Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sharing adversity is a tender foundation for building bonds.

Yesterday, my flight on Malev Airlines was delayed by about 1 hour. When it came time to board, everyone rushed for the gate and waited anxiously to get on the plane. Sitting next to me in the waiting area was a family: a dad, a mom and two or three kids. When business-class passengers were invited to board, the dad stood up and headed for the plane with nary a glance back, leaving his woman and kids behind to board with the rest of us. This did not feel right to me.

Then, when our flight finally arrived in Budapest, I was in a rush to make my tight connection, but tried to remember to still be polite. After all, pushing my way around wasn't going to save me enough time to be worth it. As I stepped down the aisle to deplane, that same woman, the one with the husband enjoying business class, shoved in front of me as abruptly as you might imagine, brusquely forcing her way off the plane. I felt I should be patient with her, in fact sorry for her, because her husband sat in business class reading the paper while she accompanied the kids in economy.

Arriving in the terminal, I learned that I had in fact missed my flight. A total of 8 people had missed flights, and 4 of us were destined to Beirut. The woman at the transfer desk was stressed out and rude. Many inconsiderate decisions were made, such as requiring passengers to share taxis to the airport and to carry all luggage to check in again the next day. One of my fellow Beirut travelers was even being sent back to London to start his trip all over again! Malev did the bare minimum of their legal requirement as far as looking out for us passengers, but really we were treated quite poorly. (I even went to the "help desk" this morning and filled out an official "complaint form"!)

But a lovely thing happened. The worse the airline treated us 8 strandees, the better we bonded with each other. The Beiruti being sent back to London blew me a kiss as we left him behind, visa-less and therefore unable to sleep in a hotel. The other Beirut family had a little girl who started out terribly cranky but actually warmed up as we all trekked from assignment to assignment together: security, wait for attendant, immigration, pick up bags, wait for taxi, etc. By the end we were almost having fun, and her parents and I became friends as we helped each other with our bags and immigration questions.

When we arrived at the hotel, a couple that was headed for the Balkans went to the bar and ordered a drink. I saw them there when I was asking a question at the front desk and ended up sitting down with them for a lovely chat. The other strandees and I exchanged our own share of banter. As I settled in for my 3 hours of sleep at a discount hotel, my heart was full after sharing pleasant moments with strangers in an unpleasant situation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Taking things for granted

I live in an amazing home. My apartment sits halfway up a mountain overlooking Port au Prince. I can see the city and the sea beyond. We have a lovely saltwater swimming pool with a waterfall, surrounded by flowers and hummingbirds! Yesterday I had the chance to see it all through new eyes, as we had friends over. We did appetizers by the pool, dinner in the garden, and late-night chats on the roof and in our flat. Everyone was in awe.

I'm no longer in awe. I want to be. I know it's beautiful, and some days the rain and the sun and the city dance in truly fabulous ways. But because it's what I see every day, I don't stop to lose myself in the beauty anymore. Some days, when there's a particularly impressive sunset, I do. Sunsets can do that. But otherwise, it's just home now.

So maybe it's a good thing I'm leaving. For some reason God created us to take awesomeness in small doses, and I really don't want to take it for granted.

Friday, August 13, 2010

doormats, brutes, sissies and shrews

The other day I tweeted what was on my mind:

Why are us women almost always either submissive, or belligerent? It's so hard to learn to just be confident and content...

In the comments thread, an interesting discussion got started, but I think I see it differently from most of the people there.

My perspective is formed by living in a social milieu of strong women: tough, thick-skinned, don't-take-no, powerful women. Women who are changing the world, one million dollars at a time. Women who supervise dozens of engineers. Women who supervise men who supervise dozens of engineers. Not to mention the women who are doing government advocacy, writing controversial books, heading up information technology for large companies, or training all the teachers of an entire nation. Do not mess with the women I work with. Do not mess with my friends, who I admire, respect and love dearly.

I really do respect these women. But sometimes when us women get together, I feel like we are on a crusade to prove that all this power is, well, really really powerful - and deserved. That we are not doormats. This translates to everything being taken personally. If I got a smaller (more 'feminine') car than usual, it's because someone thought I can't drive. If someone suggests there's a problem with my project, it's because they're really saying I'm not qualified to be a manager. If a publisher rejects my book, it's because they held me to an unrealistically high standard - just because I'm a woman.

"Just let me get on with my life!", we cry. But I think what we're really saying might be, "After centuries of disadvantage, it's plain old not fair that I'm a woman - so you know what? Just don't mess with me at all."

In my world, I don't spend a lot of time with the women my peers and I seem to be eager to avoid becoming. I don't know many women who wear on their sleeves that they're lacking in self-esteem, the ones who believe that men are inherently better than them - well, maybe they don't think all men are better, but they do believe that the ones who have a say in their life are leaders for a reason. I know such women exist, and I've met a few. But my main association with them is in the form of adverse reactions from us shrews. We fight for our masculinized womanhood because we're scared of becoming the doormats.

Hasn't this gone on long enough? All this extremism when a beautiful woman is the one who is confident enough to not show it!

Meanwhile, some of the comments on the thread made a comparison to men. Men are also under pressure, because the 'brute' persona is more accepted while the 'sissy' isn't even considered an option by most men. Maybe that's true. But most of the men I know care a whole lot less than women. If they're brutes, that's just their nature, it's who they are. It's not a statement, nor is it a reaction against who they don't want to be. So I tend to dismiss it and even accept it. If women were shrews because it's our nature, I would probably have to accept that, too. But I don't think it is our nature.

Then again, I'll always be more critical of my own race. I'm a woman and I want to see us get it right: Just enjoy life, enjoy being a woman, Ignore the gender discrimination that we might or do see.

Enjoy being a woman enough to not be a doormat, and don't work so hard at being a woman that we forget to enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Iraqi Violinist

I've known a lot of loss in life. Oh, it's true that I've lived a gilded existence, with a family that loves me, safe from war and hunger. I've never had a major illness and I've never lost a family member who wasn't ready to leave this life. But I've known loss nonetheless... phones, ipods, trinkets... a home, a job, the natural passing on of friends. I've moved countless times, often with so little notice that I've not been able to take much with me. I've left places I've loved, only to return and find that many of the things I loved about them had changed.

I've grown accustomed to loss... granted they've been little losses, but lots of them. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting better at leaving things/places/people behind. Tonight, I fear more loss and find myself pleading God to protect me from loss.

When I think of my petty fears and negligible losses, my mind inevitably turns to the Iraqi Violinist: someone I knew for a short period of time, and only knew intimately for one night - the night I translated his life story as he shared it in an interview. He's gone now, and lives only in my memory. I like it that way: I'm sure I could follow the trail of friends of friends and track him down once, but sometimes when you lose a friend it's best not to search too hard. Some losses are natural and healthy.

The Iraqi Violinist knew loss. He knew some of the little losses, but his experience of the big losses was mind-blowing. He'd lost a home, he'd lost his nationality, he'd lost any sense of security he may have, he'd lost most of his physical possessions. Most significantly, though, he'd lost his peace. He told me of how he hardly ever slept anymore, living as a refugee, the sole brother of four sisters. As a young man he was likely to be targeted by the police for deportation and by gangs for harassment. But he knew his sisters faced even greater risks so, somehow, the fact that he had not lost his immediate family members also became a root to pain and a feeling of loss. Everything he and his family now owned, including his violin, had been obtained through the charity of the local church. He now taught children, managed distributions of aid to other Iraqi refugees, and played violin for church and social engagements around town. But the desperate hole in his heart where his peace and joy should have been was so great, that all he could feel was loss.

Yes, he had lost. But even more sadly, the loss had become a parasite, evoking other, deeper losses in his spirit.

I wonder how he's doing now. I hear he's emigrated to a Western country. Has he started to recover the elusive peace and stability, the way Peter Pan eventually recovered his shadow? Does he enjoy his sisters' company and playing his music again? I don't know. But when I think of him, I feel sad that my own petty losses disturb me so deeply. I've lost the chance to visit friends, he lost his homeland. I've lost a mobile phone with a ring tone that reminded me of a special day, he lost a violin. But then I think that perhaps the perpetual little losses I experience might somehow help me to be a better friend to people like the Iraqi Violinist.

(by the way, a mini-series of fiction I told on this blog two years ago is based in part on the story of the Iraqi Violinist - click on the link "Majid's story" below if interested. In case you are tempted to extrapolate factual connections, however, you'll be disappointed - the story has been way too altered for anything like that.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Humanism and Spirituality

Why is it that humanism and spirituality stand in such stark contrast?

I remember when I was a student at AUB, the legendary Palestinian thinker Edward Said, stopped by to give a lecture on Humanism. (Wow, I just realised he died in 2003. The lecture was - obviously - before he died. That feels like yesterday. I am beginning to feel old.) He is (was) famous and smart, so I sat on the floor in a side room by the packed-out auditorium, and listened to every word he said. But it kind of irritated me: he was talking about how humanism is an important trend in intellectual thinking because it values humanity above all else. We can only know ourselves and people are the most significant element in our reality, so all else fades in importance.

This, in turn, could negate any need for a power greater than humanity: no deity was needed because humanism meant us humans could play the role fine on our own. I personally do believe in God and take great comfort in the knowledge that there is something bigger than myself out there, so I left Dr. Said's lecture slightly disillusioned with one of my academic muses.

It was my belief in God that shoved me toward my current career, as a "humanitarian worker." As I learned about God's love for humanity, especially those with the greatest physical and moral needs, I came to desire to work in a field that would allow me help meet those needs. It was only after a year of working in this career that I realised that the "humanitarian" sector has largely been defined by "humanism". (Once I made the connection, it was kind of obvious, doh.)

I work for a Catholic organisation, so the theory behind our practices and policies is most certainly faith-driven. But my colleagues, for the most part, learned how to do humanitarian aid from non-faith-based institutions. Most of them firmly believe that the extent of our passion and calling in our work - for this is a stressful low-rewards career that requires a high level of personal passion - is the value we place on people. There is no room to prioritize someone, or something, like God, over humanity.

Ultimately, we want to help the same people in the same ways, so life moves on and I can be a spiritual humanitarian right alongside my humanist humanitarians, but I can't help feeling like I'm the one twisting my values to fit the career - after all their two titles match closer than mine.

P.S. There are of course many faith-driven people in this career. They work for the agencies my agency sadly scorns: the Christian humanitarian agencies whose names are probably familiar to any Christians reading this blog. Very few of them come to work for my employer or other employers that don't require a faith-orientation from the outset. I guess if I worked for one of those agencies, I would feel quite comfortable juxtaposing "humanitarian" with "spiritual".

P.P.S. There are few agencies of a significant size and influence that are based on a faith other than Christianity. There are a few Muslim humanitarian groups, and a handful of others, but so far their fame and impact is somewhat limited. This is another mystery to unpack someday...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

an interesting statistic

Worldwide in 1950, there were 12 people of "working age" for each person of "retirement age"

Now, there are 4.

No wonder social security is so contentious! We have 1/3 the funding source of what we had when it was founded! And that's not just the U.S., that's worldwide.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

ten days and counting

It's been ten days since my last post, when I struggled to fill two paragraphs with an explanation of why I didn't write more.

In the last ten days, plenty has happened, my thoughts have overflowed, my emotions have run around like headless chickens - as emotions tend to do. Life has gone on.

But the words still aren't there. I'm sure they'll come back soon, the flow of words from brain to fingers to keyboard to screen is just too much a part of who I am. And I admit, I really miss that flow right about now.