year in rear-view

January 3rd, 2020 § 1 comment § permalink

Last year I took more selfies than in the previous 42 years of my life combined. Just checking out who is there, every day, what is this amalgam of particles at any given moment and how are they/we reflecting light? I wasn’t sure I would come back to this place of wanting to write here, and I had almost chucked it. Then…

About two weeks ago I started writing. Furiously! Like in a fever! Since this came over me I have been pawing at backs of envelopes, half-used legal pads, newly-nested folders on my laptop. If you have seen me in the past two weeks I have most likely asked you for a pen, pencil or paper.

But you haven’t seen me, have you? I haven’t been around. I myself am not privy to my precise location at all times. It is in the looking that one scoots away. Like that old butterscotch candy deep down in your bag, fishing around for it drives it deeper down through the tear in the lining, elusive.

Elusive and a bit sketchy. It has been a year! Everyone is going on about the decade and I am like hey now, can we just pause a bit and digest the year? It was a big bite. Bitter pill, just desserts, and ultimately just what the doctor ordered. Elusive and a bit sketchy.

So what now of me, here, where ever this is? Its time for JUBILEE. If the bags feel too heavy, set them down. If emotions become weapons, trade them for ploughshares. If you’ve been busy counting all the beans, cut it out already and plant them. I’m the one to talk, I’ve spent too long on trying to be seen as right and good. Enough, enough, enough. It matters less what you can give me/what I can give to you, and more what we build here in this time together. Is it peaceful? Is it beautiful? Fun? Does it just generate more transactions or does it build a nest, an ark, a space that grows and holds us all? Is it the ever sketchy and elusive “enough”?

 

subir

March 25th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

When we first arrived in the Robeson group of islands, we soon were visited by curious kids out on their canoes, messing around on the final days of their summer. Kids as young as 5 or 6, out in a tippy dugout with an even younger sibling operating the bailer, would cruise by, hollering a few words of Spanish and laughing at everything weird about us and our boat. My call out ,“Chao, bacalao!” still gets a big laugh, and I am suspecting that some day I will learn its some naughty phrase in the Guna language.

Ultimately, the bravest of the girls asked/declared, “SUBIR.” And after a smile from me, subir she did, clamoring up from her ulu and pulling up kid after kid after her, finishing with young Mirian, a toddler no more than 2. After those first pioneers, we had Guna kids tumbling around our boat every afternoon, like clockwork.

Fabio ran a fishing clinic, where we provided hand lines and a bucket and just watched the older boys jig fish after fish after fish. Down below, I deployed a bag of colored pencils and markers, and subdivided notebook paper into mini canvases. As the sun set, we would hang up the drawings on the lifelines, divvy up the fish, and enjoy our magic hour speaking gobbledygook with other people’s babies.

At first, we were wondering, is this ok? Gringo-Guna relations have a long and checkered past, resulting in the conservative approach practiced today by all. Yet here we were running an unlicensed summer camp for half the island. We knew that the whole operation was being lightly monitored via tiny whoops and whistles sent back and forth with home. So we rowed close to shore and waved and greeted and smiled. We figured out who went with who, and met the parents. And so for about a month, that was our job.

But our daycare was not built to last. One evening at the congreso, the topic of “Should the Kids Subir” came up. Guna government is a constant, iterative conversation. In the evening, the community meets in the special hall built for that purpose, the leaders sing and discuss the news of the day, and here decisions are made. It was decided that kids on boats could end badly – an injured kid or an injured boat. They sent word via our go-to-guy Justino, who intimated they do not want debts with sailboat people. Hecho.

It was sort of a relief that the rules were crafted to meet the situation, and that Guna government is instantaneous in its implementation. We were becoming a popular destination and were getting worried about carrying capacity. Now, with our pals forbidden to subir, we wave at each other from a polite distance, shout “Chao bacalao!” and are still consumed in peals of laughter.

Now school is back in session, and we have visited the pals in the classroom. We got dressed up school colors and helped them with their English vocabulary list. When we left that day, the girls who run the tienda by the dock asked to take selfies with us in our finery.

This is getting long, and I am nowhere nearer the point. The deeper thought I have about our life here, is that we in a massive retraining on just how to be on someone else’s turf, where the boundaries are and how permeable human relations can be even in the most structured setting.

We were not privy to the larger discussion about kids on the boat. That conversation most likely tied back to previous experiences with extranjeros that left damage. It is also likely that we, just by being who we are, have the potential to cause damage as well. I catch in myself a colonist mentality – what would I do with this piece of land, the port could work like this, the airstrip like that… As a not just a gringa but also a planner, I am double danger. My mental map is always switched on, and it can get in the way of kindness if I am mentally planting flags all the time.

I have become very inhibited about photographing, or holding a camera at all. I don’t photograph crowds or people I don’t know well. Looking back, how many photos have I taken of strangers in NYC or some plaza in Italy? Now, here, it feels like cultural theft.

What I have to remind myself, and what has finally become a source of relief is that “this is not FOR you.” I just happen to be here. The boat makes it more possible to be here with minimal economic disturbance, because we can live quite independently. We barter for most things, and contribute to the town coffers by using the public lancha every so often. Although gender is fluid here, work is super gendered, so Fabio goes off to fix solar panels while I coo over embroidered molas and occasionally add one to my stash. We try our best to add some value.

Which leads me to a simple idea that was actually Fabio’s. He asked the director of the school what she needed, then stopped talking and listened. We were standing at her house on one end of the island and it was a chicha party starting that day. Chicha Fuerte is a  moonshine  that gets made in a special hut for that purpose, and once its ready, everyone gets super lit. Its a special occasion! Big dishes of candy, big dishes of suelto cigarettes, women dressed to the nines, the men bleary eyed and askew.

He said, hey we can do English class but what else do you or the school need? In response, she immediately beelined it through the early stage chicha party to the schoolhouse to show us the flooding they experience any time it rains, and where it comes in the classroom, and described how much worse it gets in the wet season, which is just about to begin.

Dear reader, do you know about me and stormwater? In short, I am a fan! If there was one thing I was expecting to hear, it was not stormwater. Yet there it was, clear as the erosion patterns under the eaves of the building and the high water sediment marks on all the walls.

So I went back today, just me this time, to survey the site with a camera and tape measure. An older lady in traditional dress dodged out of the frame when I warned her a photo was coming. As I studied the ground, a man still in chicha mode asked me carefully in Spanish, “So what are you thinking?” as if I were a doctor making a diagnosis.

“I’m thinking we need to keep the classroom from flooding!” I said. He enthusiastically agreed.

Back by the dock I stopped in the tienda to buy loose eggs at room temperature. You can just say how many you want! The shop attendant showed me the selfies she took with us when we were dressed up and we swapped numbers to share the photos. I carefully put the open package of eggs in the dinghy and rowed back along the shore, waving to pals and pals’ moms, boys jigging on docks, and other folks in tiny boats.

purge

October 29th, 2017 § 2 comments § permalink

In my various glancing blows with success, I have had the most humbling experience of rising to the level of my own incompetence. These moments of exposure to my own shortcomings and blindspots are seared into my memory along with the moments of professional bliss, those days when projects came to fruition, grants were awarded, awards were granted, or teams carried ideas further than I could have ever dreamed on my own.

I keep the dark days there, in my mental trophy case, as triumphs on par with the days I stood in the sun.

How else would I know the precise tone and timber of my own internal voice? How else would I know the sublime relief of amending a misstep? Would I have ever grown confident enough to take on risk without (extreme) fear and panic?

Today we lost a job lead to crew on a Swan. We don’t know and we may never know why, but the overall negotiation was dysfunctional, and we already understand that we partially dodged a bullet. When I do recover from this – go all the way through the disappointment, shame, reflection, and acceptance – the experience will ultimately go up on that shelf. But before I can do this, there is a bit more to wring from it.

Having had a rather non-linear career well into middle age, I largely missed out on the benefits of performance review from senior professionals. One of the best opportunities I ever had was to attend a Rockwood Leadership Institute training and receive a “360 degree peer review”, which was simultaneously one of the most uncomfortable and valuable experiences of my professional life. From a packet of anonymized feedback on Day 3, I learned that I could be tough on my colleagues (which at times was motivating and other times wearying), that I took professional defeats quite personally, and that I was not very confident doing fundraising.

I saw much of this emanating from a central lie that there is something “less” about my work, so that I have to continuously put in more and minimize what I ask for in return. This has something to do with working while female in mostly male-dominated spaces, as well as formative experiences in the more behind-the-scenes realms of advocacy. Both factors made my work invisible in certain ways, and it became my desire to be a mission-driven magic-maker who needed nothing yet could do everything.

The wheels fell off on that type of thinking long ago.

Today, having side stepped this trajectory, I have somehow taken control of the role of money in my life and the value of time. Financial health has gone from being a topic I dare not speak of to an exciting project I get to unwrap, examine, debate, and tinker with. Day to day, I focus on living with maximum freedom and minimum expense. As we have less stuff, we somehow end up with more time. I am very proud of this, because it was terrifying to change course. I had to trust another person (my husband), which was also new and weird.

I once described this chapter to my Dad as “economic stasis”, which I believe describes it well. But at a certain point, we will have to find a way out of it.

When I work now, I pay close attention to where I feel stress, and where I feel purposeful. What type of work “flow” comes readily, what requires more self discipline, and where I may succumb to procrastination and self-sabotage. I try to compare this info with what professional goals I have left for myself and chart a path from here to there.

In the interest of being totally transparent here, which may or may not be a smart move on such a tumultuous day, my current professional goals are:
1. Work on an expedition or research vessel;
2. Publish more papers, personal writing, and ultimately a book of non-fiction about sea level communities;
3. Live and work in a land management capacity doing conservation (ecosystem, wildlife, foodways, remediation, water quality) at a watershed scale;
4. Be intentional and overt in my commitment to intersectional justice while doing any or all of the above.

When I lay it all out like this, I can see how the opportunity lost today was not a direct link to any of these goals. If I continued to look at it sideways, as I was doing, or if I added a few more items to my list, as I am totally open to doing, it would have made more sense.

What weighs more heavily on me today, is that it definitely lined up with the goals of another person (my husband), who is going through a recovery process of his own.

Where Am I?

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