Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Exploration of a Different Kind

My pal Laurie is a former expat (Libya, Japan, and Singapore to name a few) and intrepid traveler.  We've known each other for years and can often be found swapping stories about our various trips or talking about how we can save the world.  We both love volunteering (in fact, that's how we met), and planning our next adventure.  But every traveler has a transition period, and this is a post about a transition to permanence...and then moving back into transience.  Both are extraordinary places to explore...and this is Laurie's experience.


                         Exploration of a Different Kind                            

By: Laurie Winfield

So in this series, we were asked to write about exploring.  Exploration is of course a very broad term.  In its most literal sense, it conjures up for me a picture of a Ponce de Leon or  Magellan type-guy with a funny hat, a fleet of ships and a faraway look in his eye.

But in reality, we are all explorers. A baby explores taking its first steps; an adolescent explores a first brush with intimacy; and a college student may go abroad for the first time to explore the world—a kind of modern-day Ponce de Leon with his parents’ debit card, a high-tech backpack and a supply of American condoms. As time goes on, divorces, diseases or general dissatisfaction may lead us to a more inward journey to discover a bit of ourselves we misplaced along the way.

I’m fairly sure that since the day I was born, or even before, I was meant to explore the world and its inhabitants, not in a scientific way but more in an anecdotal way. I am told that when I was a barefoot, tow headed, drawling five-year-old, I walked up to an aging great Aunt and told her I was going to be an international correspondent and travel to all the countries in the world. High and mighty words from an oil field kid in a small Texas town, no doubt.

My parents unwittingly enabled that prediction to come true by moving the family to Libya and beyond during my childhood and teenage years, which fueled the fire for more work and travel abroad in my adult years. While I’m not an international correspondent, I do own a trench coat and I’m a communicator of sorts.  I haven’t been everywhere, to be sure, but tallying almost 40 countries isn’t  too shabby  for a girl who might have just as easily morphed into an early Honey Boo Boo.

My travels have not rendered riches--mostly just stories and the realization that there is nothing nearer Nirvana to me than sitting in a Croatian coffee shop, or a Spanish dive bar or a hotel lobby in Chiang Mai, listening to multiple languages and planning my next excursion. To some extent this touch with Nirvana has also been a curse. It has created both a yearning for roots and a disdain for being tied to one place or way of life. I have an early-ish memory of listening to the song “Brandy” on the short-wave radio in Tripoli and identifying both with Brandy’s yearning for a secure love and with her sailor’s notion that he could never give up the sea, even for love.

It was with trepidation that almost twelve years ago, I explored what I deemed to be settling down when I bought my first home. This is something I’d resisted for years in favor of keeping things boxed up and ready for the next adventure should it come along. Yet unpacking photo albums and all the things I had collected through the years was, in an odd way, a freeing experience. And becoming the Empress of my own little empire where I could decorate, cook, throw parties and plant a garden was as much of an adventure to me as hopping a plane to parts unknown. It helped me understand that finding a home and putting down roots didn’t have to be at odds with my inner Magellan.

As I get ready to pack up and move on to my next phase, I will be eternally grateful for the chance to explore 1616 Bridgeway Drive in Austin’s “04.”  After all, it gave me a place to hang my trench coat.

Exploration of a Different Kin

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Exploring Vulnerabilities

Vulnerability is a tough one for me.  Some people come by it so naturally, so effortlessly.  They share their dark fears, their insecurities, their disappointments, their failures.  Me, not so much.  I *can* do that, but I have to trust you in such a way that I know if I divulge those inner darknesses, those painful discomforts that sit somewhere in the confines of my large intestine (kind of between the yellow and the orange chakra if you're into that kind of thing), that you will not damage me further.  You will not play with those vulnerabilities as if you thought they were a set of darts.  My vulnerabilities seem so fragile to me, and so very scary.

I first really started noticing my vulnerabilities around the 4th grade.  This is not a surprise since the summer before I had been in the middle of an acrimonious custody battle between my parents.  The non-custodial parent won, so I moved cities (tiny east Texas town to giant Houston urbanization), moved houses, moved friends, moved schools.  And then, after spending 4th grade at one school, due to the district re-arranging everything, I moved to a different school in the 5th grade.  And then, my parents moved across town, so in 6th grade I changed yet again. (This whole school changing thing happened again in the 8th grade and then again in the 9th in case you were wondering if it got any better - it didn't).

In 4th grade my vulnerabilities were adjusting to new rules, new parents, and abuse.  I won't go into the abuse, not because I'm afraid to share (I'll tell you in person) but because the internet is place where people can find things, I feel like I need to tread very lightly here in order to protect myself.  Suffice it to say, my home-life wasn't great - but I did get a new sister a few months later (new home, new city, and a new baby in the house!) and my new step-mom was wonderful and did the best she could given her own limitations and, oh by the way, she had a new-born and me, a 9.5 year old, to care for.  It was a lot.

In 6th grade, however, I hit that really really really awkward, ugly duck, molting, all elbows and knobby knees and kinky hair, buck teeth and bad glasses, kind of stage.  I'll be honest, I've gasped at a few of the photos.  And my vulnerabilities were all exposed, because I was a living, breathing, ball of hormones and changes. 

 How lovely that the caterpillar gets to wrap himself in silk and go away for awhile, away from the persecuting eyes of pre-pubescent 'mean girls', and then emerge into a glorious butterfly. That was so NOT my experience.

I was not, on any level, a popular girl in junior high (or ever in my life, for that matter).  I remember this one girl Andrea who was in 8th grade (which seemed so old to my 6th grade self) was one of the 'coolest' girls in the school.  She had 80s outfits down like a mini-Madonna: velvet baby doll dresses, lace-trimmed leggings, hair shaved under on the bottom and permed on top.  She was popular.  And 8th-grade-uber-cool-Andrea told 6th-grade-vulnerable-Sarah on the first day of school while waiting at the bus stop, that she was WAY too skinny. (Ok, yes, I miss that problem now, but we're in the past so bear with me.)

I didn't even know there was such a thing as being to skinny, and that it was really un-cool.  And, just like that, I began to have a serious look at my body and be totally insecure about it.  Then there were the glasses; I was called four-eyes a lot -- and it didn't help that my parents had truly chosen the UGLIEST glasses in the world for me.  My lips (for which I'm now ever so grateful), were called cow lips, and I was teased for those too.  Oh, and I learned in the girls locker room while changing for P.E. that Care Bear panties were for babies (note to self, no Care Bears panties after 5th grade).

The cherry on the parfait of this vulnerability was my little sister.  I shared a room with her (we lived in a tiny little 2 bedroom townhouse) and she watched my ever-changing body with the fascination of a kid at the zoo.  I was constantly trying to dress in the bathroom, the closet, beneath my sheets.  Anything to avoid the staring.  We laugh about this now, but at the time, it was traumatic.

So, I learned to hide my vulnerabilities.  At home, because I didn't want to be weak (dealing with the abuse issues), and I didn't like the staring from my sister, at school because I didn't want to appear outwardly hurt by the comments about my ugly clothes, my ugly lips, my ugly, skinny legs, my ugly...whatever. 

As an adult, I'm having to unravel this behavior.  I'm having to learn to re-expose myself to the world.  I'm having to share my fears, my pain, my failures.  I'll be honest, it sucks. The first time I saw Brene Brown's video (and if you haven't seen this - you MUST), I thought "my God, she is me!".  I love to wrap myself in data and measurements and academia (maybe there is a correlation between highly vulnerable people and getting a PhD?)  If I'm researching a country's or a population's vulnerabilities (which is what I do), then I don't have to examine my own. 

Because it feels like putting genital warts on my face and then meeting Daniel Craig to acknowledge my vulnerabilities and talk about them.  Painful.

I don't really do 'resolutions', but what I do instead is, every year I pick a mantra or set an intention for the year.  This year my mantra and my intention is to be gentle with everyone's vulnerabilities, including my own.  To tread softly when they expose them, and to gently relinquish my own and allow them to appear more.

When I first saw Brene Brown's Ted Talk at a TEDx event in Austin, I sat in that darkened room with tears silently streaming down my face.  So many instances of shame were flashing through my mind -- both my own shame, and the shame projected on to me by an abusive narcissistic parent.  The shame and vulnerability I felt in junior high and high school -- the whispers behind my back, the hateful comments about my clothes, my face...anything that was part of me which led me to hate parts of me.

This year I'm going to try and love me a bit more.  Love other people a bit more.  Expose my vulnerabilities a little more.  Trust a little more.

Let's face it, I'm not going to be Mother Teresa overnight.  Or probably ever.  I'm me, and I'll probably always be kind of a scrapper. But I don't have to pick every battle, and I don't have to make every point, and I can just try and soften those edges just a little bit. Be. More. Vulnerable.

What's your intention this year?  What are your vulnerabilities that you're hiding? How are you going to go into 2013?  What are you going to take on, or get rid of that no longer suits you? 

Today, vulnerably,

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hello, Lover.

This year I've decided to devote the blog topics to 'exploration', exploring inside and outside.  Journeys.  Maybe these journeys are new relationships.  Maybe they are new cities.  Maybe they are new vulnerabilities.  Maybe they are new passions. Maybe they are new foods.  But it's all about exploring.  Guest posters welcome -- it's all about your experiences too.


                                      Hello, Lover.                                                

My first glimpse of New Orleans is always driving in on the Bonnet Carre spillway, water surrounding me on either side, and just off to my left, shrouded in swamp mist, the buildings of downtown emerge.  I always feel a little guilty as I’m driving in, like I’m cheating on my hometown of Austin.  If Austin is the blonde-blue-eyed, well-manicured wife, then New Orleans is the pouty, cherry-lipped brunette mistress in thigh highs and a red bustier.  She’s dirtier. Sexier. And you’d never take her to meet the parents. But, secretly, you love her just a little bit more…

I fell in love with New Orleans accidentally. I had no real intention of finding another ‘home’ in my life.  Austin was home, and that seemed good enough – until I started a PhD program at Tulane in January of 2010.

My program required me to complete a year of coursework in New Orleans and I thought I would just move there, take my courses and move back to Austin.  By December of 2010 I knew I was stuck, like southeast-Louisiana-swamp-mud-stuck, on New Orleans.  I stood in Jackson Square on my last day in New Orleans and cried.  I had to put on my sunglasses so the tourists wouldn’t see me bawling.  I was hooked.  She was mine and I was hers.  We met, we fell in love, and now we were going to see this relationship through, no matter the distance.

I just arrived in New Orleans again yesterday (on my annual pilgrimage to the States), because every time I’m back here I need to see her; like an alcoholic on Bourbon Street, I can’t stay away.

I love the Quarter first thing in the morning, after a wild night; shops are opening, people are scrubbing away last night’s debauchery.  I love the big, mossy oaks in Audubon Park.  I love the voodoo, the haunted houses, the eerie fog that sometimes envelops the city.  I love the Caribbean feel, the messy streets, the potholes, the mansions, the universities, the people.  I love the Bywater and the Marigny.  I love Uptown and the Garden District.  I love beignets. And shrimp. And grilled oysters. And poboys. I love being called “sugar” and “sweetie”. 

So, I’m here, to explore again. To fall in love again. 

Today, in Nola,

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Holiday Experiences and Mindfulness

Last Christmas was my first Christmas spent outside of the United States.  The Canadian and I, taking advantage of our proximity to Europe (living in London), took off to Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.  We sat on trains drinking (wine for me, giant beers for the Canadian) and scarfing down plates of pierogies.  We stood in a Christmas market in Krakow, the snow gently falling, as we watched a Polish soldier salute the baby Jesus in a live creche scene while the choir sang Silent Night (I'll admit, I was a little weepy during that experience).  We walked down a path skirting the Danube in Bratislava, passing a trio of silver trees, standing like Christmas sentries along the river.
Bratislava at night
We were in Berlin on Christmas Eve, and I went for a run that took me through the Brandenburg Gates, amid Christmas revelers and some startled policemen (who looked at me as if I might be just a bit mad to be out running in the below freezing temperatures when I should be drunk and happy like everyone else). 
A run through the Brandenburg Gate on Christmas Eve
 I was happy (and later I was drunk...) but more than anything, I was overwhelmed with the various Christmas experiences I'd had.

Christmas tree in the Berlin train station
I sat teary-eyed in a restaurant watching a family pass around a large bowl of pierogies, laughing and enjoying their holiday gathering.  I snapped photos of Christmas trees in every city I visited.  We visited Christmas markets, mulled wine in one hand, our other hand wrapped around each other, as much for warmth as affection.  We sat in a coffee-shop as two violinists softly serenaded us with Christmas carols. I stood on a bridge at twilight, staring over the Vltava river in Prague, watching the city slowly light up as the evening approached. I ate and ate and ate -- and so did the Canadian.  He must have found every sausage stand in the country.

I think this tree was in Prague...and the one above it in Poland.
This Christmas we decided to stay in London and invited the Canadian's sister, husband and our two nephews (ages 3 and 5 months -- A and BabyO respectively) to visit. We had dinners around the table, laughing and drinking and talking about our day.  We saw London through A's eyes, lighting up as he rode on the top of the double decker bus, excitement at riding the 'train' (the tube), trying on his new London bobby pajamas, and having to explain that "London Bridge isn't really falling down, it's safe, that's just a song". It was fun to have a kid in the house, the talk of Santa Clause and discussions of coming down the chimney.  This new house in London has an actual chimney and fireplace, tailor-made for Santa and stockings and all of the Christmas trimmings.

BabyO won't remember his trip except for in pictures -- but his cute toothless grin and love for anyone who would hold him made Christmas that much sweeter.  Now that the family has left, I'm still remembering the evenings that he lay on the quilt that my great-grandmother made, in front of the fireplace, sleeping as if nothing in world were all that important except a warm nap.

Christmas, to me, is the experiences.  The toys and gifts, they are part of the memory but for the most part it's the people, the laughter, the smells of the tree, the crackle of the fireplace.  It's the hot mulled wine in Krakow or the laughter of my happy nephew, BabyO.  It's the first taste of a blueberry pierogy in Warsaw or reading Shel Silverstein on the couch to A, just before bedtime.

It's the experiences that matter, not the toys, not the gifts.  Just like in 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas', even if all of the toys and 'things' are gone, Christmas still exists.  Next year, don't race out for those 'last minute gifts'.  Don't run around, stressed out from holiday shopping, feeling miserable and missing the beauty that surrounds you during the holidays -- the lights, the music, the joy.  Don't go overboard on the gifts. Your kids don't need that giant 'whatever' or that expensive 'newest thing'.  What we all need is to put everything down, experience each other - the smells, the sights, the sounds...the holidays -- however you celebrate them.  Be mindful.  Be aware. Be present.

Today, Mindfully,