Peace Corps Armenia: Dancing and Lights

A group sits around a table full of food, laughing and clapping. I stand towards the outskirts of the group with my friend, a woman whose first home is also far away. We ask each other about our respective countries in a language neither of us was born into, with long patient pauses while we try and remember new words.

The yellow light from the patio casts my host sister’s silhouette long and gray against the cement, and a song I am starting to know shakes the leaves on the apricot tree arcing over the house. She beats at the pavement quick, and swirls.

I watch while the music pulses faster, and shadows mix with the orange glow of the porch light. Her uncles clap and whistle. Her arms swing and feet pound, never missing a step. She grins with her whole face and catches my eye, and I grin back, full of that feeling you get when you are watching someone you care about happy. Pride, I think, and a secondhand smile.

One song melts into the next and she notices me standing and clapping and grabs me by the wrist and pulls me in, and I find it hard to imagine that anyone could ever feel like an outsider here for long—they’d never let you.


Even the very first day I was here, they made sure to tell me in English that they were a good family, and I didn’t need to worry. They promised me through google translate that even when they were talking in Armenian they weren’t saying bad things about me.

My host mom and sister spent hours trying to teach me to make Zhingyalov haats, letting me mess up as many times as I needed and try again. They’ve let me help cook and clean, and taught me their favorite songs, laughed with me while I tripped over my own feet trying to learn a dance. When my host mom found out my American mom’s birthday was coming up, she made sure I didn’t forget it. (Also, what’s up mom, my dedicated reader, love you!)

“Your mother misses you,” she reminded me. “Don’t forget to call her. And tell her I say happy birthday.”

Yes kpatmem,” I said. I will tell.

I don’t think it can be overstated, how brave you have to be to be willing to take an American foreigner into your home for three months and welcome them so completely. An American foreigner who could really be anyone, from a culture different from your own, with essentially zero language skills. I cannot understate the respect I have for all host families, and the gratitude I have for mine.

I’m wrapping up pre-service training, swearing in as a volunteer tomorrow, and moving to a new place to start service for the next two years. My overwhelming takeaway from pre-service training is how incredibly lucky I am to be here, and how grateful I am for everything my host family has done to make me feel safe and a part of something.


My host sister grabs me by the wrist and pulls me out to dance. Her mother adjusts my arms and smiles and nods, and I don’t mind so much that I’m not a good dancer and probably look ridiculous. With careful instruction in three different languages, I forget to feel awkward and start spinning and grinning like the rest of them.

The Big Dipper stretches across the sky, and the lights from Yerevan glitter in the distance, and here, in the house at the far end of the village, there’s probably enough light for the entire rest of the world.

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(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)

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Some of the fantastic other volunteers in my PST village (love you ALL)
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The face I pretty much made all PST before saying “chem hasganoom/ I don’t understand”

 

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Mount Aragats and the garden

Pre-Service Training Choose Your Own Adventure

Wondering what I’m up to? Bored and want to fight a goose? Look no further than this entirely autobiographic choose your own adventure blog post!

START HERE:

You are currently training to be a Peace Corps TEFL Volunteer in Armenia. You are living in a small village in a valley for training with a host family and several other trainees. Your language skills are bad. You walk a long way to get to class. But you absolutely love it.

1: You wake up at 7:30 to the sound of a crying cat. You get up, wash your face, and start to eat breakfast and realize you’re running late. Because you snoozed your alarm 6 times. You try to tell your host mom that you’re running late, but your language skills, as previously stated, are pretty much zero. Your host mom puts more food on your plate. You…

A: Quickly eat the food and run to language class. Everyone is always little late anyhow. (Go to 4)

B: Start putting away food and pack your breakfast to go. (Go to 2)

C:  Snooze your alarm? What? You’re already out the door and avoided the whole situation. (Go to 2)

2: Halfway to class you run into a goose standing in the middle of the of the road. You try to go left but the goose hisses at you. To the right is a large puddle. You…

A: Brave the goose. What’s the worst that could happen? (Go to 3)

B: Go the long way around through the puddle. Wet shoes are worth your life. (Go to 3.1)

C: Stand there, debating your options for about five minutes, before the goose ganders away on its own accord. (Go to 4).

3: The goose hisses at you, and a million obituary scenarios flash through your head. You pick up a rock (it worked on the dog last week) and the goose backs off. You make it to class on time, feeling like a champion. (Go to 5)
3.1: Your shoes are soaked, and now you have blisters and gross feet. You walk slower because your feet are water logged. And gross. (Go to 4)
4: You are late to class. You try to explain in Armenian that you have no excuse and are just bad at planning ahead. You mix up the verbs “to have” and “to eat” and confidently tell the class that you eat dog. Later, you will write on the board that you are late for the carrot. (Jump to 5).
5: Language class takes four hours, and after you run back home for lunch before another four hours of TEFL training. On your way, a group of Tatiks (grandmas) stop you and your friend to ask if you are amoosnatats (married) and when you say no, they ask if you want to be. You:

A: Play dumb. Say that your Armenian is bad and you don’t understand, and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

B: Tell them you know what, yeah! Yeah, you do want to get married. Who have they got for you? (Go to 6).

C: You don’t have to play dumb because you honestly have no idea what they asked. You’re smiling and nodding, and your friend elbows you to shut up because you don’t know what you’re agreeing to. You remember what amoosnatats means and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

6: That was a dumb choice go pick something better.
7: You are late to lunch. Lucky for you, you eat quickly and still catch the bus to TEFL training on time. In TEFL training, you are assigned your 999thskit. Your group tries to spice it up and make it funny. It’s not funny. You study student-centered teaching and wonder how a classroom that can’t be managed is going to make good classroom managers. Four hours later, you are released into the sweet, sweet freedom that is the hour of 6 o’clock. You go home and eat dinner. After, you:

A: Head out to the soccer field to crush some kids in soccer. (Go to 8).

B: Go for a walk to enjoy that golden hour lighting. (Go to 9).

C: Sit down at the dinner table so that your host family can see you studying Armenian. (Go to 6).

8: Soccer is a blast for about twenty minutes before the big kids show up and prove that you don’t have the classroom management skills you were supposed to be working on. You decide to go for a walk with six other Trainees who had been playing. (Go to 9)
9: You and your fellow Trainees are walking around being loud Americans in a narrow road with houses and fences on either side when, to your absolute delightyou see a herd of sheep. You make a joke about running with the bulls and the sheep hear. All 30 (okay 10) sheep charge (trot) at you. You all:

A: Break into a panicked run to the edges of the road and increase your volume by a few decibels, bringing people to the windows to see what the heck the dumb Americans have done this time. (Go to 10).

B: Let’s be real, A is the only option.

10: You survive the sheep charging but barely. You all leave laughing about it. When you get home, you have dinner with your host family and they help you with a few new Armenian words because they’re super cool. It comes time to shower, and after you’ve already gotten completely naked you realize that you don’t have hot water and don’t know how to do it. The only towel you have is a microfiber backpacking towel, because you’re stubborn. You:

A: Throw your clothes back on and ask for help, explaining the problem with your limited vocabulary and miming. (Go to 13).

B: Tough it out. It isn’t worth the pride hit of getting dressed and admitting you don’t know how to work the water heater. (Go to 11).

C: Tough it out, but not completely. The shower room itself is still hot, so you stand really really close to the heater and try to wash your hair with as little water as possible. Showering is overrated, anyway. (Go to 12)

11: You are cold, but clean. Fair enough, I guess. (Go to 14).
12: You are cold, and not that clean. Better luck tomorrow, maybe. (Go to 14).
13: Your host family is super cool, and always helps you out, even when you say things like “I’m going to be late for the carrot” and “one day I’d like to eat a dog”.  You are warm and clean. (Go to 14).
14: It’s the end of the day, you’re showered and more or less clean. You have a cup of tea with your host sister and study a little Armenian while she studies English. You go to bed and read for about an hour. You wake up at 7:30, but snooze your alarm. Go to 1.

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(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Chgitem

I stand in the middle of a muddy road in what to me, in that moment only, feels like the utter last reaches of the globe. There are two smaller roads off of the one I stand on. One leads home, to the place I will start calling home, where there are warm smiles and people who promise not to make fun of the way I stumble over Armenian and laugh with me. The other road leads somewhere else; I don’t know where. The roads look the same to me—both dirt and muddy from fresh rain that I didn’t dress for, with concrete houses and green grass at the sides. I pause.

A stray dog cocks its head at me. Which road is your road?

Chgitem, I think. I don’t know. My best phrase in a language that seems to choke and die on my tongue.

The mud has caked its way up my boots. The roads aren’t labeled, and I feel a little bit of panic. I don’t even know the words for “I’m lost”. Even so, the stray dog watching me won’t have an answer.

It’s a longer walk to the place that I am staying than my friends have to their homes by just a little. I didn’t have to walk alone, but it seemed so manageable. Less than a quarter mile. Surely I could handle that, a quarter mile in a small town in the Caucuses? Aren’t I a tough girl? Shouldn’t a tough girl be able to decide between two roads?

My host sister in that warm lit house off the muddy road knows quite a bit of English. In the kitchen we exchange kitchen nouns and food words.

I point to an apple. “Inch e sa?”

She grins. “Kndzor.”

“Kandoor,”I repeat.

She crinkles her nose and shakes her head. “Che. Asa “Kn-dzor.””

I butcher the pronunciation again and we laugh.

I grab some silverware. My host mom watches us and smiles. “Fork,” I say.

“Fork,” my host sister repeats.

My host mom smiles and nods thoughtfully before saying “Fack you?”

I look and my host sister, and we lock eyes, neither of us really wanting to admit that we know what that means, but it’s too late. She starts to giggle and soon I am clutching my sides from laughing and trying to explain in broken Armenian that this is “vat tarr”, bad word.

The Peace Corps requires that volunteer and trainee rooms in the host family home have a lock on the door, and they encourage us to lock it, so I did.

I decide about an hour after I say bari gisher that I need to use the bathroom, so I throw on a coat and some sandals and put my headlamp in my pocket—I hadn’t noticed a light before in the bathroom. I go to open my door. It’s locked. Because I locked it. Because the Peace Corps told us to. I mess with the door a little, to no avail. Ten seconds pass. Thirty. I feel blood rushing to my cheeks and curse quietly. Leave it to the Amerikatsii to not know how to open a door.

Kantrumem ognel es?” I muster. Please help you. This is the current extent of my Armenian.

My host brother rushes to my rescue, and between the two of us we pry the door open. He says something to me that I don’t understand and I smile, still blushing. “Chgitem?”

He laughs, and assures me I don’t need to be embarrassed. I rush out to the bathroom, forgetting my headlamp. I realize halfway there that it’s dark, and I might need it, but decide it might be less embarrassing to fumble in the dark than to turn back, so I fumble.

The next morning, I realize there had been a light switch all along and take a minute to laugh at myself, and wish I had the language to explain to my host family how silly I was.

My host sister looks at me and grins, signing the cross before tasting the coffee she had me make. “Che!” I object, laughing. “Lav e!”

She crinkles her nose and takes a sip then smiles. “Ahh, it’s very good, shat lav e.”

Che,” I say.

“No, it is!” she promises. “I am still happy to be alive,” she tells me in Armenian. I am not sure if she is referencing the coffee itself, or what went into making it—ie, me misinterpreting directions on a gas stove almost (almost!) resulting in singed eyebrows. Either way, she has a point.

The shower feels infinitely good as I peel back a layer of dirt. Heated by a wood stove, it’s warm like a sauna and the shower curtain has tiny blue flowers on it and little sparks light up the room.

Later, I try to ask my host brother about the wood stove heating the shower room, and if he needs me to put it out. I pull out Google translate, and he looks at me alarmed. “Vortegh!?”

My eyes widen. “Che! Che.” Not that then—nothing is on fire. He laughs at me a little.

“Don’t worry about it,” He tells me.

This isn’t one of those things that is going to be easy, or good, or graceful, not all the time. It’s not all cut and dry, and some of it needs to be just mine, not something I type into a word document and share on the internet.

Sometimes the vast pool of language that I don’t know is overwhelming. Sometimes I can’t even choose between two roads. But most times? Most times language doesn’t matter at all, and I am doubled over laughing in a kitchen in the Armenian Highlands.

 

(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government.)

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How to Talk to Your Family About Prejudice this Thanksgiving: A Guide to Difficult Conversations

Family members don’t agree on everything, and it’s easy to get into heated arguments. It’s no secret that arguments, yelling, and excommunication aren’t the best way to have an open dialogue.

I worked for several years as a science ethics teaching assistant and writing tutor, it was part of my job to point out micro aggressions in way that didn’t make people defensive. I know firsthand that this isn’t easy, and I wasn’t always successful. After many of my own heated discussions about politics and human rights issues, and some extensive reading and research*, I’ve compiled a list of more productive ways to have these conversations than blocking Aunt Gurdy on Facebook.

 

Why Bother?

It’s a lot easier to opt out of conversations about race, gender, and your family’s bigotry than it is to engage. You are one of the only people good old racist (voting) Uncle Earl might listen to. You are family. Maybe you won’t change any minds, but it’s worth a try. Name calling, interrupting, and food throwing won’t work. Being kind and understanding might.

Realistically, you might not make great grandma Helen not racist. But you might make her think a little, and your little sister, or cousin might hear you. You might make your liberal aunt consider the dangers of white feminism, or you might help your brother understand why some mascots are racist (autobiographical).

I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding and open-minded family, who make these conversations easy. In my own life, most of the difficult conversations happen with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends and they aren’t always successful (read: rarely). But it’s still important to speak to the best of your ability on the behalf of people who don’t have access to that audience.

On that note, here are a few things to keep in mind when having these conversations:

Respect

It can be tempting to yell, be rude, or sling names, but ultimately that’s an ineffective conversation tool. You might say “but Maddy, I don’t want to dignify racism with conversation and respect!” and that’s totally valid. But you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind by sinking to the level of name calling, and it’s important to remember that we all have held and hold problematic views. In high school, I used to think that Affirmative Action was unnecessary, and that it was possible to be racist against white people, and I would probably still think that today if someone hadn’t taken the time to sit down with me and challenge that without calling me stupid, or a dumb kid, or racist. I needed that person. Be that person.

People are never going to feel comfortable engaging you in conversation if you jump to calling them a racist. For me, someone giving me a chance to ask questions without judgement for my ignorance was huge.

(Quick note: This does not apply to people on issues that affect them personally. If an issue that threatens your own human rights no one expects you to hand hold.)

Patience

You’re not going to change anyone’s mind with one conversation. You probably won’t change it at all, especially if someone doesn’t want to change their mind. What you might do, if you are respectful, and patient, and open, is open a door for a dialogue about difficult questions so good old Aunt Alice feels safe asking you “what is a bisexual” or “is Nancy Pelosi satan” or “will you explain why you’re so mad about this Brett Kavanaugh thing?”. You’re only going to get the opportunity to answer these questions if you’re patient and kind. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s effective.

Here is a sample conversation for thought:

Mascots:

Bad:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Funny cause that’s not what you thought when you CRIED because the Packers lost to the Lions. Also. That’s racist. You’re a racist. [Throws mashed potatoes].

 Better:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Hmm. I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you find it a little terrible that most other mascots are animals, and this one is a caricature of a group of people?

 Uncle Earl: Doesn’t bother me.

 You: But it bothers an entire group of people. Do you think that they’re making up that they’re affected by that symbol?

 Uncle Earl: I think people are too sensitive these days.

 You: That’s an interesting thought, and I understand why you might feel that way. But remember when Grandma Pam told you look old, and then told you she meant it as a compliment?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: Didn’t that make you feel bad, even though she didn’t mean it to?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: It’s sort of the same thing with the mascots. It doesn’t matter if you don’t find it offensive or hurtful—someone else, a whole group of people—is telling you that it is.

Listen

Actually allow Great Aunt Gurdy to speak. Aunt Gurdy isn’t going to want to listen to you if you don’t listen to her. Let her finish her horrible, biased thought, and thenreply calmly. Say things like “I hear you,” and “I see where you’re coming from,” rather than “burn in Hell,” and “I hope the president takes your rights away”.

Colin Kaepernick:

Bad:

Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: Oh yeah? I have a thong with the American flag on it, how does that make you feel about respecting the flag?

 Better:

 Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: How so? Isn’t it peaceful protest?

Aunt Ethel: [Says something about the troops, probably. Long winded.]

You: I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think Kaepernick has ever disrespected the troops or said that he meant to.

Aunt Ethel: Doesn’t matter. The troops are disrespected.

You: I hear what you’re saying. But the troops fight to protect human rights, like those in the Bill of Rights. Including freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest. I don’t think there is anything more American than protecting freedom of speech, which Kaepernick is exercising.

Ask Questions

The more you ask, the more Uncle Earl will feel that you care about his perspective, and maybe he’ll care about yours too. Questions are also the easiest way to get people to see problems in their own thinking. If someone reaches a new conclusion on their own, it’s a lot easier to accept than if you tell them what they should think.

Affirmative Action

Bad:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

You: Well that’s racist as all hell.

Aunt Jackie: What? Now I can’t have an opinion?

You: You can’t have that one in front of me you lazy piece of lard. Why don’t you go back to your farm in Hicksville, USA and snuggle up to your MAGA hat and never speak to me again?!

Better:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

[Now there’s a lot to unpack there, and you can only fight one battle at a time.]

You: That’s an interesting perspective Aunt Jackie. Help me understand your thinking?

Aunt Jackie: Why should black kids get a free pass into school just because they’re black? Meanwhile, white girls like you are working hard every day and get disadvantaged.

You: Hmm, I hear you, but I don’t feel disadvantaged. I think a lot of black people feel racism every day and it affects every aspect of their lives. I think colleges need to consider that in admissions. Doesn’t it concern you that people with advanced degrees aren’t representative of diversity within the population? Shouldn’t there be a representative number of people of color in colleges? If the population of an area is 40% people of color, shouldn’t the college also be 40% people of color?

[Aunt Jackie probably won’t let you talk that long, but let me dream.]

Aunt Jackie: No, it’s not my problem.

You: I just feel like everyone’s perspective is so unique and important that I want the voices of people who are different than me to have a say in science and politics too.

Maybe this won’t work and won’t be effective. But the less defensive you are, and more you remind Aunt Jackie that this is about people, real actual humans, not just the group she has lumped them into, the more luck you might have.

Remind them that this about human rights

Make it an issue about people. At the heart of all of these conversations is human rights. Remind your family that this is an issue about people’s voices being heard and respected equally. When your friend from high school says something homophobic, remind her that gay and trans people have human rights. They just do. It doesn’t matter that it makes her uncomfortable. Her opinion should not be so important that it threatens lives.


 

It’s okay if you don’t feel educated enough on issues of race to speak about them (I generally don’t), but don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from speaking.There are abundant resources on the interweb to educate on these issues.

UPDATE (11/19/18): Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, one of my favorite writers, wrote a similar article linked here that I also recommend you check out with answers and dialogue that is wayyyy more articulate than mine!

*Sources:

A lot of this content is inspired by personal experience, but I wasn’t born with decent opinions, and I probably still have some shitty ones. Here are some pieces and educators I have learned from:

People who are better spoken on these issues than I am:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels

Bani Amor, Queering the Environmental Movement

Layla F. Saad, I need to talk to spiritual white women

Bani Amor, Ten Travel Books by People of Color

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, This Photo of Me at the Womens March Went Viral and Changed My Activism Forever

Cali (instagram: @caliwolf), Through Her Native Eyes (blog)

People who helped me write this:

Grandma Pam, who sat down with me to read this and asked me questions about things she didn’t understand (and let me make fun of her and use her name in writing)

Mom, always more patient with me than am with her, and for telling me I should share the techniques I use to talk about these sort of things

YOU**

 

**This is a conversation, and I am still learning. If you have advice, comments, questions, concerns, or would like me to make any changes to this article, please let me know! This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of conversation, and these ideas are mostly just what has worked for me. There is a comment box on this page, and my Instagram dms are wide open! (If you dm me something really patronizing or a personal attack you will end up on my IG story.)

Mist, Cliffs, and Lake Superior: A Photo Essay

Minnesota’s North Shore is interesting; it’s draw is not in sandy beaches or warm water— you don’t go there to work on your tan. This shore line is not soft; the North Shore is hard. Miles of rugged cliff lines, conifers, and the rolling remains of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s got icy cold water— so cold that shipwrecks are perfectly preserved. It’s got biting flies and red rocky beaches. The North Shore has character. It is a different kind of beautiful—tougher, with more grit. Difficult and stubborn. More wild, less comfortable, less predictable, more rewarding. 

I have never jumped in water so cold and so clean. I never imagined I could be damp, cold, and swarmed by biting flies and still appreciate where I am so entirely. I didn’t expect to have my knees shake ten feet from a cliffs edge while tendrils of fog snaked snaked along the lake below me. I didn’t expect to feel complete overwhelmed and quieted at the foot of a waterfall, mist sticking to me, roar and rush silencing any thoughts of my hurting ankle, my hunger, how I was tired, silencing any thoughts at all. 

Up here, they say that the Lake is the boss— she controls the weather, the air pressure, the cliffs, the direction of rivers. She pulls down rocks and ultimately, she can control you a little too.

On Planning: College Campuses are Petri Dishes

I’m writing this a little tongue-in-cheek partly because that’s my default, and partly because I’m bummed, and hanging on to a good sense of humor helps keep my head up.

I’m a big plans kind of person—long elaborate plans or short weekend ones, color coded planner and all that jazz. I had plans for this spring break (that glorious week when college students get to not be in class and maybe go do something fun) but alas, I have fallen ill.

Really, actually sick, not just a cold or a stomach bug. I have mono—one of those fun persistent American college diseases that is a bi-byproduct of sharing drinks and food with everyone you know and living in an actual petri dish. You can google it if you want, it’s pretty gross. I’m pretty much out of commission, can’t really get outside, missing class and work sick. And I hate that, because I had plans to be at work those days, and be at class, and I had plans to not spend my one free week on the couch worried about all the class I missed. And as much as it sucks that I’m missing out, here’s where it doesn’t:

Things just don’t always go as planned. You can write something in your planner in ink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and you have a lot less control than you think you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a fact.

Sure, I knew this before I got mono, and had some minor plans foiled in a minor way, but at the end of the day pulling out plans B and C is always a good learning experience.

I am so very lucky to have my health—mono sucks, sure. And I’m out of commission for a bit, sure. But I am going to better in the next month or two. I can walk, and run, and two weeks of being really sick is still only two weeks. That’s more than a lot of people can say.

Unless it ends up being three to four weeks. Then I’m going to go The Shining level crazy. Send help.

I’m building immunity—now that I’ve had mono, I’m immune to it! Whoo-hoo! Okay, this is a dumb one. I’ll take it off this list.

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Me, staying positive 🙂

I’ve got such great friends and family. Seriously, thanks guys—for bringing me not one, not two, but 32 protein shakes, for sitting with me in the ER till 3 am, for listening to me complain ad nauseam, for picking up my shifts at work. Also mom, here’s that shout out you’re always after, love you, thanks for driving me around and hanging out with me.

I now understand karma. I’m not really a “knock on wood” kind of person, but I am not kidding when I tell you not three days before I got sick I was bragging to several people not only about how I hadn’t been sick in years, but how I hadn’t had missed a shift at work (my teaching job, not the tutoring one) ever. Now I’m not superstitious, but that might have been a bad call.

 

So yeah, being sick is no fun, and I’m missing out on lots and messed up my schedule for a bit, but I’m still really really lucky. All that’s left to do now is make up for the work I missed and try and get back to 100%.

What Makes You Happy

I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.

This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.

This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.

“Do what makes you happy”

People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.

I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.

My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.

A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.

A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.

“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.

Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.

I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.