Friday, April 22, 2011

Feeling the fear

One of the writers I follow challenged me to write about what I’m most afraid of. I read his challenge, packed a backpack and left my island retreat for a mountain village in Bosnia for a few days. I needed to think it over.

My first evening there, I recognized one of my best friends--an elderly Catholic priest from New York who I’ve known since I was 18. I didn’t know he’d be there. He didn’t know I was coming. For the next week, I enjoyed the companionship of someone totally present, an expert at holding space and deeply listening. I am grateful.

I read him my list of what I’m most afraid of. I told him I was afraid to return to Liberia because of the threats I continue to receive from an ex-partner. I shared my fear of being raped and tortured, or that I’d get in a car accident in a country--like Liberia--where there’s no adequate emergency room, no decent hospital.

Then I opened my heart a little more, and told my friend that I was afraid that I could never do enough to fix the problems around me. How no matter what I did for the Co-op, I couldn’t protect them from everything I wanted to or guarantee their future. How it felt like, with all my ideas, I wasn't doing enough. How I mourned the loss of a project whose failure is beyond my control.

“It’s not your job to fix things,” he pointed out, “it’s your job to show up with love.”

Sure, I’m afraid of the list I just wrote out, the list that terrifies me and keeps me awake some nights, feeling exposed and vulnerable for choosing to live in West Africa, for choosing the work that I do.

But what I’m really afraid of is getting my heart broken.

By “heartbroken,” I mean really rock-bottom broken--the kind of heartbreak where you sob without sound, where you don’t notice time passing as you stare at the ceiling or out a window, where you’re inconsolable until you take time out to rest, retreat and revision--like what I’m doing now.

We’ve all had our hearts broken by people, but what about when our hearts are cracked open because of how we choose to experience life? Because we live close to the edge, and risked it, and it didn’t work? Because we saw poverty or loneliness and tried to soothe it with our hands and our heart, but maybe it didn’t like us or didn’t want to talk to us, or what we did seemed to make no difference?

That kind of heartbreak scares the shit out of me.

Every time it happens, I feel like I have to make this the last time, like there’s no way I can go back to that edge and risk my dreams becoming real again--not if this heartbreak is where they sometimes lead. I feel like I can’t possibly embody this kind of grief at the disparities and injustices I see.

For those of us who work in “aid,” or “development” or whatever you want to call it, we’re used to navigating this kind of heartbreak. Mothers in our projects die because they didn’t get to the doctor in time when a complication comes up and they're giving birth. Girls drop out of school and turn to commercial sex work to help their family put food on the table. You offer an opportunity, a chance for change, to someone and they never show up again.

Sure, it’s easier to roll up the car window and turn on the air conditioning. You can try not to look outside. But our hearts tell us to look anyway.

Our hearts tell us they can bear being broken.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Liberia guides for the newbies

I've just gotten my hands on two guides to Liberia written by the Liberian Professional Network and part of the intriguingly-named "Demystify Liberia Project":

2. And just in case you need to get your household goods out of the port and have no idea how: Import and Clearance Procedures for Freeport, Monrovia 

Sharing is caring! 

*At the moment, these links seem to not be working. Hopefully they'll be fixed and live soon...*

Friday, April 1, 2011


Sometimes, to heal, you have to step away. I'm willing to bet you know the feelings: heartbreak, anger, stress. You start having the kind of days where it feels like everything is wrong and you're not quite sure how to fix it.

I've got the answer for you: Do nothing. Step away.

Distance and solitude. Relaxation and sunshine. Simple living with the bare essentials. Identify what it is that you need and give it to yourself.

I don't mean to suggest doing anything drastic, like joining a monastery or circumnavigating the globe with nothing but a backpack, although you're welcome to. Mostly, what we need in this face-paced world of ours is good old-fashioned rest. But we wait for people to tell us it's okay. We're not sure they'll be fine without us. We wait for someone to give us permission to give ourselves what we need. Here: I'm giving you permission.

As for me, I'm spending six weeks at a dear friend's house on the sea. I'm halfway through my time and will return to Monrovia in a few weeks. Each day, I can feel myself letting go of the stress and sadness I've been carrying for months. It's a blessed alchemy, the healing that happens when we just let ourselves be.

Sure, it's scary. But every time I check, my world is just where I left it, doing fine without me. I'm betting it will be there when I'm ready to come back.

Maybe you're not able to step away and spend all your hard-earned vacation days walking in the mountains. That's okay. Take half an hour instead. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and again the day after that. Carve out this time for yourself like it's the most important thing on the planet, because you are. And watch what happens to your heart, your mind, and all that tension.

So many of us are working in jobs that care for others, determined to make a positive difference in this world of ours. We have noble professions and feel like our time is better spent saving, helping, and rescuing than sitting in a hammock somewhere and taking a nap. Those of us working in humanitarian emergencies like the one happening now in Cote d'Ivoire know what I mean. But no matter how good you are at your job, or how much you love it, you can't take care of others until you're taking good care of yourself.

So be brave and figure out what that self-care means to you. Start small. Maybe it's sharing a cup of tea with a friend, or making a meal just for yourself, or finishing that book you've kept by your bed for months. Whatever it is, good for you. You deserve it.

If you enjoyed reading this, please share it with someone who could benefit. Thank you!