent, I suggested that maybe cows aren't bad and good, but I don't think my lecture stuck.

Then, this past week, after reading the story of the Prodigal Son, he wanted to sample pork. He whispered conspiratorially "pig's my favourite!"

Part of me wants Noah to be decisive. Wants him to be one thing, to be understandable and describable. But flowing with his inconsistencies, helping him to understand his own thought process is a big part of my role as a parent. Learning to listen is one of the hardest things, partly because it's always hard to listen, partly because Noah doesn't say all words in an easily understandable way, and partly because it's so fascinating and funny to hear his thought processes that I started judging him before we're done. Partly because when I judge him I judge myself, and I forget he's his own person.

One of the hardest things about parenting is teaching someone to want to do the right thing just because it's right. The more time goes on, the more I'm convinced that being an example is key. But being a good example, and explaining things, is hit and miss. For example, I don't want to force Noah to say "sorry" or "please" or "thank you" because they're social norms. I want him to really understand sorrow or gratitude. I also want him to get on and be able to benefit from other relationships, though, and that's something I'm not sure about: how do I help him not to freak out when people do things he doesn't like? For the moment I'm taking the grace that society generally has for children up to a certain age.

Don't laugh at me, but Noah's gotten really into writing (scribbles) so we're trying family meetings with written notes in response to conflicts. They're pretty nice affairs. Some kind of treat involved, not longer than 5 minutes, everyone contributes their ideas.

Today's problem: Eli hits Noah. Noah hits Eli back (harder). Eli wails. Then Eli learns hitting is ok, hits more.
Solutions (the brackets might have been adult contributions):

1) Touch Eli's hand or ear (gently)
2) Hit Eli on the head with the balloon (gently)
3) Run away and hide.
4) Hit hanging ball really hard (we have a bouncing ball that we taped and hung with string from the doorway)
5) Give Eli something (like a rag)
6) Put something on Eli's head (like a rag).

It's fair to say that we're a family of conflict avoiders (myself very much included), so I'm hoping that this will help live out that anger is ok, and that we can talk it through until we find something that works. It may be a little ambitious to expect too much, but I very much like the idea that problems need not be intractable, and frustrations need not build.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Good Things

I seem to be going through a dry patch as far as blogging is concerned. Leah recently wrote about her ambivalence around showing stuff she's crafting, and I feel similarly about writing about...well... our life. But I wanted to try, because today we got an unexpected gift certificate for Amazon and I wanted to say a massive THANK YOU to whoever sent it- I felt like we're extraordinarily, supernaturally taken care of, even when it comes to somewhat frivolous things like cameras.

My time away in Greyton was very good, not only for the PhD. Being away from the boys was also awesome, and I came back happy to be reunited. Eug and my parents did well without me, and Eli is breastfeeding as much (more?) as ever.

I guess I wanted to acknowledge that we're going through a time where we feel super blessed, and that I'm very grateful for it.

On a totally unrelated note, today I went to a talk in which I learned that turkey tails (fatty, gristly meat that the U.S. consumers don't want) are "dumped" on the Pacific island food markets, contributing to obesity. When Samoa in particular, tried to legislate against it, they came up against the WTO. There were a bunch of other examples of similar dumping. I'm sure there's a post there, but I don't know where to start? Sustainability? Health? neocolonial stuff? the WTO (neocolonial stuff)? So I'll give it some time. Feel free to jump in!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Learning to Bike in Cape Town

I'm learning to bike with our folding bike in Cape Town, and for the most part, I ride every afternoon from home to the UCT medical campus, across from Groote Schuur hospital. There's a few things I have been surprised to learn:

1) Biking with a good bike really makes a difference to both the experience and the amount I ride. With our cheapo Makro bikes, I often chose to walk or drive because it was hard to manouver them in and out of the house. It may also have been the stage in my life with Eli being small, but it feels as though this bike has really jumpstarted our riding. Sharing one bike that stays inside the house is really easy, even though we have to unfold it first.

2) Main Road is scary. I had to ride down main road from Mowbray to Woodstock, and between the minibus taxis and the other buses, I felt intimidated and vulnerable. The minibus taxis are, for the most part, very observant (even if not observant of traffic laws) but still, it's totally worth using side rodes below main road and taking a little longer.

3) I can understand the no-helmet folks. I used to think that people who biked without a helmet were crazy, but I now find myself biking without a helmet when I'm travelling short distances on fairly quiet roads. I feel like I'm more aware of my environment and am able to interact with people on my ride. I feel I don't sweat as much, so I'm not as self-concsious when I arrive at university. I also feel like the more I interact with drivers and try to communicate my intentions, the safer I am. It may still be foolhardy.

4) When I look drivers in the eye, smile, and wave my intention, they tend to be really nice. At first, when I was feeling insecure in the busy intersection before the hospital (Main Rd and Anzio), I tried to be assertive and just ended up more angry. Then I shifted to being friendly and outgoing and it really helped. My take home from this is that most drivers want to do the right thing, but they're not used to bikes.

Anyway, I'm very much a novice biker in Cape Town but biking around the city is very much a possibility, and I'm hoping we get to explore biking as our primary mode of transportation over the next year. If you're more experienced (or not, but you have tips), I would love to hear from you!

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Reflection on Stolen Stuff

Today, I cried for a camera. Our camera was stolen out of our home, together with an (first gen) ipod and an external hard drive. Despite it being absurd to cry for a thing- especially such a small thing- I suppose I was sad for the violation and the loss of something that helped us to reflect, remember, and understand ourselves as a family. We were a one [great] camera family- no smart phones, no ipads, no secret tiny cameras. The sadness lasted only briefly before Noah and Eli needed me, but it (is) was real. 

We know with pretty high certainty who stole it- his name is also Eugene- and Eug and I are trying to figure out how to navigate through: At one level, this is just one person stealing a camera from one family, but at another it's about our society collectively. It always is. It's about someone who needed money enough to risk his job and more (he was painting the outside of our house at the time). It's about the reality that, although we're really sad for the loss, we're still better off and still have less worry in our lives than the person who stole from us. We may not have a camera or a nice lens for a while, but eventually we'll be able to get another camera and hopefully continue to document our privileged, happy lives. 

So my prayer in the loss, which I share as much to hold myself to it as for any other reason: That it will just be the loss of a camera, and nothing more symbolic or dearly held. That the stage in our family's lives will be remembered and cherished. That we would get the camera back somehow by some amazing turn of events, such as an admission of guilt. That Eugene will be blessed and this won't be the defining story of his life, any more than it is ours (or if it is, that it is in a good way). That we work against the things in our society that make people steal: poverty, unemployment, urbanization, addiction.