The Equals Record http://equals.youplusme.com Tue, 12 Nov 2013 06:55:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.9 An Unknown Strength http://equals.youplusme.com/an-unknown-strength/ Thu, 05 Sep 2013 16:00:52 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10671 There are many different kinds of strength.  There’s the kind of strength that lets you lift barbells.  The strength that leads you to serve or work to protect others.  There’s a kind of strength that makes you a good parent.  There’s strength of character, of conviction.  There’s a kind of strength that lets you open […]]]>

There are many different kinds of strength.  There’s the kind of strength that lets you lift barbells.  The strength that leads you to serve or work to protect others.  There’s a kind of strength that makes you a good parent.  There’s strength of character, of conviction.  There’s a kind of strength that lets you open jars of salsa or move really heavy boxes of books. I’m pretty good at those last two.  And then there is the strength that you never knew you had.  That hidden measure that stays wrapped up in a ball, deep down in your soul, and explodes upward and outward when things get dark.

It’s the strength that leads people to face a tough diagnosis with their chins up and their shoulders back.  It turns people into fighters seemingly overnight.  It’s that strength that brings parents and spouses to sit calmly in waiting rooms instead of curling into a ball in the corner.  It’s powerful enough to block the “why me” and replace it with a deeper sense of wisdom.  You can’t flex or tone it, you can’t prepare it. It’s so hidden we don’t even know it exists until it’s required. Then it seems to spring out and flow through every fiber of the being until it’s so natural, such a part of a person’s soul, that no one can remember a time it wasn’t there.

I know that kind of strength exists because I’ve seen it.  I’ve witnessed someone experiencing something that I think would make a mere mortal just fall down and cry.  I’ve seen that person talk about gratitude and joy instead of sickness or pity.  I don’t understand that volume of strength.  And so I’ve thought about it; wondered about it; and now written about it.  And I still don’t understand.  But that’s ok, there are things we aren’t meant to understand.  It’s enough to know it exists, that sometimes, a person can do more than you thought possible, that the people you love can be even more incredible than you knew.  We’re never really alone in the dark; I don’t understand it, but I believe each person has a ball of hidden strength, deep down in their soul.  Maybe you’ll never need to use it, maybe it will just sit there, but just in case, we can know it’s there.

It’s enough to know.  To know that super heroes walk among us, people who are challenging themselves a little at a time to move forward, stand still, and do their best against the odds.  They don’t ask for accolades or credit, but I’ll give them anyway.  Because by the simple act of accepting the mantle and exposing their strength, they inspire everyone around them to do a little more, be a little more.  A little more grateful, a little more kind, a little more better, a little more whatever.  Just more.

I don’t understand that kind of strength, but I appreciate those that have it.

To every person walking around with that strength, to the folks who fought to get out of bed today, the people who play games to get through it, those with a quiet dignity and spines of steel, to the loved ones who sit in waiting rooms and hold hands, and to a very special lady I know- Thank You.  You’re making us all better by getting better yourselves.

 

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A love letter to Colombia, Part IV http://equals.youplusme.com/a-love-letter-to-columbia-part-i/ Wed, 04 Sep 2013 13:00:50 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10601 Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece. Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based […]]]>

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

Cartagena: a place for biased photographers, for solitude, for affection, all at once.

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece. Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say ‘stapler’ in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I’m abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover’s dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful — not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: “We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can’t see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing.”

By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

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A love letter to Colombia, Part III http://equals.youplusme.com/a-love-letter-to-colombia-part-iii/ Tue, 03 Sep 2013 13:00:28 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10595 Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II I worry about Bogotá’s rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few — expectations of where to live, where to […]]]>

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

The intersecting narratives of Bogotá street art, steeped in affection

I worry about Bogotá’s rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few — expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

And then I meet the people who break the mould. Last Friday, I was the only person with done-up nails and high heels in a room full of anthropologists. I have come to cherish both the irony and the awkwardness of this, surrounded by Colombians in jeans and Converse who were there to patiently walk me through the process of grave exhumations. Some of the most transformative moments of my research were the ones whose profundity extinguished all room for artifice. In many ways, these are the stories that cannot be told. They are not my stories, or this is not the medium for them, or it is not yet the time to tell them. Even in their untellability, I realize that allowing these narratives to cross my path continues to fuel my faith in humanity.

The responsibilities of storytelling were on my mind this summer, in terms of the responsibilities of the storyteller to the people to whom the story belongs and to the reader. I have watched my own role constantly shift, as the different capacities I have occupied in conflict-affected areas compete for attention: conflict manager, gender-based violence specialist, academic, researcher, listener, writer. Storyteller. It is an ever-evolving contract between multiple storytellers, and it requires finding my own place in the universe of intersecting narratives.

***

I will carry the contrasts in my heart, with appreciation for moments that fracture your expectations, for the moments in which appearance deviates from reality. There was the time I was followed by a policeman for five blocks near the Presidential Palace, only to learn that he wanted to find out if this señorita was married and, if not, would she go out with him? Or the time a whole group of policemen in Cali gave up their seats at the tienda for two sleepy gringas looking for coffee before the city had had the chance to wake up. Or the numerous instances I have walked past the sports bar, Locos por el Futbol, only to hear “A Total Eclipse of the Heart” or another 1990’s sappy favorite bellowing from the speakers — with more than one man singing along. Or that other time during my solo meal in Usaquén, when the table of brunching men behind me spent twenty minutes discussing baby showers. There are moments that insert cracks into an image such that you can no longer say “all of these kinds of people are _______” in Colombia. Colombia makes you fill in the blank, and question the ‘all.’ It requires nuance and texture.

And yet, the often heart-warming contrasts cannot allow me to forget about the shadow economy of fear, in which boundaries are overstepped or invisibilized. Many of my interviewees use ‘invisibilize’ as an active verb: to render invisible. ‘To (forcibly) disappear’ has been another active verb that has punctuated the narrative. The hierarchies of privilege that define other aspects of life here also determine fear, risk, and danger — with human rights defenders often finding themselves at the bottom. I have been conscious of how my own layers of privilege color my experience and provide an extra layer of protection in most instances: I am a foreign, Western-educated woman who is affiliated with a US university and is not fully embedded in the realities of advocacy in Colombia. I am also conscious of how the human rights defenders I have interviewed rarely use the language of fear directly. They speak of ‘risks’, ‘danger’, ‘threats’, but rarely fear itself. I seek to learn from their example as I sift through trauma, both vicarious and my own. In the moments of human connection, of asking the questions and recording the answers, of finding beauty, of experiencing learning or vulnerability or hope, I, too, feel less afraid.

Next: Conclusions from biased eyes

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Head Down, Blinders On http://equals.youplusme.com/head-down-blinders-on/ http://equals.youplusme.com/head-down-blinders-on/#comments Thu, 29 Aug 2013 14:00:55 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10643 Although it doesn’t feel like it here in the Midwest, the calendar insists summer is winding down.  I am skeptical.  Each day my inbox is flooded with shopping offers and pictures of scarves and sweaters, as I stare at the thermostat and contemplate turning it down one more degree. Despite the humidity and soaring temperatures, […]]]>

Although it doesn’t feel like it here in the Midwest, the calendar insists summer is winding down.  I am skeptical.  Each day my inbox is flooded with shopping offers and pictures of scarves and sweaters, as I stare at the thermostat and contemplate turning it down one more degree. Despite the humidity and soaring temperatures, I find myself taking a deep breath and settling in.  The summer for me has been a whirlwind full of longer than average work weeks dotted sporadically with weekend trips to see friends and soccer matches.  I remember a girl’s weekend in June, viewed through a telescope as if it were distantly in the past, perhaps a year ago instead of a mere two months.  My 30th birthday the same month seems a fuzzy memory, clouded through a haze of disproportionate time.  The July weekend spent in Chicago visiting friends and family and watching soccer stars while sipping overpriced beers is a little closer to the surface, but only sporadic moments of it.

This summer for me was all about work.  Regular jobs, new freelance opportunities, and expanding projects crowded together to fill my waking moments.  I read a quote in a business magazine once about a start-up and the phrase they used to motivate and drill the importance of the task at hand: Head Down, Blinders On.  By May I knew I was in for longer hours, later nights, and consequently bigger paychecks.  I alerted my family that I would be doing little else. Side projects and hobbies fell to the wayside.  I stopped reading and writing, stopped watching television, stopped sewing.  Head Down, Blinders On.

That’s not my normal method.  I enjoy working from home for the diversity and casualness it allows my day, I can bounce from one thing to another, take a break from a project to sit outside with a notebook or rip out a crooked seam in a sewing project. Blinders are as foreign to me as Celsius temperatures and the British Pound.  I neither use nor understand how to use them.  But without planning or consciously trying, I found myself with near tunnel vision.  Another person might say they had bitten off more than they could chew, but for me, the full days, the near constant switching between three major projects, the Head Down-Blinders On mindset was invigorating.  A sign of success in my chosen path, I was being paid to do things that I was good at from whatever place I chose to be.  I was not tied to a cubicle or a business casual dress code.  I could do what I wanted, and this summer, what I wanted to do was work.

For months work was almost all I did.  Until August hit and I decided I’d had enough.  I released responsibilities I no longer cared to hold.  The fact that I made the choice, and it was followed through, was just as empowering as the extra paychecks I’d been receiving.  Just as I began to lift my head, and remove the blinders, as soon as I began to miss the evenings spent in bed with a book, or a Saturday with nothing to do, the pressure lifted and the work flow lightened. And I breathed deeply the end of the summer air.  I sat and did nothing. And soon I began to fall back into the loves I left behind in May, the click of keys as I typed, the sound of a record as I read, the simple joy of going to sleep at the same time as my husband.  I don’t believe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but returning to my favorite things has reminded me to be grateful of the many ways they nurture my soul.

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Margery Kempe: Medieval Pilgrim, Autobiographer http://equals.youplusme.com/margery-kempe-medieval-pilgrim-autobiographer/ http://equals.youplusme.com/margery-kempe-medieval-pilgrim-autobiographer/#comments Wed, 28 Aug 2013 14:00:56 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10631 I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.” Actually, I shouldn’t use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.” Of course, over the years, […]]]>

I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.”

Actually, I shouldn’t use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.”

Of course, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Margery accomplished a tad more. In her self-penned Book, for example, she recounts that time she took a pilgrimage all the way from Britain to the Holy Land by herself. That was no small feat, especially for a non-noblewoman. Even today, if you did that people would be all like, “You’re a woman and you’re going by yourself?”

Margery was born sometime in the late fourteenth century in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a wool merchant and sometime Member of Parliament. In today’s world, she would have maybe been a suburban yuppie. She married a dude named John, had a bunch of kids, and was all set to have a regular medieval suburban yuppie life with him.

But Margery found a higher calling. Literally. (Okay, not literally. I don’t think.) She began to have visions sometime around the birth of her first child. This prompted her to rearrange her priorities and attempt to live more purely. Eventually she gave herself completely to a religious life, even getting her husband to agree to maintain a celibate marriage with her, which sounds like a rough deal.

Her religious adventures included visiting the Holy Land, where she thoroughly irritated all of her fellow pilgrims with her crying spells and general carryings on (can you imagine how crazy you have to be to piss off a bunch of religious pilgrims with your religious fervor?), making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and possibly visiting fellow devotional woman and more highly regarded mystic Julian of Norwich. Margery’s husband was actually from Norwich, so they probably had a lot to talk about.

A story to illustrate Margery’s, er, extreme personality: When she returned from her Holy Land visit—in which she was almost stranded in Rome because she gave all her money to the poor and her fellow pilgrims had just about had it up to here—she continued to make pilgrimages around Europe, though she was constrained by her lack of resources and her gender. She often wore all white and tended to weep uncontrollably out of devotion to Christ. Her behavior was so odd that many locals accused her of being a heretic, and at one point, she was nearly burned at the stake. However, church authorities intervened, and Margery’s knowledge of the Bible and non-heretical views bore her out. She just had really, really crazy ways of putting them into practice.

What really cemented Margery’s fame, however, was the fact that she put all of these wacky life experiences into a book (albeit one that she dictated to a male writer, being likely illiterate herself). This was actually remarkable. Very few people of her status (middle-class-ish), much less women, had their thoughts and feelings recorded for posterity in this way. Through her, historians are today able to understand the religious lives of laypeople and non-nobles.

And I have to hand it to Margery. Sure, she might have been annoying, and overdramatic, and slightly hysterical at times, but she also was pretty damn courageous. It takes courage, undoubtedly, to strike out on one’s own, follow one’s passions, and not be trapped by what others might think. On a minimally related personal note, I am starting my PhD this week. Which sounds pretty serious. As sometimes happens, I’ve been racked with insecurity and uncertainty—am I good enough? Am I smart enough? When I raise my hand to speak, will something clever come out, or will it be super lame and everyone will point and laugh and be like “ohmygod you guys how did she get in.”

But who cares? Make a fool of yourself. Dance like no one’s watching. Fall down and have sparkly visions of Jesus and alienate everyone around you. As long as you’re doing what you love, what the heck does it matter? You might still end up with a book that’s remembered five hundred years later, or at least that gets you on the “History” shelf at Barnes & Noble next to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jared Diamond.

Margery gets it. She’s there too.

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Second Life http://equals.youplusme.com/second-life-to-come-826/ http://equals.youplusme.com/second-life-to-come-826/#comments Tue, 27 Aug 2013 14:00:51 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10625 At the dentist the other day, I took note of one of the two receptionists. She looked about Mom’s age. Like Mom, she was bubbly and laughed often, sometimes out of nervousness, sometimes because humor was simply her most accessible emotion. She had a well-established rapport with her colleagues, referencing inside jokes and moving between […]]]>

At the dentist the other day, I took note of one of the two receptionists. She looked about Mom’s age. Like Mom, she was bubbly and laughed often, sometimes out of nervousness, sometimes because humor was simply her most accessible emotion. She had a well-established rapport with her colleagues, referencing inside jokes and moving between Professional Service Mode and playful banter with ease. I watched her take instruction from the other, much younger receptionist; she seemed a bit sheepish about not fully grasping some aspect of their scheduling software, poking fun at her age and separateness from today’s all-digital world. She was liked by her coworkers, quickly recognized by most of the patients that came through the door. This could have been my mom if her brain were still functioning, if she’d left my stepdad long ago, if she’d fulfilled her destiny of following me wherever I ventured, living in an ornately furnished mother-in-law cottage/loft space/attic/basement and being full-time daycare to my son. That’s what we always envisioned for ourselves, before I had work or a husband or a kid. Part of the fantasy was that she’d hold some low-stakes part-time job where it didn’t much matter what she did as long as she was interacting with people, probably her greatest talent and skill.

She almost got to do this — the part-time job part, anyway — in 2004, the year I got engaged. Mom hadn’t worked or had her own car in 17 years. Independence was the casualty of her dysfunctional marriage. She’d fought this reality off and on over the years, never really resigning herself to it. My stepdad wanted her home — even outings to the mall and evenings at friends’ houses (well, her one friend’s house) were highly negotiated propositions. Sometimes my stepdad would wait until the last minute, while she was finishing her makeup or blow drying her hair, to tell her she couldn’t go. It was his car she’d have to borrow for these infrequent jaunts, after all. He did not share enough of his income to even afford her cab fare.

But my engagement lit a fire under Mom’s ass. She was going to contribute financially to her daughter’s wedding, goddammit. She wouldn’t hear my protests. For her, being so financially hobbled as to be unable to help pay for her daughter’s wedding was a concession too big, definitive proof that her situation really was as bad as it looked. Because my stepfather was the sole breadwinner, she told him that either he allow her to work and earn some money of her own or he’d have to pony up for the wedding, a ballsy move for a wife who had become pathologically averse to rocking the boat. She pulled it off — my stepfather relented. Mom and I spent the next year planning and pricing, brainstorming inexpensive tricks and workarounds to craft a low budget but classy affair. She loved it. She found part-time work at a Restoration Hardware, racking up a respectable sales record. Most of her coworkers were young 20-somethings, and the upper-class clientele preferred to buy their expensive pieces of furniture from a mature adult who seemed to know a thing or two about furniture. She was enjoying a degree of independence she hadn’t had in years, and I thought, with the naïveté and magnanimity of a new bride, that this could be her turning point. Maybe my wedding would give Mom her groove back, remind her that she could rely on herself, could survive and even thrive without a possessive, psychologically abusive spouse weighing her down.

It wasn’t until after the wedding that Mom’s bouts of forgetfulness became worrisome. The burst of confidence she felt at the start of her second working life waned under the pressure to understand the company’s computer-based checkout system. She couldn’t keep up with her younger, computer-savvy colleagues, who had cameras on their phones and did something called “texting.” We had one computer at home, and my stepfather made clear that no one but he could use it. He even kept a protective plastic cover on it. Mom was a ball of nerves around the work computer. My husband, Adam, and I created tutorials for her, tried convincing her that she wouldn’t break it, that it wasn’t made of glass. But our reassurances didn’t sink in. Work became a dreaded exercise in which all of her insecurities — all of the bullshit my stepdad had shoveled at her for years — were validated. Her once-friendly coworkers who had enjoyed chatting with her and hearing her maternal advice became irritated by her ineptitude, her seeming unwillingness to master one of her basic job requirements. So began Mom’s slow slide backward. Her second life kicked her back into her first one, where she felt more dependent than ever on my stepdad, the man who’d stooped so low as to be with her.

I like to imagine my Second Life Mom flashing her wide, warm smile from behind the reception desk at the dentist’s office, offering advice on grades of leather at the furniture boutique, or perhaps making small talk in the checkout line at the grocery store. I sometimes linger in front of the For Rent signs outside one-bedroom apartments in our neighborhood, envisioning her inside the blueprint layouts, getting crafty with furniture arrangement to determine the best flow for each room. I imagine her spoiling Henry, driving Adam and I nuts by not reinforcing our parenting rules, and Henry adoring her for it. It wouldn’t be the life she imagined for herself or hoped for when she took her second marriage vows. Leaving my stepdad wouldn’t have cured the deep-seated insecurities that drove her into a toxic relationship. And being a single middle-aged woman would surely present its own set of fears, including financial hardship and loneliness. But I’d have taken it, if only to witness her experiencing her own strength, the spark of her own possibility.

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A love letter to Colombia, Part II http://equals.youplusme.com/a-love-letter-to-colombia-part-ii/ http://equals.youplusme.com/a-love-letter-to-colombia-part-ii/#comments Mon, 26 Aug 2013 13:00:59 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10592 Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I

 

Literally translated: little dolls of milk. Colombia can be a world of dolls, in endearing and disheartening ways.

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others’ butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia’s many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers ‘belleza’ as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros — literally, dogs — and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don’t call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don’t like to go to the hair salon to get ‘this beautiful hair’ straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá’s rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few — expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Social commentary on the culture of beauty in Colombia in the form of street art: "We, the ugly ones, are many more."."

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

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“What Are You Writing, Alexis M. Smith?” http://equals.youplusme.com/what-are-you-writing-alexis-m-smith/ Fri, 23 Aug 2013 14:00:04 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10617 Sometimes, on the rarest of rare occasions, a story just happens to you. You don’t expect it; you assume it will contain words similar to stories past. And then it shocks you, but a pleasant jolt akin to a dear, long lost friend tapping you on the shoulder. This is the only way to describe […]]]>

Sometimes, on the rarest of rare occasions, a story just happens to you. You don’t expect it; you assume it will contain words similar to stories past. And then it shocks you, but a pleasant jolt akin to a dear, long lost friend tapping you on the shoulder. This is the only way to describe Alexis M. Smith’s delicate tale, Glaciers. I read it in one day, which was a struggle because I wanted it to last longer, but I intend to peruse my own copy from here on out. Ms. Smith is currently working on another book, and she lives in Portland, Oregon with her son.
-Samantha Bohnert

It is strange to be a writer in the summertime. I don’t know if this is true for other writers (I have anecdotal evidence that I’m not alone), but I struggle to engage with my writing in the summer months. I might as well be trying to ice skate as I write a novel from June to September. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, so I assume that the heat is what’s doing me in, but it could just as easily be the world outside—berries to pick, mountains to hike, rivers to swim—calling me out of my head, making writing laborious.

Faced with a page of words I can’t seem to make sense of, all I really want to do is go to the beach. Sitting on the sand and listening to the waves should be a good way to reflect on the work at hand, to let my mind comb through snags in the story. But I usually find myself overwhelmed with my own smallness, my own inability to express anything that might come close to the world I envision. What I usually do, after vain attempts at conscious, constructive thought, is hunt for agates.
I have the eye, it turns out. I see agates when others don’t, when others have walked right past them, scanning the ground, turning over larger rocks. I find them when others proclaim that there are none to be found, that they just don’t exist like they used to, since they built the jetty over there, or since this or that beach became popular with tourists.

I found a blue agate half the size of my palm one day in Oceanside, Oregon, while rock hounds all around me found nothing, poking their walking sticks glumly at the pebbles. I didn’t hold it up to the light for everyone to see. I didn’t want to feel their envy. I didn’t want to feel like the lucky one. I dropped it into my pocket so that I could examine it alone, later. I wanted to look at it carefully, to appraise its weight and colors, the way it filtered the late-day light. I wanted to see it fully before I shared it with anyone. What if it was not precious at all? Or what if it was the most beautiful specimen I’d ever find? What if it was both at the same time?
The novel I’m writing has been in my head for almost five years now. It came to me in a dream, soon after my son was born, when the hormones were still strong and my dreams were wild and intricate and bright. I woke up and asked my son’s dad to take him for a while so I could go into another room and write it all down. I knew it was a book. I knew that I would write it. And I knew that it would be important to me, writing this book. But I had another novel to finish in the mean time, and a newborn, and a day job.

Years passed; my son grew; my first novel was greeted with (miraculous!) acclaim and goodwill. And all the while, in a pocket of my mind, this other book grew and grew. I scribbled notes and sources and inspiration in a notebook. Scenes came to me suddenly when I was doing the dishes or folding laundry. Character sketches fleshed out, the plot took on dimension, and symbolism crept in. I felt a charge of energy whenever I talked about it with friends, whenever I thought of what it could be.

Agates form in volcanic rock, where voids in the rock leave room for silica-rich water to seep. Over time, under great heat and pressure, the silica and other minerals crystalize in the spaces. Here in Oregon, we find the remnants of these agates on our beaches, where the Pacific washes them from our basalt coastal cliffs, breaking them apart, scouring them over other rocks with each wave and each tide, polishing them.

Agate hunting was a family past time; I learned young not to ignore what was underfoot at the beach. Over long hours of contemplating the waterline as a child, I developed a fanciful sense that each agate found me as much as I found it. We were destined to meet, there on that shore, at that ebb-tide, as if only I could appreciate the expanse of time it had taken this small wonder to find the light. No matter how many agates I find, that moment of discovery always takes my breath away.

Similarly, when I get the idea for a story, there’s also the uncanny feeling that I have nothing to do with its genesis. The story comes from somewhere outside me, and I am only the space in which it will expand, take on density and weight, color and luminosity; that it was meant for me, and me for it, at the bidding of something greater than both of us. Some days, this comes as a relief: I can give up my self-doubt to a higher power. Other days, the responsibility seems overwhelming: how will I ever be equal to this task?

A few days ago, summer on its last, burnished legs, I got in the car and headed out of town on a whim. I couldn’t face the computer all day in the city heat, construction hammering across the street from my apartment. I sat on the beach, thinking of the story that had been crystalizing in my mind, hoping the ocean would scour away whatever stood between me and the glorious, layered, dynamic thing I wanted it to be.
The water retreated and I waited to see what would be there, on the pebbly stretch of beach. With the sun at that low angle, the small, wet gems gleam more like jellyfish than rock, but I didn’t catch the telltale glint. Finally, when I was ready to give up, I saw one. No one around, I plucked it from the sand and held it up to the light, admiring the glow.

This is the thing I come back to now: the luck of it all. Here I am, sun-drunk, on a deadline, with pages and pages ahead of me, wondering, What if it’s the most beautiful story I’ll ever write? What if, after all this fretting, it’s not precious at all? And what if I’m lucky either way?

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A love letter to Colombia, Part I http://equals.youplusme.com/a-love-letter-to-colombia/ Wed, 21 Aug 2013 14:00:54 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10581 Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma There are those moments on the Avenida Circunvalar when the clouds lift momentarily and the whole world is flooded with light. In those seconds, the weight of my work here lifts too — momentarily, as though coaxed to evaporate by a patch of blue sky and impeccable clouds. When I think of joy […]]]>

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma

There are those moments on the Avenida Circunvalar when the clouds lift momentarily and the whole world is flooded with light. In those seconds, the weight of my work here lifts too — momentarily, as though coaxed to evaporate by a patch of blue sky and impeccable clouds. When I think of joy in Colombia during this field project, I think of a taxi zooming through mountain turns on the Circunvalar.

I will miss the conversations with the taxi drivers. A few remain at the top of my mind: The woman who was navigating the city on her first day as a taxista. Perhaps a place is truly a home when you give your brand new taxista directions 100 blocks North and reassure her that you will neither be lost nor be run over by a bus. When she gets terrified, you encourage her to turn up the Carlos Vives bellowing from the radio. If these field notes had a soundtrack, it would be a marriage of Carlos Vives and Fonseca. Other taxistas would disagree with me: There was the one who loved Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or the one who paired his sharing his opinions on the conflict here with Bach’s cello suites. Regardless of their musical tastes, and for reasons I cannot even begin to understand, all of them that Greece is a cold-climate country and all of them think its women are beautiful. I never had the heart to correct them.

***

Colombia has grounded me in mountains. Summer to me has always meant waking up to the sound of waves and swatting mosquitoes off my back. This is the first summer of my life that I haven’t seen my toes on the sand through transluscent Greek water. I like to dream that this is not a trade-off, that I haven’t exchanged the salt and sea droplets drying on my back for mountain sunrises, that I haven’t traded in my homeland for all the other homes that have crawled into my heart. On an optimistic day, I hope I am simply adding hues to existing traditions. I am diversifying memories.

I will miss falling asleep to the sound of Colombians dancing. I will miss watching Colombians dance, and eating papas con chorizo at a street corner at 3 AM after letting others guide my own steps. My Colombia tastes like achy feet and papas at a street corner. It also takes like Masa’s almond croissants. Almendra, the word for almond, is one of the most beautiful words to my ears. Fifteen years after first reading Love in the Time of Cholera, I can finally begin to understand why Marquez’s imagined worlds always seemed to taste like almonds.

This was a summer of rainbows. Of fast-moving clouds and puffy pink sunrises that almost compensate you for your bleary eyes after a night of nightmares. Of feeling the waterfall spray on your face and your heart pounding from the altitude, only to discover that sometimes you best remember to breathe where the air is thinnest, in the most breathless spaces.

I will miss the tree that smells like jasmine during those seventy steps between my house and Crepes & Waffles. When I walk under it at night, it brings me back to Jerusalem. Colombia transports me, as though this one home can contain glimpses of all others. It finds a way to wink at the nostalgic nomad: The restaurant called L’chaim, the salsero who will wish me καλημέρα when he finds out I am Greek. There is something enlivening about remembering from where you have come, with your feet planted firmly on the ground of a place that will make a heart wander to revisit every home it ever loved.

Next: Expectations and the -isms — Machismo and classismo in Colombia

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Orange Is the New Black and Diverse Ensemble Casts http://equals.youplusme.com/orange-is-the-new-black-and-diverse-ensemble-casts/ http://equals.youplusme.com/orange-is-the-new-black-and-diverse-ensemble-casts/#comments Tue, 20 Aug 2013 16:00:57 +0000 http://equals.youplusme.com/?p=10563

I’ve been binge-watching (is that what it’s called?) the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black for the last week, especially since I just moved to a small Midwestern town and my laptop is one of my only pieces of furniture. It’s great. It’s hilarious, the characters are super compelling, the actresses are beyond amazing. It’s an almost all-female cast. It has a great Regina Spektor opening which is NONSTOP IN MY HEAD (“Taking steps is easy / Standing still is ha-a-ard!”).

The series follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Smith-educated wasp in her late twenties or early thirties who, while ostensibly living a stable yuppie life with her clean-cut Jewish writer fiancé (Jason Biggs), once had a serious relationship with a badass lesbian drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) which resulted in her transporting drug money across the ocean. Now, years later, she’s been convicted and is serving fifteen months in minimum security women’s prison. We see her voluntarily “surrender” to the prison, looking extremely out of place and comparing her new prison-issued slippers to Tom’s shoes.

Immediately, she’s thrown into a world of bizarre rules, barter systems, creative use of commissary resources, pronounced racial divides, and variously corrupt prison officials, and must learn to navigate it, to often humorous, sometimes tragic, effect. Plus—fun pre-prison flashbacks that spotlight a different character each week.

The thing about this series, and the reason that it’s been the subject of a lot of interesting conversations since it began, is that it has a lot of problems, but it has a lot of really good things. And all of it is worth discussing.

One of the biggest complaints: Despite the fact that nearly one in 100 adult Americans is incarcerated (!!), making it a huge part of the American landscape, we only hear or care about this experience when our protagonist is an upper middle class white lady who totally doesn’t belong there. It’s all a fluke! It’s like a prison ethnography for all of us on the outside!

There have also been complaints about the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Piper discovers immediately that the prison population is essentially self-segregated along racial lines: the whites, the blacks, the “Spanish,” and the others (mostly represented by a mustachioed older Asian lady with poor English skills, one of the show’s more obvious stereotypes). “It’s tribes. It’s not racist,” says Morello (Yael Stone), a white inmate. And to be sure, the black and Latina inmates occasionally appear as racial caricatures. But the interesting thing about the show’s dynamic is that the very fact of the environment’s extremely racialized structure allows these caricature  moments to be “surface,” to be othered perception or extreme self-awareness (as with Tasty’s impassioned defense of fried chicken in her WAC campaign speech). Racial stereotypes show up on the show, but the story doesn’t stop with the stereotype—you keep learning about and fleshing out even those who may have seemed one dimensional, and you do it in a setting that is hyper aware of the social realities of race.

As for Piper’s privileged status: creator Jenji Kohan recently gave an interview with NPR in which she called Piper her “Trojan horse” into the more interesting, more diverse show setting of a women’s prison. Translation: she sold it with a white middle-class protagonist but doing so allows us to access to poor minority characters as well as issues specific to being in the prison system. I feel like this is both a sad acknowledgement of the reality of the television landscape (shows with minority leads, especially ones representing a lower-class background, have much more difficulty getting aired), and a canny way of working the system to still tell really great stories about minority women in prison. Some of the show’s best characters are the supporting ones: the aforementioned Tasty (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and, notably, Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender black woman played by a transgender actress—still a rarity on any kind of TV.

In this, “Orange” reminds me a bit of the often terrific ensemble cast of “Lost”: a white romantic triangle at the forefront (Jack, Kate, Sawyer) but a giant diverse supporting cast who got significant screen time and complex parts to play (most notably, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Korean couple Jin and Sun, and Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid; though, to be fair, Andrews is British of Indian background in real life, continuing a long tradition of Indians playing Arabs).

Perhaps an interesting counterexample to this white lead, diverse ensemble phenomenon can be found in Shonda Rimes’ “Scandal,” starring the amazing Kerry Washington. “Scandal” has been much touted as having the first black female lead on network drama since 1974. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is the epitome of power and grace, a major player in D.C. politics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum refers to the show as a “post-racial fantasy.” Basically, in the “Scandal” universe, race is never an issue. As such, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s simultaneously status quo-reinforcing. In some ways, “Orange” is the opposite of that.

While it’s screwy that television and media still work this way, and while there’s plenty to criticize about a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” I think we should still celebrate its small victories. And hope that its good qualities are pointing our media landscape in new and ever-better directions.

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