August 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
I met M and J three years ago in Grass Valley, CA – 25 minutes from where I grew up off Highway 49, and an hour’s drive on I-80 West from Lake Tahoe, where my brothers and I used to make bets on who could stay in the cold lake the longest. We used to make my mom laugh, running out bright red and gasping from the snow runoff to beg for Juice Squeeze and hoagies.
The girls separated a year later. I lost touch with J, after that, but M and I stayed close. She never talked negatively about her old girlfriend, despite the fact that they’d spent over seven years together, and J had been nasty about the breakup. M has this phrase that explains her philosophy of living – “arms up!” she’ll say. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.” When she’s down, she’s expecting she’ll be back up. When she’s up, she’s aware she’ll be back down. But she doesn’t negate either place.
“I learned a lot from being with women,” she commented once. “Then again, I learn a lot from being with men. I guess I just love people.”
I’ve always been aware that putting a label on M’s sexuality would be a mistake. It has much more to do with a way of loving out her fellow man than it does anything to do with being pansexual or bisexual or gay or straight, and she never uses any of those things to describe herself. So, neither do I.
I lived out more than one metamorphosis in M’s west coast apartment – Shanley 2.0 and 2.5 and 3.0 all clusterfucked together while I figured it out. I’ve flicked cigarettes off the balcony and taken long, slow hits with my feet tucked up under me on the raffia furniture on the veranda until my head felt lighter and my temples buzzed. I’ve been brought home stumbling from Rohypnol and spent the night puking off the side of M’s bed until I could stand straight enough to get to the bathroom. I’ve spent dizzy hours cleaning up that carpet, and calling home to tell my mom I’m okay, that my friends brought me home, and nothing happened.
I’ve pulled someone close in that same bed, smelling cigarettes and Grey goose and tonic and I’ve felt the world stop turning for a while, in M’s apartment.
I’ve gone back to the balcony and the raffia on the veranda with my heart broken, and woken up with blistering insides on the white, leather couch and I’ve driven home late on the highway, praying out loud with my heater on full blast with my blistering, pulsing, hurting heart pumping up a hurricane inside my chest.
I’ve gone back again whole, and sat sipping cocktails at the counter and talking about new beginnings. M was the person I called the first time I kissed a girl, and knew instinctively that kissing girls wasn’t my thing. I called her the first time I slept with someone I didn’t know. I called her when I couldn’t forgive my body for shutting down, and when I rejoiced over it opening back up. I lost my way, along the way, but M’s path shone like a beacon, always allowing for new experience, but never doubting her direction. That’s where M and I differed. I was always a “what the hell” person. I pulsed through life pissed off and wondering ”What the hell? What the hell? What the hell?” while M danced, pulling in certain things and letting go of others, because M always knew what kind of beat she wanted to jam to.
Once, she told me that she’d gotten to that place of sureness through a lot of trial and error. That was the night I stopped being pissed at myself for asking “What the hell?” and recognized that it was part of my journey.
M is big on intuition and she’s big on trusting oneself. So, she supported me through planning a wedding, and then she supported me when it was time to let my plans go. I moved to Washington DC and Los Angeles and Portland and East Africa, and M closed her eyes and put her hands up for me, each time.
M was the person who introduced me to Martha Beck. Beck’s a Harvard graduate and life coach turned author, though perhaps not in that order. A lot of her writing centers on her son, Adam, who was born with Down’s Syndrome.
I still thought I had it figured out when M and I met, you know. I was this 19 year old with an agenda and a clear direction and I was making a lot of judgments on the world.
M didn’t care. That’s the beautiful thing about her.
She’d already learned the more you know the less you know – but she didn’t judge me for not being there yet. Instead, she quietly and kindly handed me Beck’s book “Expecting Adam” the night I first sat in her kitchen watching J flip chocolate chip pancakes at the stove.
All she said was, “read this. You’ll cry and you’ll laugh and it will change your life.”
She was right. I walked away from that book with a new perspective on success – that it was something that centered around the way you loved people and yourself and your work, rather than how much money you made or the title you carried. Or, so I thought. I mean, I guess I stored that information somewhere inside me. But, I must have forgotten it when I simultaneously chose to become a social entrepreneur and at the same time became guilt ridden and depressed because I felt I “should” be working in an office for a salary instead.
When I hired an entrepreneur coach to kick the guilt and the depression and find a clear path, I figured that meant spending the first two weeks of our time focusing hard on my financials – turning me into insta-success – helping me make more cash more quickly. But my coach, in true M-like fashion, wasn’t about to begin there.
Instead of talking about my bank account, she asked me to sit on the floor and start drawing a visual map of what my life looked like in three years.
Jesus. That was hard.
The first night I tried to map out Shanley 5.0 AKA who I’d like to be at 26, I put my hair in a high bun and changed into my yoga pants. I rolled out this big sheet of white paper and I crossed my legs indian styled in front of it – pen poised…
I left to get a beer.
I left to get chocolate to go with said beer.
I called my mother.
I tried on a new American Apparel dress, for the third time.
I mediated, back in my yoga pants after taking off said dress.
Three days later, with a blank sheet of paper still rolled out on my floor I was perusing Beck’s writing for more information on Downs and I stumbled on a quote that reminded me of everything I’d first thought I knew after reading Expecting Adam.
That’s all it said.
I spent a week on that one phrase.
It took a full week for me to come to terms with the truth that I probably knew several things about Shanley 5.0 – what she wanted, where I hoped she’d be living and what she’d be doing with her time. But, I was afraid that none of those things would pan out, so I was shutting her down. I mean, who wants to listen to a bright future when all they’ve got in front of them is schpleck?
“I will not should on myself,” my coach directed that week.
Right. So, the blocking had to shift – from “I will never have what I want” to blocking out what my coach called the “little girl on your shoulder.” The little girl kept saying I should be in a corporate office, that I shouldn’t be be budgeting in expensive beer and going without good conditioner, that I should be making more money, should have gotten somewhere better sooner and, last but not least, really should be sending out sales pitches instead of doodling on a long, white sheet of paper I’m just going to shove in a drawer when I’m finished with it.
She thought the dumb map was bullshit anyways.
She kept talking the whole time I drew.
Halfway through the first 1/3 of my big, white roll-out sheet I dove in to more Beck. This time, she wrote that,
All this cheesy law of attraction stuff actually works—at least when you do it in a non-cheesy way, which I’ve been trying to learn and teach my whole life.
I imagined myself in an apartment by myself, then. I imagined myself quitting my part time job in a year’s time. I imagined myself writing, and working with my social enterprise and I imagined myself without guilt, sitting in this little studio with my grandfather’s tapa stretched out on the wall behind me.
I imagined M and her son dancing in their kitchen, and the night that she told me she had been crazy scared of having a kid, but that she envisioned herself as a mom – wanted to be a mom – and deciding to do it, despite fear, was the best thing she’d ever done.
Somewhere in between reading about Beck’s piece of forest property she purchased after pray rain journaling about it for months and finishing the second 1/3 of my map, I got a text from M telling me that she’d met someone, and it was going well.
“I’m not sure what the hell I’m doing,” she wrote. “But I’m breathing and I’m dancing in all this chaos and I feel this peace inside, because no matter what happens, I know where I want to be – and I know that I will find my way there.”
“Arms up,” I wrote back. “Eyes closed. Roller coaster.”
She sent a wink.
I finished my three year map a few days later. No where in it was there a corporate office, or anything close to the word “should.” In fact, it looked a lot like the direction I was already headed in – I just hadn’t known what to call it, before. Or, perhaps I should say, “draw” it.
I’m also happy to report that it has not spent a single, solitary moment in a drawer.
M’s coming to my coast this year.
She says she wants to come take part in this crazy adventure I’ve embarked on, in New York city.
“I love that you knew what you wanted and you went for it,” she texted.
July 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
When I was a little girl, my father fascinated me with the stories surrounding items he had from other countries. In his office, there was a hand carved tiger, a Japanese garden stool, a bottle collection, a Tiki man, and above them all, a National Geographic atlas where he used to show me the countries where he had purchased the things I loved to touch and ask about. “Here is Okinawa,” he’d say. “There’s Germany.” Sometimes we talked about Hawaii. Other days we talked about Mexico and Brazil.
As I grew older, my fascination with stories from overseas grew, and my grandfather and father honored my interest with gifts – a bottle here, a set of Japanese farming shoes there. They helped me begin a collection of global pieces that were connected to the stories of my father’s family, and their travels from before I was born. What I loved most about these pieces was the way they reminded me that the world is bigger than my direct experience with it, and I can live in the light of that reality, no matter where I am.
At 18, I began my own journey mapping out stories and spots on the globe – beginning with Haiti, and continuing into Uganda a year later. After spending time in these areas, the items I’d purchased, particularly the wearable ones, were imbued with memories and stories from their particular locations. By integrating these items into my wardrobe, I felt that I was able to take these places with me in my daily life. My bracelets opened dialogue about global events, stories and experiences. My flip flops created conversations around East Africa. There it was again – that big world. This time, influencing my relationships, and challenging my friends to take its reality with them as well.
At 21, I combined my love of travel and stories into a fashion line. Created in collaboration with celebrity stylist Antonio Esteban and individual artisans in Uganda, our pieces serve as a way for women to open dialogue around global events, stories and experiences – their own, other people’s, or those of the women we partner with at Nakate. My vision was always that these pieces would serve as a reminder that, no matter where you are, the world is much bigger than your direct experience with it – and it is possible to take that reality with you, wherever you go.
June 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
There are all kinds of damaging beliefs we carry – from our childhood, our adulthood, our religious and non religious experiences and our backgrounds. They affect how we think about ourselves as people, as women – as lovers, as partners, as teachers, as career people, as friends. They can make us narrow. They can throw us off course. They can make us unhappy, and misguided.
Here are ten things I wish that someone had told me – much, much sooner. They pertain to more than just women. These are human things.
1. Don’t be afraid to be different, because what you want is different
Feminism personally has given me the confidence to decipher the difference between what is socially expected of me and what I genuinely want for myself. And I’m not saying those two things are always clean cut, there are things that my parents may want for me that are social expectations but that I also feel because they genuinely love me, they want me to be happy and all of that stuff. And so it helps you decipher what is expected of you versus what you do for yourself, or what you want to do for yourself. And also I think that it gives you the confidence to recognise that your value is not based on what attention you get from men or the success of your relationships with men but it’s based on who you are as a person and the things that you want. It’s a question of self determination. Honestly, I always say it’s like this taste of freedom and once you have it you can’t go back. Like now that I know, I’d never settle for someone who isn’t completely comfortable with who I am.
2. Do a lot of things. And make each thing you do reflect the values you want
I think now, people think they should be successful by the time they’re 30, and I just wanted to say to them, you know, have four different professions and many different lovers. It’s okay. …The whole idea is not to figure out what you should do that will matter, but to make each thing you do reflect the values you want. …Because we don’t know what’s going to matter in the future.
3. Stretch out. Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.
But then there are nights like last night. When just hearing his name in a movie, or smelling a certain whiskey on my husband’s breath, or tasting a certain Chinese dish, brings it up. And to say “brings it up” is not quite right. “Up” implies levity, and action. What I really mean is Shuts it Down. Everything. When I describe this feeling to my therapist, I make a motion with my hand. I slide my open hand over my eyes, like I’m playing peek-a-boo, except I never raise the hand again and smile. My body detaches from me. All that therapy, all that yoga, all those saintly patient boyfriends go to shit. And there he is, above me. And I am on my back. And I can’t feel a thing.
“I’m sorry I’m so weird,” I often tell my husband on nights like last night. I whisper this, and grow small, the front of my body collapsing in on itself. I bring my knees into my chest, and regress to infant mode. “Stretch out,” he says when this happens. “Don’t curl up. Get big. You’re big.” And then, when I don’t: “It’s okay.”
My man. My guy.
4. Let others walk their own path.
It’s an interesting idea actually: Two strong forces – Love and Control, and how they compete with one another at times. We only ever try and control the ones we love, but by controlling them, we are not truly loving them. We stop being true to THEIR journey. Love and control can never exist in the same space. Unconditional love is letting those you love live and walk their own path; it’s letting them hit rock bottom, as hard as it is to witness, and as difficult as it is to do we have to stay true to what their journey is and simply love them through it. When we try to control, we make it about ourselves; about our desired outcome; about our advice or voice not being taken or heard.
5. Don’t expect disaster.
She can live through it, Miss Taggart, because we do not hold the belief that this earth is a realm of misery where man is doomed to destruction. We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it – and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity, that we regard as the abnormal exception of the human life (Ragnar Danneskjold, 696).
6. There are no dating rules.
Dear everyone: You understand that if there was a book that taught people how to not be single there would be no more single people, right? (Involuntarily single people, anyway.) People are not monolithic. You cannot trick people into loving you by treating them like math equations waiting to be solved. It’s dehumanizing. If you want to date a human being you have to treat other human beings like human beings. It’s not that complicated.
Here are the only actual “rules”:
1. Be a person with a life.
2. Respect other people and their lives.
3. Be patient.
4. Don’t be desperate.
That’s really all you can do. And there’s still no guarantee that it’ll work. But at least you won’t be trapped in some loveless marriage, bartering passivity for diamonds for the rest of your life. Okay?
7. You have a “psychological immune system.” You can feel happy even when things don’t go as planned.
8. You should ask for what you want. There is no shame in wanting.
For some ridiculous reason we do not express our wants because we become afraid of appearing too blunt, too aggressive or even too demanding. But why is wanting something considered a bad thing? It isn’t. It is the basic human condition, to want, to desire, to dream. We owe it to ourselves to simply ask.
Most people live their lives in 3 realities:
- Caring WAY too much and being afraid of what people think of us.
- Alternatively, exploding from the restriction of holding our tongues to the point that we don’t care at all.
- Or we form a sea of resentment, and each and every time we negate what it is that we want, or don’t take the time to ask for it, the sea only widens and deepens its bounds.
We should feel no shame in wanting things, and we should have no shame in asking for what we want. How else will people know what to give us if we don’t?
9. Every woman needs a cornfield.
My high school English teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Jensen—who married at 17, bore her first child at 19, and was a farmwife and mother of four by age 22. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d retreat into a field of tall corn near her house and hide there, listening to her children search for her, until she heard a cry of genuine pain or felt ready to reconnect, whichever came first.
“Martha,” Mrs. Jensen told me, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”
10. You don’t have to be good.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
June 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal-a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
- Mary Oliver
A friend of mine used to regret the year he lost his religion in college. He told me he once thought that without the guiding light of the church he’d turned cold.
On Friday, I was in bed at 3:04 PM, drinking Pinot Grigio out of the bottle.
I’m not a lush. I mean it.
I took two swigs, and I put it down and stared. I was grumpy as hell, and the Pinot was just to take the edge off.
A piece of my life went missing on Wednesday. By Friday, I was experiencing some kind of post postpartum depression.
I got out of bed at 7:13. I finished a meeting and shipped a wholesale order to the Northwest by 9 AM. I worked non stop until 3:00 pm.
3:04 hit, and I was done.
I guess I needed space to grieve.
I wanted to write when I was a kid. I used to buy all these little notebooks and pens with cash I made from selling eggs to my grandmother’s co-workers at the department of agriculture.
Nobody told me that writing would feel like being pregnant – carrying around a live something inside you that’s coming out, one way or another. And, I’ve been carrying mine around for ten months now.
I finished it Wednesday. Come Friday, I was anti-climaxed the fuck out. I’d bid adieu to this purpose – this relationship with google docs. Ten months it had been me and this thing – me returning again and again to acknowledge a story that needed telling, to send another draft to an editor that kept driving for the epicenter of my being – what is it that needs to come out? He was right, over and over and over, when he told me I hadn’t hit it yet. These were all false labors, the drafts I kept sending over.
I wanted my writing to matter – for women, for men, for me. I wanted it to be a healing vessel for all the women I don’t know that have walked into the place I’d once found myself crouching in – small, hidden, believing that I was somehow still standing straight when I was lying down. I’d ended up on the bottom when I’d wanted to be on the top.
I’d found my solutions in my words. Words were my compass, while I tumbled over them and I figured out exactly what it was I was trying to say about this giant thing I’d lost myself in.
With my words, I discovered that I had been a hypocrite of the worst kind. I had been a woman writing about and seeking to empower women from a place where I had handed over all my power to something else. I had handed my power over – all my power – like a casual spliff outside a dive bar, without thinking.
Suck, pull in, hold.
Cough and release. Cough again. And again.
I had left behind any kind of self awareness.
It didn’t get done to me – not really. That’s the worst and the best of it. It’s the worst because it’s an admission of guilt. It’s the best because its only in the admission of guilt that one can be free.
Four months, draft two – I thought I’d been wronged. Six months, draft three – I’d done the wronging. Month eight, draft five, I was able to recognize that I used to be a boundary-less woman – free for the taking. I didn’t love myself enough to protect myself. I said yes, over and over and over. My methodical, minute by minute pushing out of my right to refusal left me drowning.
By draft eight, month nine, Google docs was on fire. I found solidarity both in owning my part, and in letting go of the parts that belonged to others. And I started coming back alive.
After a good, long 10 months, I finished my literary pregnancy this week. I finished the story and half the Pinot in a go before I sent my story to an editor that let me know I’d finally nailed it. My reality had been released on paper. It was ready to live, to breathe, to take its part in the world at large and to change the lives of the people it came into contact with, like anything does that’s alive in this world.
I felt wonderful.
8 hours later, I woke up panicked and empty. I had reached the end.
Without the guiding light of exploration, I turned cold.
I thought and I thought and I thought, and I ate too little. Then, I ate too much.
At long last, I called an old friend. He answered in the check out line. My voice on the line – for years – and he knows in an instant when something’s awry.
“Let me check out and call you right back,” he said.
I went to hang up and his voice stopped me.
“I love you.”
He said it like a driving force – a great, big pounding reality, set to take over other realities. Love. Wrapped around. Wrapped behind. Love, in my room and in my writing, and in the life around me in the city.
Love – bigger than the monster of control that I don’t want to risk running into again. Love for fellow man, love for pancakes and for mornings and for coffee and for sunshine. Love for summer in New York city. Love for time with a friend six blocks North who tells me to live in the present with him and to drink deeply of this life – and the champagne I’m handed, with a wink. Love for another that greets me with a hug in Soho. Love for a sister that’s learning English. Love even for those who turned out creating toxicity with me, instead of health.
In love – for myself, for my fellow man, for the woman I’ve become instead of the woman I was – I put the piece of writing the chicken girl had only hoped to craft someday into a private document, out of reach, and I walked away.
I let go of my story after that – the writing of it, the publishing of it, the re-living it every time I sit down to visit with the ghosts of my past again.
I thought back on the conversation with my college friend again. It was a month ago, in a bar in East Village.
I remembered that he’d explained, on beer two, that he’d come back alive when he realized that the religious system he’d used as a guiding light had never been such anyways. He told me that it was in caring for others that he found direction again.
“I used to be a selfish bastard,” he said.
He told me that it was only when he lost his fixation with his personal journey, and opened up to the world around him, that he began to feel life in himself again.
When he said that I felt the sudden awareness that – in all the years we’d known each other – this was the first time he’d ever made time to sit and drink a beer with me.
Friday came and went. Pinot. Depression. Grief. I went to bed early to sleep off my funk.
Come Saturday night, I was eating ribs and drinking white wine with a new friend.
As I listened to him laugh and I felt my heart warm up inside, I was quietly aware that, just two days prior, I would have been home diving through my dark past, instead.
“There’s a present,” someone told me recently. “You know, there’s a present, and it matters. Don’t get so caught up in what was for you, that you can’t see what is for you, now.”
It was then that I realized I hadn’t really lost anything when I wrapped up my self exploration through the written word.
I hadn’t turned cold, after all.
In fact, in letting go of my literary obsession with the darkest period in my own past I had, quite possibly, come that much closer to being a light, myself.
Not to mention, I woke up on Sunday ready to write – this time, about what life is for me now.
April 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
I took Agnes to the pacific last week. We’ve been business partners for over a year now – her running the Ugandan side of our business, myself working stateside. We’ve worked together in East Africa. But, now it was her turn to enter my world.
We spent time in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Santa Monica, introducing Agnes to shop owners and re-stocking locations with our new spring line. We found out she loves mango smoothies the way I love matooke. She loves coffee the way…I love coffee. She loves sandwiches the way I love chapati. In my world, we talked about my childhood the way we’d talked about hers during my last visit. We discussed my breakups the way we’d talked about her relationship with Patrick after she’d met him in grade school. We talked about the way I was born in San Diego and grew up in the Sierra Nevadas the way she’d talked about growing up in Kampala. And, after she met the head of the journalism department at my alma mater, we discussed our degrees – mine in journalism, hers in business.
She laughed through my dating stories. She told me she’d waited to get married on purpose to finish her education. We discussed Patrick’s views on women – his support of her. I nodded. I’d seen it – him waving goodbye from the veranda, watching their three children while we worked on our company. We traded stories about our cultures on the way into boutiques – the way Ugandans say Americans make love in the streets, the way Americans claim Uganda – and all of Africa, at that – is full of people defecating in the streets.
At the stop light on Broadway, we laughed so hard it hurt.
It was 3:30 pm when we were done – prime traffic time in LA, and I warned her we’d be late home. But Agnes had been smelling the ocean air for just about as long as she could stand without being properly introduced, and I caught the desperation in her eye.
“I’ve never seen it!” she pleaded.
I thought of myself asking to visit the Nile, and nodded, putting the truck in drive.
I’ve never introduced anyone to the pacific for the first time – let alone the ocean itself. The practice felt sacred to me, taking off our shoes on the edge of the boulevard and walking across the sand in our bare feet. I pointed out ships and surfers as we walked.
Agnes hesitated at the edge of the water, the way I’d hesitated when I’d first shared a pathway with a herd of Ankole cattle on my way through Wobulenzi. I laughed at her hesitancy the way the cattle herder had laughed at me, crouched at the edge of a herd of long horn cattle. I waved my arms – “come on!”
I watched Agnes and the ocean feeling each other out for the first time, and I thought about how many things this woman has introduced me to.
I met her when I was 21. It was my first day in Kakooge. Agnes greeted me with a loud voice and open arms. She gave me a hug and three kisses – left, right, left. She waved her arms around – “welcome to our home! You are so welcome.” By “home,” I soon learned Agnes was referring to the entire village – not just her half acre plot in the midst of it.
Skirt wrapped around her waist and an arm of bracelets, Agnes walked me through every part of town, little blonde NGO reporter that I was. We went to the outskirts of Kakooge, to the main street of Kakooge, to the village’s only indoor restaurant, to the east, where most of the children gather to play and, finally, to the bars, where drunken men recognized Agnes, and exclaimed over the Mzungu. I watched them, sitting on a wooden bench offered to the white girl, and I thought about the woman I’d just met.
She spoke about Jesus and women’s rights in the same sentence – often in church. With a booming voice and an out-streched arm, she regularly preached alongside her husband to a local congregation on wooden benches. And yet, here she was, a public figure in her village and a respected woman in her culture, laughing with the men in the bars and, later, I’d learn, with the prostitutes. Turns out, Agnes is not only progressive, she’s a bit controversial.
By controversial, I mean Agnes swims against the ancient wave carrying respected society away from anyone engaged in less than admirable activity, and pulling the religious and dignified away from issues like birth control, safe sex, AIDS, family planning and a woman’s right to express herself freely in every room in her home. Jesus doesn’t talk about condoms, does he?
Agnes seems to think he does.
After my 22nd birthday, she threw in her livelihood with me, and hired 40 women she handpicked to partner with us after meeting me once. That same year, she began to change my view of Uganda. She brought me into East Africa as a part of the woodwork, insisting that I wasn’t a visitor anymore. I had a place carved out in her home along the Kampala to Gulu highway, where the trucks run through to the West of my bedroom wall in the night, and the roosters crow on the half hour just before dawn.
Agnes must have known that any person transitioning into a culture needs to be taken in with their background, and taught new ways, instead of expected to know them, because she told me she saw me the third time I returned to Uganda. I was deep in a half eaten plate of matooke when she said it. I was struggling with a culture that I didn’t fit into – checking my iphone in between meetings running an hour behind schedule, and lying awake trying to teach myself to slow down. I was embarrassed by my white legs, and the way I kept cutting myself shaving in my bucket shower.
I stopped eating and stared. “Yes,” she nodded. “I see you. I see your heart. I get you. And, I believe in you.”
Her words, in the midst of a sea of misunderstanding, became my lifeline.
Later that week, it was Agnes, again, that gave me permission to have a large vision for my work in East Africa. She walked into a room she’d transitioned into mine for the two weeks I stayed with her. “I want you to open your heart,” she told me. “We’re going to be big. Big beyond Uganda. I have plans for Kenya, Rwanda, and the Congo. So, you let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll go.”
During that visit, I discovered that Agnes’ willingness to be controversial – to speak up, to speak out, and to go places where other women were not willing to go – had taken me to those places with her. She’d silently understood my desire for integration into her village, my desire to do business directly with the women in at, and with it – quietly been creating a place for me in Uganda – in the way she spoke about me, the way she helped me understand her culture and, now, the way she brought the two together.
She’d created a profile of my work, and my character. She’d been prepping the women working for me to meet me again. The woman she once went to visit in the bad parts of time were coming to greet her – and to greet me. Women that we’d gone to take pictures of in huts were walking across town to kiss me three times – left, right, left – and talk about our work. The prostitutes that had once pursed their lips at me were greeting me in English.
Six months later, at the age of 23, it was Agnes that gave me the grace to allow our plan take longer than expected, and for funds to come through more slowly than I wanted them to. After sales tax stripped our January bank account, I got an email from her quoting a scripture passage from the book of Zechariah. “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings,” it said.
More than matoke or Ankole cows, Agnes has taught me about the way a relationship with a person can change everything, as she’s staked her reputation on my ability to come through for her and the women she’s hired to work for us – taking months to explain cultural customs, work out our accounting on the ground, gather items and, now, to come and learn my culture so she could better integrate the needs of our customer base into hers.
As we walked on the wet sand, I pointed out kelp and washed up shells and explained crustaceans. I picked up different size shells. I pointed out the way the tide moves. But Agnes wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in the way children interacted the way with the water, and kept pulling on my arm to laugh and point them out.
I’d never seen the ocean that way – through children. One ran away from the ocean – terrified – and made a muscle, smiling at us, once he’d safely escaped the surf. Another was rolling himself in the sand and grinning underneath his gritty, gray hair. A third ran into the surf squealing with delight over waves that were too cold for me.
“I love the way they love it,” Agnes said. And, it was in that moment, watching a little girl dance the sand out of her polka dotted suit, that I realized Agnes had done it again – she’d changed my perspective on the world and, with it, the way I view the people around me, and my place in it, alongside them.
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
There has been loads of interaction regarding Uganda in my life these past two weeks. I work in Uganda, so that shouldn’t be surprising. But, after #KONY2012, my life feels a bit like a viral discussion. Phone calls, emails, facebook posts – messages…it goes on. And, I couldn’t be more grateful to IC for sparking such a valuable conversation.
It was, however, a very small interaction that caught my interest last week – one that could have easily been overlooked. And, one I did overlook at first.
It was when I posted the Kony 2012 Drinking Game to my friend Sheila’s facebook wall, and she replied with this:
“Nice. I say, bring it on. One day we will get this whole thing right. Right??”
What has me coming back to this post was her use of the vernacular – “we.”
After living in Bots as an expat for more than a year, if Sheila knows one thing – it’s that none of us have figured it out yet, and no one Mzungu can stand up in front of all the others and announce that they have the answer to how to do this dance just right.
“We” are all trying to figure out how, exactly, is the best way to weigh in on our little piece of global issues that people have been trying to solve for generations. “We” have all signed up for jobs outside of our comfort zones, our cultures – our usual frame of reference. “We” all have the propensity to get carried away in our desire to help, and misstep.
“We” all like our alcohol/marijuana/cigarettes/insert-your-crutch-here when the going gets tough. “We” have all had moments of public embarrassment – my friends are still teasing me for drunkenly burning my lip a month ago trying to smoke the wrong end of a cigarette.
But the point is that we’re all trying.
I had a long conversation with a shop owner I have an account with this week. He smiled when I walked into his office – “I’ve been wanting to you about this whole Invisible Children thing,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”
But, before we got there, he said something else. He said – “You know, personally, I get the criticism, but then, I think. ‘Hey, so, they got the story wrong, they didn’t do it just so. Regardless, there’s an army of informed people standing around telling people the real story. And, at least Invisible Children got everyone lookin’ east. At least we’re paying more attention, now.’ And, come on, that in and of itself is valuable right? Those guys could have careers marketing all kinds of things. And, they picked something they’re passionate about in Uganda. So, you know – there’s some good in this, right? At least in the dialogue? I mean, they could have been telling us all about phones, or Nikes…but they picked Uganda.”
Once he finished, I really didn’t need to tell him what I thought. He had covered it. And, as I walked out of his shop, I felt like he had been the one educating me.
I walked out of his shop feeling humbled, again, by the truth that I’ve picked a career that puts a target on my back. We all have, and we’ve done it willingly – because we’re people that wanted to help.
And, it’s exactly because of that glaring, damned target that all need the rest of us to remember that we’re human when we fall – particularly when we may have set ourselves up for a little too far of a tumble. And, let’s be real – we all do it.
Not to mention, we all tend to forget that, regardless of how we feel, this desire to help has become a career – and it does not equal the sum total of who we are as people. And, when it does, we’ve made a grave mistake.
I ended up sitting on my bed – crying – after a Skype meeting last night. It wasn’t anything that was said. It was just the realization that I crossed a line – somewhere – and I keep teetering back and forth on it, this reality that my personal investment in Uganda is so huge that when things don’t go like I hope, it affects more than my company – it affects me. When we struggle financially, when lines don’t release the way I hoped, deadlines get pushed, or confusion sets in – I think about it on a personal level, and it takes everything I’ve got to learn to make that separation.
But make that separation I must. It is absolutely necessary to know that my work in Uganda is not the sum total of who I am – and that our failure or success is, quite simply, not about me.
In this profession, the personal and the professional mix in a big jumble of emotions that crux somewhere between wanting to make a career out of providing help, and wanting the way you help to make you a career.
The reality is that it’s a career – not a religious crusade, a campaign or a movement. And, at the end of the day, the people behind these careers gone religious crusading campaigns and movements are only human.
And, you can be certain that the little scar on my bottom lip is a quiet reminder that, no matter how good we get at separating the personal and professional – we are all, indeed, still working on getting it right.
(Pictured above: Sheila, playing with some of the children in Kakooge on her last trip with me).
February 6, 2012 § 4 Comments
There is a framed quote above my desk that reads,
“You have heard that you must not let the golden hours slip by. Yes, but, what if some of them are only golden if we let them slip?”
I pushed through adolescence like California wildfire, afraid of missing the ground to cover on the next hill, hungry for where the wind could carry me off to. Everything a panic, everything extreme.
Some people climb out of their youth with a slow rhythm in college – sleeping in before afternoon class, and moving at a predictable place into the throes of adulthood. The acne goes. The panic fades. Like the dawning of a new era, new loves are found, business develops and life turns a corner, trading in a rushing wildfire of hormones for a kind of rhythm.
My acne stayed. So did my panic. I carried my terror of finding a rhythm into my twenties and, with it – a sense of chaos. I moved states. I moved schools. I moved through dating relationships – tearing through the first years of adulthood like the wildfire I’ve been since I was in junior high. This driving, maddening, thrashing nightmare – what if I miss something?
I thought moving ahead would keep me from missing out.
I have a theory that behind every ballsy, half terrified, half dominating woman is a calm, collected man, living somewhere she left him in the wake, and showing up to check her tires and her transmission, and grab her by the right arm to give her a couple choice words in the midst of her whirlwind. With him come the golden hours and the stilling of the quick tick of time she couldn’t have drowned out herself. In effort to do just that, the match to my wildfire came to visit me last week, showing up to the airport over-caffeinated and in a pair of worn out jeans I convinced him to buy when I was first in college.
It had been three years. And, in my leather pants, moccasins and a short tunic, I gave him a hug and tried not to stare him down. A bachelors degree, five countries, four states and three years later, I wasn’t sure what he’d make of me. Or what I’d make of him. He’d stayed in the same town, and held the same job. I hadn’t stayed anywhere longer than four months. He’d stayed alone. I’d dated everyone from a fraternity coordinator to a Black and Decker account manager.
Two days later, my arson and I bought drinks. Over the slow burning light of a bar candle, we discussed the years we spent tearing through life afraid of missing something – sneaking out late – or early. We discussed the panic we had together – afraid of missing something, afraid of losing each other.
We did lose each other, and, after that, and he’d made his slow fade into a new phase of adulthood. He spoke of the calm he’d experienced. I confessed the way I’ve been shoving life into my empty places like a winter bound chipmunk – the next relationship, next country, next thing.
He’s stayed in the town we set fire to – fighting in the driveway, fighting in his truck – slamming car doors, slamming back doors. The town we’ve found every private corner of, and found each other in them. We talked about that, too, and, watching the slow flicker of a candle, I realized that, in my hurried fear of missing out – I had missed all kinds of things along the way. I’d missed my life in a small town – the reliable rhythm of my tires being checked for air, the ice scraped off my windshield, and the same highschool, zit faced boy handing me an ice cream cone every summer at our favorite stand while my arson waited to pay for both of us at once. I missed all the things I could have done while I was packing my bags to move elsewhere. Missed the quiet. Missed the feeling of belonging to a place.
Hours later, half baked, more than a little drunk, and nursing a lip I’d burnt with a backwards cigarette, his eye caught a twinkle – and he shook his head at me. “You’re a damn pain in the ass, you know that?”
I smiled. With a left handed compliment gone right, he’d reminded me that some things come back around, no matter how fast and far you run. And, in the dim glow of Pistol Pete’s, I found comfort in something familiar to me.
I dropped my wildfire off a few days later – early morning Sacramento air, the smell of cologne I’ve know from the back seat of a car since I was sixteen years old. In the cold, Sacramento air, my arson turned and smiled. I thought of a million different things to say in that moment. And, then, I decided to try something different – something a little slower, a little less panicked. Something more like what he’d do. So, I bit my lip and said, “hey. I’ll see you soon.”
His face broke into a smile. He nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Maybe in June,” I offered.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Come on out.”
I waved goodbye from my warm car, and drove to the nearest breve americano. After that, I went on with my day – an accidental twitter storm on bad aid in Uganda, meetings with my bookkeeper, inventory, press releases and appointments with shop owners.
I got thinking about my great big wildfire of a life that day. And, I realized that I’ve spent years chasing things to their end – running, burning until the fires die out, afraid of missing something along their way. And, I’m not sure it’s gotten me much of anywhere.
Years later, in a different small town, with degrees and jobs under my belt, and two terribly different ways of looking back on how we’ve spent time since – not much had changed after all except, maybe, me.
It took the return of a wildfire to help me discover that I’ve let far too little time slip. And, it took him leaving again to make me realize I don’t want to miss the golden hours anymore.
(Photo via Margaret Jacobsen Photography).
January 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I wrote recently on the Nakate blog about why Nakate asks for donations when we’re a business. Clearly, it’s an oddity. Shouldn’t we only be asking for donations if we’re, in turn, GIVING things away?
See, the donations that go towards companies and projects giving items away are unfortunately not often going towards something sustainable. They could be creating change for today that won’t last for tomorrow. But, at Nakate, we are running fundraisers for the purpose of never asking for donated money again. Our goal is to reach a point of complete sustainability within a year – without going into debt, without compromising our values, and while continuing to expand as we do it.
Now, what usually happens with businesses like ours is that grants are given and, we are applying to grants, to be sure. But there is something so beautiful and organic about running something off of funding from people you know. Our catch phrase is “Where will you take Africa with you?” We run off the idea that women across the world are taking a piece of Africa with them and, while they do it, some of them, in turn, are also giving a piece back.
This is what has gotten my business to the place it is.
My goal is to be completely sustainable within the next year. And, I love that it is primarily a group of women that’s getting me there. I love that each trip I take to Uganda I come home and I write an email to a group of people that I know on twitter, facebook and through the blogosphere. I love that they write me BACK. I love that I’ve had coffee, lunch, dinner and drinks with many of the names that come up in fundraisers. I love that my project is possible because of groups of people that have measured what I am doing, and counted it worthy of a micro investment. I love that yoga instructors, nonprofit advisors, health coaches, photographers and designers are the kind of women that are funding my work with a group of women they, also, have chosen to believe in and respect.
In that line of thinking, I wrote the following yesterday afternoon before running off to heat yoga:
We’d like to argue that the fact that we are not “giving” anything away makes us exactly the kind of company you should consider donating to in 2012. The donations we ask for are for sustainable solutions. We ask for your help with women’s salaries, expansion in our lines of goods and other investments in order to help us hire more women while dealing with the financial difficulty of being a start up business.
We ask for your help developing a solution for sustainable change, because we’re different from other companies. We’ve chosen to work with women in small, rural villages – women that would not be hired by other companies, women that didn’t previously know how to make the kinds of goods we sell.
Because we are developing sustainable change through training women in rural areas of Africa, and creating change as we go, we ask for donations. Because we are not giving money away, but rather paying women for goods that give them pride and allow us to teach them business skills as we go, we ask for donations. Because women that have never had jobs before are working for us and investing their money back into their own businesses in their spare time, opening bank accounts, roofing their homes, sending their children to school and spending their money in other sustainable ways, we ask for donations.
Precisely because we using them towards growth on the ground that gives pride, grows the local economy and changes women’s lives for good, we ask for donations – smart donations, donations we will use on the ground towards change that will last.
This month, we’re asking for donations to help us expand into more product lines in the new year. We’re asking for donations in the hope that, as we sell these product lines and expand, we soon will not have to ever ask for donations again.
We’re asking for donations to work towards sustainability – for Nakate, and for Africa.
Because we ask for donations from people who consider themselves personally involved in a business they believe will change women’s lives for good, we try and involve them whenever possible in that process. This is why we have “perks” listed in our latest fundraiser – ways we can further involve you further in a personal way as you invest and believe in us.
However, you can enter any donation amount here.
January 15th is my 23rd birthday, and I’ll be asking for donations of $2.30, $23.00 or $230.00 from now until then. If you would like to enter a specific amount, simply deleted the automatically entered amount of $150.00 and enter your desired amount.
December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment
“At an event recently in Minneapolis, Rose McGee, a professional storyteller, came forward with a powerful statistic: White male entrepreneurs endure failure at least 11 times in their career. Wow. I was struck both by the high rate of failure as well as the subtext of the comment. White men are allowed to fail. But are women and minorities given equal opportunity? Unlikely.
The bias that emerges isn’t one of white men having more income, educational advantage, or social capital. White men are afforded more chances to take risks—and in taking risks they are allowed to fail and succeed in greater number than women and minorities.
So why is access to risk so essential? The ability to take on risk—to risk failure—is what enables individuals to carve out their own direction in life. It’s part of what gives someone a sense of power to overcome circumstance and reach for something bigger. The ability to take on risk means quite simply that one no longer has to live in a world of “a dream deferred” (to quote Langston Hughes), but can rather embrace “the impossible dream” (to quote Man of La Mancha)…
…I learned that in sharing and being open about where you are headed, you actually increase the odds of getting there by enrolling the support of others. In this way, embracing uncertainty and problem solving around uncertainty with others from the beginning rather than waiting until you’ve ruled it out is a necessary component of risk-taking…
…The clown is the supreme archetype of failure. Part of the reason the clown is such a successful entertainer is because most people can’t afford to fail like a clown, to be that vulnerable, clumsy, and uninhibited. Even to see it second-hand—to experience the second-hand embarrassment of the clown—is a release for people…
…So what can we learn from clowns? Part of the method of the clown is to try to enjoy the process, to be comfortable with the failing so that you can show whatever it is you feel and not hide, aiming only to show what is good. In the realm of entrepreneurship, clowning translates into the ability to take a risk and then should you fail, be able to spin that failure into both a learning opportunity and a success…
…In perceiving failure as part of success—as endemic to it—we can transform our thinking and develop more of an appetite for risk. Only when women and minorities begin to shift their attitudes towards failure and risk will society begin to rewrite the cultural scripts that make it acceptable for white men to fail, but somehow “unsafe” or “shameful” for others to dream big as well.”
Excerpts from “To Succeed, Women And Minorities Need To Be Able To Fail“