Peace Corps Armenia: Lingua Humanis

“Come for a walk with me,” my host sister said. I looked up from my homework.

Noritz?” I asked. Again? I didn’t catch the quick Armenian the first time.

“Take a break,” she urged.

Ah, Hastgatsa,” I understood this time and shut my book. It had just poured outside, but the sky lit up a buttery yellow, in that way that reminds you that pretty much anything can be beautiful if you remember to look.

We walked to a neighbor’s house, where pastel colored water streamed off the roof and down lilac bushes and I taught the words for “garden” and “tomato”, and happily accepted a cup of coffee.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” a neighbor asked me.

“Salt—“ I began, then corrected myself, because the words for salt and garden sound similar to me in Armenian. “Garden very beautiful.” No article, no auxiliary.

He smiled anyway, and didn’t correct me. We traded garden words while the tsirani tsarr (apricot trees) and kanache (greens) shimmered in the sun and drying raindrops.

 

Language has been so hard for me. I’m self-conscious about how stupid I feel like I sound, and my American accent, and not learning quickly enough.

But my host sister speaks just enough English that we have a third language that is only for us. We speak in an Armenglish that gets the point across, and even without that, my Armenian is at its best when I’m with her, and when she praises me I know she really means it.

“You’re speaking well today. Really well,” She noted the day after I came home from site visits. I grinned, and really felt like I was able to communicate more than just a little.

 

The language barrier falls away completely when she sucks me into a dance in the kitchen. It’s one of those things that I did in America all the time—put on an old song while my sisters and I spun around the kitchen in socks dancing and flinging flour. Here, in a different kitchen on a different continent to a different song, we dance and spin like it’s nothing because there are some languages that are universal.

Like the one where you fling water from the hose at each other and laugh, or where I help clean the dishes so she’s not cleaning alone. Like her blow drying my hair and brushing it back off my forehead, pointing the blow dryer at my head like a gun and laughing. Laughing again over a dropped cucumber or laughing for no real reason at all, so hard that my cheeks and sides hurt.

Like the language where I am just a little sick and fling myself on to the couch with a dramatic sigh and announce in broken Armenian that I will soon be dead, and my host sister snickers and tells me doo verch nes, you’re the end.

Like the language where she teaches me to use the stove correctly and cook her favorite foods, and I help her make American style pizza. Like when she talks to me in quick Armenian and it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand understand, because I still get it, because I remember being sixteen too, and how that feels. Or a hand on your forehead when you’re sick, a head on your shoulder, a quick smile.

Within the safety of friendships and kitchens, language and words lose their weight, the forgotten auxiliaries and strange accents are stripped away, and you’re left with the remarkable sameness of every person, and a good reason to listen.

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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: With Dust in My Hair

The sole of my hiking boot split clean off halfway home. I stopped walking and stared at the mangled boot in some sort of humbled disbelief, a thin song playing in old ear buds. I had bought the boots for four dollars at a thrift store in Northern Wisconsin. I had put at least 200 miles on them between then and now. I’d stuffed them in a suitcase and lugged them to a new hemisphere. And now, after this, they had the audacity to disintegrate while I still had a quarter mile’s muddy walk.

I didn’t have a good fix for that. There’s no textbook solution for how to fix the bottom of your only pair of boots on a dirt road in the mud. So I kept walking, sole flapping pathetically against my sock, and wondered what the hell it was I wanted that brought me here.

Bees hummed in peach blooms so loud it seemed like the whole tree was buzzing. The smell of wood smoke snaked through the village, sparrows and small birds I didn’t know the names for shot across the sky. Two hundred miles for four dollars isn’t so bad, I reasoned with myself, my sock now soaked through.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, and tried to ignore the metallic taste in my mouth. I want to be here, I reminded myself. My shoe was broken, my language skills stagnant, and my feet wet. I didn’t feel like a good English teacher, or good Armenian learner, or frankly good at anything, while the loud flap of my broken shoe hit against my muddy sock.

Duct tape, I thought. You need duct tape in your backpack. I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sheer task of a quarter mile.

That was the first time I really, really wondered if I’d made the right choice. I feel like I write about walking a lot, but I suppose that’s the only time I have alone, the only time I’m stuck with my thoughts, and the only time my boots break and I walk in the mud.

So I stopped walking on the muddy road and asked myself what it was I really wanted that brought myself to said muddy road.

I wondered if I remembered a year ago, in my writing tutoring job joking with a coworker about wanting to teach English forever. Did I remember her question— why not? Or how I came in the next week and told her I had thought about it, and I was serious, I was going to do it?

I wondered if I remembered how badly I wanted to teach and be that good role model, omni-positive, well-adjusted, with all the right flaws for the younger girls watching me, as if that were a good for thing for either them or me. As if you could ask someone what it is they want and get an honest answer.

I wondered what the point was if I wasn’t good enough at the language, or good enough of a teacher, or able to find a silver lining all the time. What is the point if I can’t even find a good fix for a broken boot on a muddy day?

Right then, there wasn’t a good fix. At least not one that I could think of. The best fix was to tough it out for a quarter mile, and then change my shoes and socks

But the rest of it? I am good enough at the language. I am a good enough teacher. And I do know what I want, why I want to be here. And next time that I stop and take a break on the side of that road, my hair caked in dust and my shoe breaking at the seams, maybe it’ll be a little easier, or funnier, or at least better. And next, I will have that duct tape in my bag.

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Detail at Noravank

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The muddy road

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Apple pie and coffee we made for my host family

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A literal page from my journal in case I didn’t already overshare enough on the internet!

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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!)

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: Raw Garlic is Spicy

I was planning on seeing my bad day all the way through, while I kicked a stone down the road in a pair of shoes not meant for distances measured in kilometers.

These shoes are my only pair that have seen three continents. I got them in Norwich after I soaked my old favorites beyond repair in a London puddle. Now, my three continent shoes trek down a dusty road in the Caucuses, soles thin enough that my toes can curl around rocks.

I think the thing about “bad days” is what lies in the definition. One whole day can’t possibly be all bad. There are 24 hours in every day. We don’t really have 24 consecutive bad hours. We have one or two frustrating, or embarrassing hours, which go on the color the rest of the day.

Kicking that stone down the road as I walked, I was okay with letting those hours dictate the whole day. That was my plan right up until I pushed through the gate and looked out into the garden and caught my host sister’s eye.

She grinned and waved me over. I set down my backpack, following the maze between plants to where she stood.

“Maddy, ary!” She told me. Come.

I followed. I had never been in the garden before. She led me out past the apricot trees all lit up orange in the late light and out to a field where you can see three mountains at once.

“What town is that?” I tried to ask.

“Yerevan.” She answered, rattling off the Armenian names of the mountains too, having me repeat. Then we moved on to the trees, tsirani tsarr (apricot tree) and popok (walnut), and she taught me the names for plants that I can’t remember, chem hishoom. Armenian sounds prettier than English, with sweet “ah”s, long “oo”s and “zh”s, or the throaty “kh” and “gh”—sounds my own metallic American accent can’t quite replicate. In the garden though, my nasally accent didn’t matter so much. Bees hummed around us, and the sun sunk low, so we were in the shadow of the mountains, and I forgot all about the bad day I had decided to have.

 

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I’ve grown to really like that long walk, the one that’s a little too long for the shoes from Norwich. I especially like it in the morning, because rounding the corner I can see Ararat. If it’s light out, and the clouds are right, the snow on the peak looks orange or pink.

I was distracted, watching the mountain when the dog jumped at me. I cursed in English, and shoved a knee at her.

Voch,” I told the dog, walking a little faster.

I’ve always liked dogs. They don’t really scare me. Which, it turns out, is probably dumb.

She growled at me. Another dog joined. Fantastic, I thought. The first dog, the white one, bit at me, her teeth snagging the back of my shoe.

“No!” I turned around, snarling at her. You know, how you snarl at dogs? Like somehow if you convince the dog you are also a dog, it’ll leave you alone? This wasn’t my thought process. I didn’t have one. Hence, snarling at the dog.

Either way, the dog backed off.

The next time I passed the house with those two dogs was in the afternoon, and I was prepared. I picked up a large stone and held it in my hand.

The dog lounged in its yard, belly up, eyeing me and the rock.

“Don’t think I won’t,” I told the dog in English, both of us knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t. “I’m not afraid of you.”

A little afraid of her teeth for sure, and I could’ve sworn she was bigger.

The neighbor girl who lived in the house popped her head out and waved at me, eyes flickering between me, the rock in my hand and the dog.

Vontes es?” she asked me, raising an eyebrow, probably wondering why the strange American girl with was afraid of a small dog napping in the sun.

I blushed. “Lav, uh, lav em!” I called back, quickly throwing the rock away.

Good, I’m great. Super normal. Not threating a thirty-pound dog with a rock.

She laughed at me, and walked with me ways. The dog hasn’t bothered me since, as if embarrassing me just that once was her end game, but I still grab a small rock when passing by early in the morning, just for the peace of mind.

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“Garlic not spicy!” I argued in broken Armenian.

My host sister looked at me like I had come from the moon. “Shat ktzoo.It’s very spicy. Mi rope.” She stood up and crossed the kitchen.

My host sister brought out a tiny clove of garlic and waggled it in my face. “Sktor?Garlic?”

“Ha, same, nooina!” I replied in the Armenglish I’ve been using around the house. My host sister’s English is excellent, so I can get away with a few English phrases here and there.

It should also be noted that I’m no stranger to garlic. Toasted in tin foil over a fire, I’ve eaten a whole clove. I’ve even eaten raw garlic before. So I thought I knew what I was getting into.

My host sister grinned at me. “So you like it then?”

“I like,” I insisted.

“All right, go ahead then. Eat it.”

“Okay,” I said in English, popping the raw clove into my mouth. Chewing. Ready to declare che ktzoo, no spicy, when I quickly changed my mind.

“Oh no,” I said out loud. “Shat ktzoo.” My eyes started to water and my host sister burst out laughing.

“Here, quick, eat some cheese,” she shoved some cheese my way, both of us laughing. I deserved that, I typed into Google translate.


I guess I don’t believe in bad days. You can get chased by a dog in the morning, and laugh later when you’re caught afraid of a puppy. Choking down some raw garlic that I didn’t realize would be spicy is pretty funny from all angles. You can be frustrated and embarrassed, and still, later that day sit in the grass in the shadows and learn the names of the trees and mountains.

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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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Forty Degrees, Fahrenheit

A wave of ice cold water hit me and I sputtered for air. The back of my yellow kayak slid in and out of focus. I grabbed the stern of the boat and hauled myself over, staying low and trying to catch my breath.

“You good?” A friend called from nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint their location. “We can head in. You don’t have to keep trying.”

I crawled back into the cockpit of my boat, putting on half of my spray skirt and then grabbing the bilge pump to pump out water.

I shivered, and wiped some snot off my face.

“I want to try again,” I said, not really believing it.

“If you’re sure.”

I didn’t end up rolling my kayak that day. All 5’ 3” of me couldn’t quite manage to turn a 16ft kayak right side up. I left cold, wet, bruised and impossibly sore, but ultimately happy I had given it another shot. That night, I watched from inside as lightning lit up whitecaps on the world’s largest lake.

For most people, kayaking is a vacation activity, in white sand beaches of Florida, or a leisure activity on your local lake. Kayaking is relaxing.That isn’t quite the experience Superior offers.

Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area. It has a year round average water temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has produced waves as tall as 30 feet, and creates its own weather patterns. The word “lake” is almost entirely incorrect—Lake Superior is a sea.

The Lake Superior experience is completely different than inland lakes and tropical beaches—it’s better.

First paddled by the Anishinabek people, then serving as the highway of the fur trade, Lake Superior remains relatively unknown in the realm of tourism, despite its waterfalls, cliffs, hiking, and paddling.

I worked as a kayak guide in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the summer, where people come to paddle the intricate halls of the mainland sea caves, visit the remote shores of the 22 islands, and have their own slice of adventure. Sometimes this involves glassy water and weaving through lacy archways—other times it involves teaching people how to surf kayaks, chasing off small island bears, or making up a quick way to fix a boat.

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Farther North lie the towering cliffs and basalt of Minnesota’s North Shore, where water rushes into the big lake over red and purple rocks. The farther North you go, the farther you can walk without seeing another soul.

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Michigan harbors the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where the cliffs are stained in reds and greens and purples. Every summer, the park gets thousands of backpackers, kayakers and tourists. I visited in Late September and the park was near empty, with water clarity around 30 feet.

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Lake Superior’s landscapes are widely varied, and the land has a rich indigenous and maritime history. The shores are littered with shipwrecks, and the waters can test any seafarer.

For me, this has always been part of the draw. The remoteness, the towering cliffs, empty beaches, and most importantly, the ice cold water.

“Does it ever get old?” A participant on a kayak tour I was guiding asked me. She had sweet brown eyes and freckles.

I looked up at the cliff wall, Devil’s Island sandstone, red and orange layers, streaks of glimmering rock. The sea caves here are stunning, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sweet purple flowers that hang on to that wall and manage to bloom where nothing else can grow.

“No,” I answered. “No, honestly every day I am surprised by how beautiful something here is. A few days ago it rained like crazy, and we were able to paddle under some waterfalls. That doesn’t happen very often.”

She nodded, satisfied.

The beauty of Lake Superior doesn’t lie inherently in cliffs and cold water. The Lake is both a lake and a sea. The Lake has both tropical-like beaches, and ice cold water. Superior can be calm and inviting one day, and sink ships the next. The Lake can feel completely like my home, and nearly drown me in the same day. The beauty of Lake Superior lies in unpredictability and contradiction, and in being one of the last truly wild spaces.


I wrote this piece a while ago, but didn’t like it. I threw it in a folder labeled “trash” on my computer and forgot about it. I found it recently, and it turns out I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did, so here it is. 

Year in Wrap 2018: Quicksand Edition

I wasn’t going to do a new year’s post this year, mostly because I’m very lazy, but also because I tend to find it a little cliché. It turns out I don’t have anything against being cliché, so here is my new year’s post anyhow!

I post (both here and on Instagram) about a lot of the really cool things I have had the opportunity to do. Inevitably, it paints a picture that I am having fun and in pretty places all the time. So here is a quick list at some of the more embarrassing and downright dumb things I pulled in 2018, accompanied by some of my favorite photos from the year.

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One of my favorites: Grass River Natural Area in May

I got caught in literal Quicksand

I’ve got a long list of things that I worry about hiking alone—you know, bears, twisting an ankle, snakes, being thrown into the back of some dude’s van and ending up a cold case. The usual. I thought quicksand was a thing of complete fiction, stuck only in Indiana Jones and John Mulaney bits.

Turns out, no. There’s this pretty little spot where Otter Creek runs into Lake Michigan, and if the wind is blowing just right, and you’re too busy eating a sandwich while walking to pay attention, you too might stumble into some quicksand and sink up past your knees, frantically waving your sandwich over your head, because if you survive this you’ll still be hungry, and then inch worm out, now cold and damp. My sandwich made it out unscathed, and I had a damp picnic lunch wondering if anyone would ever believe I got caught in quicksand.

(Two of my favorite kayaking photos, August 2018, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore)

Ran for another flight

Last year my sisters and I went careening through the Salt Lake City airport, this time it was Atlanta, and I ended up with Chaco blisters. Again, we made the flight, but not gracefully.

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Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, September 2018

Got asked if we were “experienced snowshoers” and decided sure, why not

How much experience is required for one to be an experienced snowshoe-r? Isn’t it just hiking, but colder? We’ve been snoeshoewing like, in our lifetimes, so that feels experienced, right?

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The only picturesque seagull to ever exist

I got Mono and it was lame

I’m not sure what I did to have the world decide that I deserved to spend my last semester of college sick in bed, but it was lame. Shout out my mother, for putting up with me.

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US Virgin Islands, December 2018

I hiked through a hailstorm

I thought it would be fun to go for a hike on my day off. Did not check the radar. Cue quarter sized hail and standing too close to a river/ flash flood zone. Living large my friends.

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Waterfall detail, June 2018

I capsized a kayak in flat calm water by accident

Listen, everybody capsizes their kayaks, especially starting out, or just having fun. On a beautiful day this July, as a guideon a kayak trip, I flipped and took a swim in the drink. I’m not really sure howper se, but it was near the wreck of the Fedora, and while I know nobody died on that shipwreck, I’m still going to say it was a ghost. I would like to emphasize that it was flat calm, and I was in a pretty stable boat. I have no idea why I flipped.

I got to spend the rest of the trip pink faced and damp. Which, coincidently, is sort of the natural state of being for anyone who kayaks.

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Northern Wisco, August 2018

I puked in a pit toilet on Sand Island

And like, hung out there for a little while on the floor. A very dignified place to be.

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I’ve been up to shoot about two sunrises this year. Two out of 365. This is one of them. The other sunrise was on Sand Island in Wisconsin, at about 5:30 am, and the only reason I had been up at all was because I’d spent the night running the quarter mile back and forth between my tent and the pit toilet to puke because, like the badass I am, I ate three (yes three) rolls of brie cheese. Now. Sand Island is full of bugs— mosquitos, blackflies, you name it. So I’m in full bug-gear wearing a big net, running through the woods in the dark (who knows where my headlamp is) and I’m running to the pit toilet rather than puking in the woods because of the bears. You see, I was pretty sure if I puked near our campsite, I would attract some island bears and have a whole new problem. So back and forth to the pit toilet (quarter mile) all clammy and feverish and swarmed by flies and finally I feel better enough to sit. I pop a squat at a bluff at the edge of the lake, shivering and sipping at some water. Eventually the birds start to sing and the lake is completely still and a little bit of wildfire smoke from the boundary waters to the north lingers over the water and the sun rises, big and bright red. And this is one of my favorite memories from 2018. It’s no secret that Instagram is a total highlight reel, but not every highlight feels like a highlight at first. Happy new year everyone 💗 I hope your year is filled with all kinds of highlights.

A post shared by Maddy Marquardt (@maddymarq) on

Read post (above) for the dramatized version with a sparkly new year’s message at the end.

All in all, I had a nice year, and I hope you did too. Wishing you the a quicksandless 2019!

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(This is my favorite photo that I took this year. May, 2018, with the best model any big sister could ask for.)

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.)