The Things I Carry

Not many people know this, but for over the last week and a half I have been going through a very stressful ordeal concerning my passport. I sent my passport in at the beginning of August to the Ghana embassy in order to get my visa squared away for my upcoming trip. It arrived at the embassy on August 3 and I put it out of my mind, as I typically do not worry about Visa approval, and I was on vacation in NYC with my friend Matt. The last time I put in for a Visa from the time I mailed it to the time I got back, only four days passed—same embassy. So when I returned home on August 8 and there was no Visa I was a bit surprised. But they have about a week business days to process it. And as the days went on and those days were up I started to get very anxious. I called the embassy every day, and on a “good” day I got to speak to an operator who would then transfer me to a voicemail in the consulate office. No one would speak to me about the matter. I left for vacation without my passport, knowing that I would be leaving in a week upon return. I called every day on vacation, and my mind rarely strayed from the thought of what happened to it. My parents would check the tracking number, and they would see that there was no record of the packet being sent back to me, and they too called the embassy regularly. Finally a few days ago I got through to someone in the embassy and they claimed that the embassy had sent my passport back to me on August 3—the same day it had arrived in their office. At this point I REALLY started to panic, because if what they said was true, it was then August 23, and it would have been 20 days since my passport entered “limbo.” I did not know where to lay blame. FedEx said they never received a package, and the embassy claims they sent it. I began to think about making the necessary preparations to get a new passport, new Visa, and change my plane ticket—a costly but potentially necessary plan. To make an already long story short, I did the only thing I could really do at the time, along with many other close friends and family I had told about the situation. I prayed. And miracle of miracles, when my mom checked again for the tracking number, somewhere out there—who knows who—the package had been overnight mailed to an Indiana FedEx location. And my journey to Ghana on September 3 was back on in full force.What the week and a half made me think about though was more than just my passport.

I never realized what those pages of stamps and visas meant to me until they were nearly taken away from me. I never realized its sentimental value until the first tears fell on the white pillows of my vacation bed. It seems almost trivial, doesn’t it? Crying over something that, although relatively expensive, could be replaced. But every page that is marked of that passport is a memory made, not just in passport history, but also in my life history. From Spain to Morocco, China to the Netherlands, and everywhere in between it is a journey dreamt and accomplished, stamped onto the pages of a book that takes me home. It’s a book that shows that while there is a place I call home and I am a citizen of one country, I am deeply drawn to the homes of other citizens of the world. I laugh every time I see my double stamped entry from the airport in Amsterdam for the same day, just ten minutes apart. I “exited” the Amsterdam area of the airport to walk a woman who did not speak Dutch or English to her connecting flight. I was moved by her story she told me on the flight over from Madrid of her only daughter recently dying in Russia. It turned out, when a guard stopped us, that she had been illegally staying in the European Union for months, and he made me tell her in Spanish (another language she brokenly spoke) that because I sweet talked him, he would not do anything to her, but she must not return once her flight got to Russia. My friend Dan still believes to this day that I was tricked by an old play, and helped harbor either an illegal immigrant or a drug trafficker across borders. And then when I was walking back from helping her, I had to cross back into the Netherland’s territory, and confused workers restamped my passport. It’s those memories, whether of a good story or an amazing time studying abroad or a first time in Africa that those visas and stamps evoke. And I was so upset over the thought of losing it because what are those sentiments to someone else? How could they know or care why the right corner of the third page is slightly creased? My passport is part of the things I carry as I begin every journey. And I realized in almost losing it that there are things I always carry as I start each journey, and why they have a special place in my baggage. In his short story, which is part of a larger book by the same name, “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien writes:

 The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.

Those were the necessities of survival during war. The things I carry are also determined by necessity, which for me are the necessities of reminders and memories along my journeys. Besides my passport, among the necessities are an 8×10-framed photo of my family, one of two stuffed animal bears, and a porcelain figurine of a black angel.

The 8×10 family photo rests in a gold frame, and is always displayed in some prominent position wherever I travel or reside. On journeys were I am mainly on the go, I ease it out of the gold frame so it is easier to transport. The photo dates back to the summer of 2007, when a young girl had just graduated from Cascade Senior High School and had accomplished what she had always wanted to—she was headed out of state, off to the “big city,” to attend a prestigious university. High school graduation was when the possibility of possibilities became very real. My family took a series of photos in our backyard to commemorate the occasion, and my then soon to be sister-in-law captured the full family moment. It’s not even the greatest or perfect of photos in relation to the hundreds of others of our family photos that exist. It was summer, so there’s a haze to the photo thanks to the sun and the green of our backyard. And there’s a glare on my glasses, so my eyes are hidden behind a fuzz of sun and glasses. But every time when my mother asks me if I want another photo for that gold frame, I tell her no. I say that this one is fine, and this is the one I’ve always had with me since it was photo snapped into being. It’s the moment it captures and the people it captures within it. I like to think that when I travel, my family isn’t very far away, and that 8×10, now four years old, photo—even amidst its “imperfections”—is the perfect reminder.

My two bears that I alternate between are named Angel and Mr. Wilson. Angel is quite possibly one of my least ambitious and creative names of my stuffed animals. I have an extensive stuffed animal collection and have names from Lemon Meringue Pie to Ferdinand Amadeus Mozart III. And Angel is named Angel because, quite frankly, she has a halo and angel wings. Mr. Wilson is named because of the shock value whenever I say something like “I miss sleeping with Mr. Wilson.” Of these two bears I always pick one of them to come with me on my journeys—whether they are long journeys of a school year or short journeys of a weekend roadtrip. Some people look at me with disapproval of my age mixed with a “childish” plaything, while others smile at the statement of innocence a stuffed bear comes with. That’s why I love them. They remind me of innocence and unspoiled youth. When I hold them they radiate the type of happy flashbacks only they possess the power to recall instantly. When journeys get rough, that instant connection with soft, cotton fur is a quick respite.

The newest item on my list of things I carry, although still a few years old, is my angel figurine. She is carved of dark brown wood and is kneeling in prayer, with her wire wings fanning out behind her. I’ve been asked before if the fact that she is a black angel is of great importance to me. My answer is yes and no. It’s no because I’m not waging a war against mainstream depictions of heavenly angels.  And it’s yes because it does mean something to me that in the figurine’s physical image, part of my own physical image is reflected, and her call for prayer and her reminder of God’s protection are essential to my life. Mother Teresa said, “Do not look for God in the far land, He is inside of you, He is you.” I don’t think she meant that we are in actuality God, but rather that in our very lives, we can be an embodiment of the type of goodness and love God—in any religion—calls us to take part in.

So the physical things I carry, reflect, as Tim O’Brien writes, “The things men carried inside.” They reflect family, wishes, love, comfort, and more. And as I begin packing for Ghana this week in preparation for my September 3 flight, they will certainly be tucked away safely among the luggage.

My family photo and angel figurine at my apartment in Ghana in 2009
Angel and Mr. Wilson


ANSWERING CALLS…AND NOT THE PHONE KINDS

The sanctuary of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia

Last Saturday I spent the day in Atlanta with my family as the first stop on our summer vacation. I got to plan that leg of the trip, so the history buff inside of me opted to do the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. And I think it turned out to be very meaningful for everyone in the family. This was my second time to the memorial and it was just as powerful the second time. MLK was a remarkable individual. No matter what controversies or facts others can trump up about MLK, one fact remains unchanged: he answered his calling to lead the Civil Rights Movement. And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had not answered that call. Would someone else have taken up the call and come along? Would the minority children of America dare to have a dream? Hypothetical questions are frustrating because you can think of all different kinds of scenarios but it’s hard to tell what really would have happened under different circumstances. So we can’t rely on the hypothetical. We can’t rely on the idea of different circumstances leading to a different storyline, where things still get accomplished and worked out. I do believe in multiple paths to every place that one may wish to go, but one would still have to be committed to that final destination. There’s a quote in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where MLK preached on Sundays, about how he felt called to lead his people. He wrote in one of his papers, “I come to you with only the claim of beign a servant of Christ, and a feeling of dependence on his grace for my leadership. I come with a feeling that I have been called to preach and to lead God’s people.”

I think that having a calling in life can be extremely scary, no matter who you believe is calling you or for what you believe you are being called to do. After all, what is a calling but a strong feeling or conviction, whether by your will or against it, that you are meant to do activity x with your life. And that strong feeling comes from knowledge deep within that your life would not be quite as complete if you did not do activity x. What I have found is that those callings are usually not what we would have wanted, and they never seem to come quite at what would usually be deemed as an “appropriate” time. However, the whole “finding a purpose” in life tends to go from the realm of aspirations to hokey catchphrases, especially within the four years of a liberal arts education. People are always stressing the importance of finding that thing in life that you are good at and pursuing it. Rarely does someone tell you that maybe what you are meant to do isn’t something that you are naturally good at, or is apparent from the start. It’s not always just about what we are good at, but also what we’re passionate about. That brings me back to why callings can be extremely scary. We often don’t feel prepared to have one, and not nearly ready to execute the tasks associated with one. I can think of other reluctant people with callings in life: Moses and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Lincoln and slavery, to just throw out the big names. We remember the end results and the fame, but often forget how ill prepared and ill equipped they felt at first to do what was needed of them. I think that where callings slip into the realm of a hokey catchphrase is when we think that our calling in life has to be something big and grand, rather than it just being something that could rock the ground beneath our very own feet, even if it doesn’t seem to rock the entire world. I would rather have my own patch of green to tend to than to walk through other people’s gardens, wishing I had my own.

It matters less about what the calling is, in the end, and more about whether or not we answer when we hear and/or feel it. It’s definitely easier said than done. There have certainly been things in my life I felt as though I ought to do, but tried my best to avoid doing them, and sometimes, just did not do. And there were always consequences to those (lack of) actions. There’s some pressure when I begin a journey to hope that it will lead me one step closer to what it is I’m supposed to be doing with this life—and that I’ll be good at whatever it turns out to be. I’m beginning to be okay with failing at a task, although being able to shake it off is still new territory. When I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut then a teacher then a Supreme Court judge (apparently I wanted to skip all the formality in between becoming a judge), and then the dream was to be a lawyer. I have managed to accumulate lots of legal experience, from private practices to large legal nonprofits. I’m still interested in the law, but over the years I’ve found something else that compels me to take action in a way the law never quite did. I love the feeling of imparting knowledge to a child. I love that little piece of joy when you see the glimmer of hope in a child’s eyes. And I want to be a part of helping make the world safer and more peaceful by raising generations of children to practice peace before they take action in conflict. And it seems like a lot, and not enough all at the same time, but maybe this year in Ghana will give me some seeds to plant in my garden—or, at the least, some tools to use when those seeds finally do come along.

Revisiting Lessons from a Cowardly Lion

The Wizard of Oz is one of those rare delights in which the movie is just as—if not better—than the book. And who among us who grew up with the story could forget the main characters—Dorothy, the Tinman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow—who were all searching for the Wizard of Oz to help them find something that they did not have or no longer had. But it’s the Cowardly Lion who so desperately wanted the Wizard to give him courage, whose storyline I thought about recently.

Over the weekend my sister and I went to see The Help, as we had both read the wonderful book by Kathryn Stockett. There are few books I would put on the same shelf as one of my all-time favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, but upon further re-reads of The Help and a very well done movie adaptation, I think I’m ready to make some more room near that esteemed bookshelf. There’s a scene fresh in my memory from the movie, in which the pastor of the maids’ church says to the congregation that courage means loving your enemies no matter what they do, and not being afraid to do what needs to be done. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout and Jem that courage is starting something you know that you have already lost before you started, but still seeing it through to the end no matter what. I used to sometimes have the thought that all the big chances to be super courageous had already happened in history—the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. But we find our own courage—big and small—every day, under a multitude of circumstances.

Sometimes you don’t recognize how brave someone is until someone else points it out. One of my co-workers from my last stay in Ghana was from the Uganda branch of the non-profit. His dream in life was to move to America, so I told him the story of how my parents moved our entire family to the States. After I finished the story he exclaimed that he wanted to be just like my father. He said that my father, having less age than he (my co-worker) did now, had the courage and the vision to dream of something great for his family and then see it through. I had never quite thought about it in that manner before. I guess for me personally courage was born in locker-filled hallways and on the playground. The type of courage that teaches you when to let things go, blame people’s words on ignorance, and know when to speak up because sometimes too far was too far and too much had to be told down. The courage it takes to believe differently, act differently, and look differently. For one of my neighbors in Ghana, Evans, courage meant leaving his town for the first time and traveling to another city with me for his birthday. Evans is a generally shy, reserved young man. His mom had me over for dinner every night during my internship, and during those visits, I got to know Evans very well. On one of those evenings early during my time there, Evans made the strange request for me to become his personal motivation speaker because, as he explained to me, he thought that I was very brave and had a lot of self-confidence. Evans thought people in the community believed him to be slow and boring. I thought that was rubbish, but I invented nightly seminars in which together, Evans and I week by week discovered the wonderful traits that I always knew he had. And in that trip to Cape Coast, when the boundaries of his safety zone were pushed, I think Evans realized just how courageous he himself was. He even helped us get back home when all the buses going back to Accra were sold out and I had no idea what to do. It’s in those moments where you smile and realize that one of life’s little jokes is indeed like the statement that it’s not so much what we do that defines us, but what we find ourselves capable of doing when we least expect it.

The Cowardly Lion never needed the Wizard’s power. This proved beneficial for him, as the Wizard had no powers, as is true of so many false tools and people we pursue instead of our own inner strength. Though terrified, the Cowardly Lion stood ready to face danger. To me, courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear but rather in spite of fear. There are many things I’m nervous about as my fellowship year comes closer and closer to departure day, but I’m going to board my plane anyway. Because, at the end of the day, the lessons learned from a cowardly lion prove that courage, in large part, is standing up as tall as one knows how and thinking, in the words of Charles F. Lummis, “I am bigger than anything that can happen to me. All these things, sorrow, misfortune, and suffering, are outside my door. I am in the house, and I have the key.”

Vegas for Friendships

I’m not really the gambling type of girl, although all summer I have wanted to visit the amazing Scott Elfenbein in Las Vegas due to the crazy stories he shares about his job there. However, my recent trip out east to NYC and Cambridge to help move one of my best friends, Matt, into his apartment made me think a lot about my friendships at this time in my life, and how they are a little like gambling. Mainly I was thinking about this because of who I got to see while I was there, as well as who I did not see. And I think it boils down to what I am going to refer to as the “Rachel Schend Effect.”

Rachel is my oldest, continuous friend—we’ve been in one another’s lives since the young age of 7. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, Rachel isn’t just one of closest friends, but someone who I consider to be a second sister to me. When we went off to college, Rachel and I only saw one another on those few holidays that we were both home, and during summer days before jobs and internships took over. And through those lovely occasions we developed a very strange but meaningful tradition that every time we reunited we would meet up at her house and drink cheap wine and eat relatively stale donuts, with our only deviations being one time that we had super dry champagne that was only salvaged by heaps of sugar. But even though those days have become fewer and farther between as we get older, I know that every time I spend time with Rachel it will be fantastic, that we will fall right back into effortless friendship, and all because we remain present in one another’s lives through emails, phone calls, Facebook—whatever means available. We show up for each other, even when we can’t physically show up.

I read in a blog recently that the right people will be your memory bank and will bring out the best in you. But finding the right people means making bets. Bets sometimes pay off big, and sometimes they don’t, and either leave you just how you started or negatively impacted. This past year, I learned a lot about my friendships, such as a girl could keep the same roommates for four years through college and love them even more at the end than at the beginning. I learned that sometimes you meet someone and instantly put them in that enclosed circle of trust. Though I also learned that sometimes you can’t help your friends because they have to help themselves, or that some connections to people have to broken because you may hurt yourself in holding on to someone intent on hurting themselves. In every relationship the willingness to take a chance is a key factor in the story’s plot.

The worst part is having expectations that can’t or won’t be met. I have often asked myself if I ask too much of my friendships, but then again, they are my friends because we should expect that our true, close friends would be the ones we could put in our corner of life’s boxing ring. These are the people I would bet on to take care of me during the fights, and be there with more water,  and clean up the wounds or say a kind word. They are the people I would hope that if I put all the chips in, the risk would pay off in huge life winnings.

One of the most amazing things about my last time in Ghana, is that I still get phone calls from the people in my neighborhood. They remember my birthday, ask me about school, and reminisce about all the good times we had. And they tell me how they are looking forward to having me back with them. Those phone calls cost a lot for people who work very hard to keep their heads above the water, but they make them. It’s time to match that all in bet.