African eyes {weeks 6 & 7}

I work with three Ghanaian social workers named Stanley, Leo, and Collins (dubbed the Three Musketeers), and nearly every day I see them they ask if I’m wearing my “African eyes.” With my African eyes, I can see monkeys swinging from the ceiling fans and elephants traipsing around outside the office. African eyes are eyes for adventure. African eyes remind you to stay lighthearted amid a lot of heavy work.

For the past two weeks a hundred different worries were running through my mind. I was looking at the year ahead of me and wondering how all my bills were going to get paid. I was thinking of graduating next June and wondering kind of job I would be able to find. I was missing my family and friends. I was sick and sure I was dying (I wasn’t). I was missing rock climbing and hiking and worrying about needing to rebuild strength and endurance when I get home (Petty? Yes).

I was thinking about a hundred things I needed to do. Buy books for my fall class, pay cell phone bill, remember to get my oil changed when I’m home. Schedule a doctor appointment, buy plane tickets to weddings, buy more iCloud storage. Replenish my supply of vitamins because the humidity here ruined all of mine. Respond to 30 emails, write another blog post, study Spanish for my proficiency test this fall. And the list goes on and on…

And amid all the worry and stress I piled upon myself, I wondered if wearing my African eyes meant more than monkeys and elephants. What if it meant a perspective change in how I was handling my worries? Because while I’m sitting here missing my friends and family, every week I’m working with people who don’t have families or who have been abused or abandoned by their families. While I’m worried about my final year of grad school, I’m constantly having to adjust the empowerment program I’m working to accommodate the high rates of illiteracy in Ghana. While I could’ve afforded hospital treatment if I had needed it, one of my seamstresses can’t afford $7 malaria medication. While I’m missing rock climbing, people in Africa don’t even understand the concept of recreational activity because why would you spend time or money to do something so frivolous, that doesn’t serve any function??

So. I’m going to try to keep on my African eyes.

City of Refuge

Kokrobite, Ghana

City of Refuge

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the Estuary {week three}

I spent last weekend at the estuary of the Volta River, the place where the Volta meets the Atlantic. I stayed on a finger-like sliver of land separating river from ocean, and each morning I sat on a weathered wooden chair gazing out at the river while I listened to the ocean’s waves crashing against the shore behind me.

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And I thought about that sliver of land I was sitting on, this sandy separator between the chaotic, crashing ocean and the peaceful, winding river. I sometimes feel like I’m straddling that line between the ocean and the river, between the adventure and the calm. I crave the wild, strong adventure found within the open sea, all at once furious and beautiful. But other times I long for the river, for its gentle, peaceful, soothing rhythm, its predictability and grace.

Ada, Ghana

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Sunday morning I walked to the end of that sliver of sand separating river and ocean. To the Estuary. To that space where the river meets the ocean and the lines blur and you can’t quite tell which body of water is which. It was as if in that brief space where ocean met river (or river met ocean) there was a pause. An oh-so-fleeting moment where they coexisted, where you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. Where safety and danger met. Where the water was all at once wild and calm, furious and beautiful, strong and graceful.

And I thought that maybe God is a little bit like that sliver of land I was standing on, this Holy Separator between ocean and river, the Mediator between wild adventure and peaceful calm. This place of safety, where I can retreat to when the ocean’s chaos is too much or can escape to when the river’s predictability begins to wear at my soul.

And I realized maybe I could have both the winding river and open sea. Maybe I just need to find that brief space where they meet, my own Estuary.

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I forgot {week two}

This week I was reminded of how small I am in the face of the very real problems that exist in this world. Overwhelming problems. Dangerous problems. Complicated problems.

I study human trafficking, so I’m completely aware problems exist. I’ve seen some of the world’s worst problems firsthand. If there’s an innocence spectrum, I’m on the opposite end of naïve. But for the past year I’ve only been researching these problems. Reading about them. Writing about them. And while reading and writing and research have a completely necessary place in the world of international development and I don’t for a moment regret my decision to go back to school…somewhere within the papers and books and academic journals I was beginning to forget.

I was beginning to forget that these “problems” have names and faces. That they are twice-abandoned, single mothers who can’t afford a $50 a year school fee to send their kids to school. I forgot how difficult it is for them to save even 50 cents each month. I forgot how hard the cement floor must be to sleep on when you don’t have a bed. I forgot how difficult it is to encourage women to dream when for their whole lives their dreams have been stifled.

(with permission)

(with permission)

I forgot the pain that must follow kids who are the sole survivors of their families. I forgot that kids who have been trafficked, abused and abandoned need more than effective anti-trafficking legislation because anti-trafficking legislation doesn’t work in a country as corrupt as Ghana. They need education, they need a place to live, they need someone to care and to make sure they are encouraged to survive and dream. They need someone to listen. And they need someone who is committed to making sure the situations that rendered them exploited or abandoned are prevented in the future.

(with permission)

(with permission)

I forgot that there are no easy answers, that poverty is a complicated beast of a problem that can’t be fixed overnight. It can’t even be fixed by the most well-intentioned Millenium Development Goals. Because even when your goal is free, universal, primary education, you don’t realize that there are families who still can’t afford the school uniforms. You don’t realize that a primary education doesn’t even ensure an individual will be able to read and write. You forget that even the best theories often don’t work in practice, and what works in America may not work in Thailand and what works in Thailand may not work in Ghana.

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I forgot how privileged I am. “Woe is me, I’m a poor grad student.” But the reality is I’m getting an education most Ghanaians aren’t even able dream about. I eat three meals a day and have enough water to drink. I have a car and a bed and a closet full of clothes. The computer and phone I carry in my backpack cost more than most Ghanaians make in an entire year. And yet I complain. Yet I complain.

When I got home from Thailand I promised myself I’d never forget, but somehow I did.

Remembering is never easy.

Organized chaos

I have a case of the crazies.

I stare at my planner each week trying to make an extra day appear in my schedule.

Because I’m on week eight of my third ten-week quarter of grad school. Since January, I’ve been in class every week except one (thank you, DU, for that one meager week of break). I’m surrounded by books and papers and research on labor rights and export processing zones and participatory planning processes.

Because I’m running from work to school to my other job to church to the climbing gym and every now and then, to bed.

Because yesterday I pulled my suitcases out from the closet – the worn one from Thailand and the red one whose wheel broke on the cobbled streets of Florence. Suitcases that have been around the world both ways.

Because my to-do list is a mile long and the days to finish its tasks are dwindling. Immunizations, visa, Target runs, research papers, statistical analyses, meet with Claude, see my friends, find a summer’s worth of coffee to bring to Africa (very important), and then try to eat and climb and sleep. All important.

(In case you’re wondering how I’m making time to write this, I wrote it during class. Multitasking at its finest.)

“I’m so stressed, I have so much to do, I’m so tired, school is so hard, I’m sick of research.” Oh, how I like to complain. My friends and my oh-so-understanding boyfriend know this well. But the truth is, a year ago when I was preparing to move to Denver for graduate school, I couldn’t have imagined the opportunities that are in front of me right now. Opportunities to study topics like forced labor, migration, microfinance, field methods, and human rights. Opportunities to work with DU’s Human Trafficking Center. Opportunities to go to Ghana this summer and work in human trafficking prevention. Opportunities that don’t come around simply by chance.

So I may be going crazy for the next for the next 17 days, and I may be absolutely unequipped for what I’ve been asked to do in Ghana, and I may not know exactly how I’m going to turn in all my finals before I leave the country, but I do recognize the uniqueness of the opportunities in front of me.

I always grow the most when I travel, when I live abroad and get to experience another culture and forget about the anxieties and complexities of American life. Don’t get me wrong, human trafficking is far from simple and the issues I’ll be engaging with are certainly complex. And I’ll miss Denver and my family and my friends and these mountains that have become home. But I need this summer, because sometimes amid the craziness that is grad school, we forget why we’re studying this, why we’re writing these papers, why we’ve taken on two years of sleeplessness and cheap food.

But today, I remember why. It’s because my perspective has grown tenfold since September. It’s because I’m surrounded by brilliant classmates and colleagues, who are on a trajectory to make amazing contributions to this world. It’s because I have a (mostly) grant-funded trip to West Africa where I will learn more from rural Ghanaians than I could ever learn from my books.

It’s a good life and I am thankful.

Pattaya-154

Highways and Off-Beaten Paths

There are so many voices in our heads.

Saying go there, do this, buy that. Saying be safe, be stable, stay on the highways.

Somewhere deep within, though, buried under those voices is a different voice, one telling me to exit the highway and forge my own way. Telling me to stop worrying about life making sense. Telling me it’s okay to be different.

The voice is small and fragile and a lot of days it’s completely drowned out.

But when I summon the courage to listen to that whisper of a voice, when I get off that paved road and cross the border from the known to the unknown, when I foray into new territories and go my own way and not the world’s, I find adventure.

I find my dreams.

I find myself.

And in some serendipitous manner, a path always appears where before there was nothing.

It’s so tempting to stay on those highways where we can set our cruise control and turn off our minds. The first step is the most difficult…the initial decision to turn off that paved road and take that remote-looking exist leading who knows where, to turn your back on the fear and doubt and the questions still ringing through your head.

The smallest voice is usually the wisest.

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{our own borders}

“We all have our own borders.

One side is what’s easy, what’s known, what we’ve been told is true and have taken for granted; it’s comfortable here, it’s familiar.

But the other side is wider than possibility, it’s brilliant with potential, and it looks like our dreams, whatever they are.

Maybe for you that means having a family or taking up sailing; maybe it’s poetry in Prague or solitude in Barcelona; maybe it’s learning how to really be close to someone.

Big or small, these are not the “dreams” we had handed to us: good job/big house/new car.

These are real dreams, real fragile fledgling dreams, which is why they are often so frightening. But if they’re ours, if we can find them and hold them, if we can catapult ourselves across whatever border of fear or doubt or tiredness that seems to keep us from them.

In the end, the only thing standing between each of us and what we want most is ourselves. We’re our own border guards.

And sometimes the crossing is easier than expected.”

(Off the Map, Hib & Kika)

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Filled to overflowing

I have four other documents open on my computer right now…papers I need to write, research I need to finish, blog posts for work I need to edit. So much to do, always.

But right now, I need to write for me.

It’s been too long since I wrote…really wrote. I spend most of my days surrounded by words. Reading textbooks, legal briefs, academic journal articles. Writing about human trafficking, immigration policy, human rights.

Sometimes I get lost in the influx of words around me. I read this, hear a professor’s opinion about that, talk to my classmates about something else. I hear their words, absorb them into my ever-filling mind, and try to let them spin into coherence with everything else I’m learning.

I haven’t written on my blog for a month and a half. I’ve tried to start a post for weeks, but the words haven’t come. They seem to be all used up in all the other arenas of my life. I try to write, but nothing seems worth disseminating. Nothing is particularly new. My life is just barreling along, like it always is. And I’m just running, trying to keep up.

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But as I was driving through Denver on I-25 this afternoon, mesmerized by those snowy peaks to the west and soaking in a rare moment of absolute peace, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the goodness of life right now. Somewhere between Belleview and Yale avenues I realized despite the craziness of working two part-time jobs and going to grad school full-time, I love my life. I really do. And I think there’s a shift that happens when you decide (and it is a decision) to love your life. When you decide to forget about the things that you don’t have and focus on the things you do have. When you decide to forget about what you can’t do right now and focus on what you can do. When you embrace the crazy and just start running with the flow. And in that moment when you decide to love your life, suddenly the semi-controlled chaos feels more manageable. Suddenly the uphill battle seems to flatten out.

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And sure, there will always be less-than-stellar aspects of life. I’m sure some of you reading this are scoffing right now, thinking I should come walk in your shoes for a day and then talk about loving life. I get it. I really do. I’ve been there. But I think happiness and joy and contentment are often choices. I know for me, when I decided to love my life and invest in where I am at right now, there was a shift – a perhaps imperceptible shift to an outside observer, but a massive shift within my spirit.

How did I start loving my life? I refocused on the things that made me happy, and made sure I prioritized them amid work and school. That means more people and more church, because that’s where I get encouraged. It means more time at coffee shops, because research is always more bearable with a latte. It means running and rock climbing, because those are the only times I can really forget about everything else. And you know what? When I make time for the things I love, everything else still seems to fall into place. Everything else still gets done.

I love my life and I am blessed. Denver has been beyond good to me in the past seven months. I am well aware that the mere fact that I get to go to graduate school should not be taken for granted. Whenever I talk to people about what I’m studying, they inevitably say something along the lines of, “That’s so noble.” And I respond with, “Maybe, but I mostly just feel lucky to get to study and work in the field I’m most passionate about.” I think that’s rare, and I truly do feel blessed.

As one of my dearest friends likes to say, “my love tank is filled to overflowing.”

(…and now back to the books)

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No resolutions, just an overwhelming resolve

I don’t really like New Year’s resolutions. I’m sorry, but they just seem incredibly trite and cliché and don’t we all break them by February anyway?

So I don’t make resolutions.

Instead, I think about the person I want to be a year from now. I recognize that I want to be different on the first day of 2015 than I am on this first day of 2014. I want to learn and be wiser and grow from the mistakes I know I’ll make.

I want to be different a year from now.

And the next.

And the next.

That doesn’t mean that I did everything right that year or that I made all the right decisions. In 2013 I made my fair share of less-than-stellar choices. But I don’t regret them because I learned from them. And I’m a different, more seasoned me because of them. Becoming different means that I’m always growing. Becoming a better version of myself. Becoming stronger.

Stronger. 

I want to be stronger in a way that only time can make happen. I want to be stronger physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I want to pray more. Write more. Devote myself to what I’m studying. Climb more mountains. Cut off any emotional chaff that keeps me from true joy. Release myself from anything that sucks life rather than gives it. Foster the self-respect to know I am worth it (whatever “it” is), and that I don’t have the time or energy to spend on people or things that don’t respect me back. Be confident in every aspect of myself. Speak my mind assertively and honestly and stop giving a crap about what everyone else thinks. Waste less time worrying. Travel to more countries. Love people better and learn to let them love me back. Be honest about my weaknesses. Stop overthinking things and just do them. Be bold. Take more risks, even if failure seems certain. Believe that goodness can prevail in this sometimes overwhelmingly broken world.

I think it all comes down to strength.

It’s a complex thing, and I think we gain it in a lot of different ways.

So I have no resolutions, just an overwhelming resolve to be stronger a year from now.

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