“call ya when i’m pregnant.”

I have loved writing since I can remember – always.

Consistently there has been something enticing to me about putting pen to paper, eagerly seeking (and earnestly hoping) to capture the nuances of life through words, descriptions, and stories of all kinds – amusing, difficult, mysterious, complicated, sweet, painful, hopeful, and joyful, just to name a few. Life is these things, and words can be both not enough and more than enough, and it is fun, frankly, to play with that reality.

From the beginning of my childhood, and still until now, I journal regularly.

Some people hold onto collections of stamps, coins, or baseball cards like they are the true gold standard in our world. Others have difficulties in letting go of sentimental birthday cards. For me, it has always been those damn journals. Recently, I was packing belongings to move to a new place in Denver and decided that I had to fit all the notebooks, planners, and decorative journals into one (yes, one) box. I did it – but it was not easy. When you have over 30 notepads of thoughts, dreams, and reflections, packing becomes slightly more complicated.

Because of this persistent affinity for writing, I chose to take a journalism course while in my first year of high school. It was a dream; I learned about different types of reporting, writing styles, and ways in which to conduct interviews. Following my time in this class, I was tempted to join the newspaper club, but instead, opted for yearbook. I began the following year as a staffer and bopped around the school, taking photographs, carefully placing them in lay-outs, and writing unique, engaging captions.

Yearbook was full of lively, energetic, and interesting people. As an athlete, I knew a great deal of the football, soccer, and field hockey communities, but when I joined yearbook, I experienced a deep-dive into the circles and groups of people that worked behind the scenes to share what was happening within our high school community at-large. I made new friends, and I liked it.

One of my new friends was Chelsea.

IMG_3283

Chelsea was Editor-in-Chief when I joined the club, meaning that she was overseeing and managing both the staffers and editorial team, ensuring that our content was high-quality and “on-theme.” Most yearbooks have a “theme” (typically chosen at the previous summer’s Yearbook Camp – yes that’s real – for the following year).

I liked Chelsea from the start; she had an infectious laugh, a strong drive to do impeccable work, and an approachable attitude for when I – or others – had questions. By the time I was a junior, and she a senior, I was also on the Editor team, with the role of Copy Editor. This meant we had long nights in the yearbook room when deadlines were looming, and more regular meetings together to ensure the copy of the yearbook matched the photographs and overall story of Grandview, our high school.

A year ahead when I was a junior, Chelsea graduated Grandview High School in 2006 and prepared to leave for college – but not before I could write in her own yearbook, per standard high school tradition.

We found this book recently, amidst old dust and faded boxes, with intrigue about what I might have possibly written inside.

You see, last summer, Chelsea and I re-connected in the most unexpected and surprising of ways, after over eight years without any regular, consistent communication. With yearbook behind us and a lot of life lived, we remained “Facebook friends” but not meaningfully connected, considering we were both roaming around the Denver area.

Our lack of connection changed only because of a happenstance conversation with my roommate. On a breezy, mid-summer evening last year, we headed to the movie theatre to see “Me Before You.” We had each read the book and cried (okay, sobbed) and wanted to see the movie so we could assess the adaptation. On the drive to the theatre, we had what would be a life-changing conversation.

Casually, she probed, “So, Heather, what’s going on with you? You haven’t mentioned anyone special in your life? Are you dating anyone?”

I paused.
My stomach tightened.
Sweat began to trace along the hairs of my neck.
I swallowed hard and hoped that my voice wouldn’t be too shaky.

I knew I was gay. I was ready to be out. But, I was also excruciatingly scared. Still, I knew that I needed “practice” if I was going to start living out my truth and being 100% authentic with the people I knew. My roommate was a safe person, so I decided to take a risk and speak honestly.

I said the quickest of prayers, hoping this wouldn’t wreak havoc.

You know, actually I am not dating anyone right now. The thing is, I want to date a woman…and as you know, I’m a Christian…and I’m just now sure I can find anyone who is both – gay and Christian.”

Oh! You should meet my friend! I mean…not like a set-up or anything…but as a mentor and a person to talk to. She came out late last year and has continued a journey of reconciling and integrating her identity as a gay woman and her faith. You all should meet up. I’ll connect you.

Oh. Well. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

I smiled, taking a deep breath, grateful that I could trust myself – and God – to be open and share. And hey, who knows! A new friend. I could always use one of those.

We saw the movie and went home and everything was fine.

Until, a few days later when everything was not fine.

It was…well, it was insane.

When speaking with my roommate again, I found out that her friend was Chelsea. As in yearbook Chelsea! I was speechless, flabbergasted, and amused. Just in the previous weeks, I had seen a photograph of Chelsea at her brother’s wedding and decided to look at her profile like any respectable Millennial. Immediately, I was impressed with the fact that she was open, out, and public with her sexuality. I admired that, perhaps because that was what I so deeply wanted, too.

We laughed, and I knew then, that yes! I wanted to see Chelsea. An old friend, I wanted to reengage, learn from her experiences, and understand more about how I could simultaneously move closer to God – and to my own authenticity. I was excited; Chelsea and I exchanged a few messages and we planned a coffee meet-up for a few days after at one of my favorite places – Purple Door Coffee.

We did have that coffee date, and then we had another one, and another one after that, and soon, walks in the park with ice cream. Things unfolded both slowly and quickly, and I found myself intrigued, enthused, and terrified by the way that I felt. I was beginning to like her – yes, Chelsea – my yearbook friend. The crazy thing was (and is) that re-learning about a person almost a decade later is like learning about a new person entirely. We aren’t the same people anymore. We changed, experienced more of life, had joys, had pain, and certainly, had a lot to talk about.

I had intended our coffee connection to re-ignite our friendship. I did not expect to fall in love. But, as it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

This of course, coincided with years of previous work I had been doing to exist in the difficult space of unpacking my identity as gay Christian woman. I have known I was gay for a long time. For much of that, I didn’t have the words to articulate. For some of that, I didn’t have the time to process. Sadly, for a great deal of that, I was hidden, ashamed of who I was, scared of what it might mean. I tried “praying the gay away” – I did that for at least two years of my life. But, in 2016, before I met Chelsea, I finally was giving myself to God, asking who He wanted me to be. I was committed to authenticity and love, largely from what I was seeing in the world around me; the Pulse shooting happened, and suddenly, I knew that my hiding was over. Enough was enough.

Most of all, I didn’t want to live my life holding back, shielding the “real me” for the rest of my life. That is hardly living; in many ways, that’s an active kind of death – and I was not interested.

So, Chelsea and I get together, we date, we talk, and we begin to grow – together.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 9.04.42 AM.png

Which brings me back to the boxes and of course, that old high school yearbook.

We have been packing for the last two weeks because we are moving into a new apartment – together – in the Lowry area of Denver, just about a half-mile from the first house I ever lived in, right after I was born. That’s kind of beautiful, I think. When we dug through some old items in Chelsea’s boxes, we found the yearbook, and we found what I wrote (which, warning, is slightly embarrassing, largely because of the strange vocabulary that I thought was acceptable in 2006) –

Chelsea!

Where do I begin? You have made YBK everything and more for me! You’re such an amazing leader and a fantastic editor in chief. You always made me smile and your laugh kicks booty.

You’re gonna kick butt in college and wow! You’re gonna work with babies someday! I’ll call you when I’m pregnant! I love you so much!

Have fun in Oklahoma…when I’m visiting my grandpa (he lives in Hooker), I’ll call you so we can hang out. Good luck and we will miss you.

Visit tons! We should hang!

Heather N.

Yes, I loved writing, and reading these few sentences might be my most cringe-worthy pieces I have ever put to paper. I mean, “booty”…really?

But my, how we laughed when we found this.

How wonderfully, ironically, perfect.

Perhaps we do not always know what our words can do or where they will take us, but sometimes, they come back and make us laugh, cry, joyful, and nostalgic. I still can’t believe that my story – our story – has played out like this. I still cannot believe that all of this, this part of my story, is real. I’m happy, honest, and most importantly, truly, authentically alive.

I’m only here because I chose truth over lie. I’m only here because I chose life over death. I’m only here because I, in the core of my being, knew that I could trust God’s love enough to be gay.

I’m here, and my writing is proof of it. Even in small scratches of words in yearbook. It’s all with us, it all reminds us, and it all moves us forward as we exist in the tensions of who we were and who we are, and who we will grow to be.

IMG_3187.JPG

The Baptism of Narragansett

Sea crumbs clutch the ankles of my shell-cast feet;

the sand sinks, as i run, run, run,

melting like ice cream in the breezy, cold sun of Narragansett.

 

my voice is no longer silenced but i choose to be quiet –

the Sea has something important to say,

the liberation of others is bound in you.

the liberation of you is bound in others.

 

i am tired of being the oppressed;

i am tired of being the oppressor,

why must i be both?

Sea, won’t you free me?

 

white gay rich woman traveled far

to be here.

 

wildly, i embrace the ocean, the Sea, the wide blue of love

my breathe is cut short,

i am outside of me, finally.

 

do i feel oppressed?

i am oppressed in what we call beautiful –

i am oppressed in what we call love –

i am oppressed in how you look at me –

i am oppressed in how i must justify my choices –

 

my oppression is blind

you will not find it in

poor slums,

poor homes,

the confines of my office,

or the car i drive

 

you will find it in the secret corners of dark hearts.

 

have i oppressed?

i took what was not mine

i received what i did not work for

i benefited from the whiteness that covers me, follows me, lives in me –

 

Baptize me, Sea, in the freedom to know I am loved.

 

I am enough.

I am an active agent here, on earth, on the sweet Sea of Narragansett,

and I will fight for those who stand, sit, and fight in chains –

 

and for myself –

i will open the lungs for breath and use my words for good,

i will write the words of truth,

i will give up power for the sake of the other,

i will ask again, and again, and again that the oppressor in me – will die –

 

I am free, like the Sea crumbs that fill my hair, heart, soul.

Bring me to the salvation of perfect love.

IMG_2764

IMG_2793

IMG_2837.JPG

what we are recovering from

Several weeks ago, upon returning from Rwanda, I arranged to have a chat with a close family relative. I had interviewed her for a book project I started earlier in the year and so we needed a follow-up conversation. The book is a narrative-based work, weaving together the many stories and experiences of women who shaped my life into my own personal narrative.

I’m going to be real: writing a book is a hellishly-slow experience.

I try to write something every few days but when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I feel stuck. When my schedule is full it can be challenging to find time to settle and just write.

Still, I stick with it because what I know to be true about writing is that it is a labor of love and often, you must sit and exist through the progression, knowing that even in the grueling creative process, you are still moving forward.

We sipped our black Starbuck coffees leisurely and chuckled nervously about the state of the world. Apparently, in just a couple of months, a lot can happen. I filled her in with some of my Rwandan anecdotes (namely, climbing mountains and learning about the processes for TWB bakeries throughout the country) while she informed me on grassroots work she had started and various family updates.

When we shifted towards the content of her interviews and contributions to my writing, I confided that some of what she shared had genuinely surprised me.

Well, what surprised you the most?”

I paused thoughtfully and replied,

I mean, for one, I just didn’t know all that my grandmother had been through. Previously, I hadn’t fully connected that her parents were also divorced…it’s unbelievable that I really do come from a family of divorce.”

She shifted her head ever so slightly and firmly, but gently spoke,

Alcoholism. You have alcoholism in your family. You must consider why so many of these divorces have happened, you must consider the root cause. You can’t simply blame divorce as a stand-alone entity.”

Mind. Blown.

The divorces (and there have been many) are symptomatic of something much larger. Her point shifted my mind (and attitude) entirely – which, is actually crazy, because I’ve been thinking about divorce and alcoholism for most of my life. However, her perspective was new and fresh. When you have people in your life that can offer that gift to you, the gift of perspective, take it. Always, take it.

I have forgotten that a legacy of divorce doesn’t just happen. The word “legacy” is, in fact, appropriate; my parents divorced, both of my grand-parents divorced, my grandmother’s parents also divorced. Generations upon generations upon generations.

Too often, I have blamed the rampancy of divorce in my family without digging deeper. Divorce is fueled by something, though. In this case, alcohol.

Weeks since that sobering conversation over coffee, I have intentionally sat with the reality of how alcoholism has affected me; just because I don’t have the disease does not mean that I have been left unscathed.

I have lied to myself for much of my life: you are fine. It’s not your problem. Ignore it. Just be happy.

Yet, the truth persists and it will always find a way to break through.

Alcoholism has driven me to the darkest places of myself, where anger flows likes blood through my veins, and I can hardly see anything but seething, writhing pain. The crack of beer cans continues to frustrate me and can swiftly bring me to moments of confusion and avoidance from my childhood. Addiction is carried as a burden for the one addicted, but the wounds never remain internal. They spread like a sprinkler across a yard, and often, I feel like the nature of this disease has hit me, again, again, and still again. Alcohol and addiction dance like shadowy silhouettes on the walls of my life and it is time for it to be revealed and removed.

In a search for healing, Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, has been something recommended to me as frequently as I am told about a new ice cream shop around town (a lot). Typically, when someone would mention the organization, I would nod and smile, but know immediately: hell no. I don’t need help. I’m fine.

Interestingly, since coming out fully, proudly, and openly, it has been easier to understand and see myself, as if the blind spots were beginning to fade away. Identity is strangely funny like that: the more open you can be with yourself – resisting the temptation for shame – the more you can learn about yourself, too.

So, with a more transparent lens, I began to see that it was time to address this issue in my life and take responsibility for my own health – both physical and mental. I might not be able to control alcoholism, but I could take responsibility for my reaction to it. Last month, I went to my first Al-Anon meeting.

I was simultaneously nervous and completely at peace at the same time. I have never figured out how you can feel so many things all at once. The human brain and heart are incredible that way.

When I entered the room, I saw Chelsea and was grateful that she had come with me for the first week. Everyone was gathered in a circle, discreet, but kind in their welcoming expressions and invitations. I received literature about Al-Anon, mostly to review the “steps” and the purpose of the meetings and group. It was overwhelming at first – I wanted to run. But, vigilant, I sat in my own uncomfortability for the hour it required and slowly, but surely, softened to the realization that I belonged, and that I could be understood.

This circle of strangers knew what it felt like to be present to a disease that manifested in beer cans and hard liquor bottles. These everyday people likely knew what it felt like to transform into a monster when reacting to bouts of drunkenness. These humans, none of whom I even know, could relate to the heartbreak of wanting someone to be fully, completely, healthy and yet having no control over that kind of healing.

I was heartbroken, I fathomed for the first time, and I had found a place that might be able to give some stitches, of sorts.

There are hundreds of these kinds of groups everywhere, each week. The sheer size of the group amazed me. The circle had at least 20 people, and in doing some reading before-hand, learned that 7% of Americans suffer from alcohol addiction. That is a lot of people, and that is a lot of lives touched.

Part of the meeting involves a theme or message, and the other half invites people to share and reflect on their stories of alcoholism. While individuals bravely spoke, I witnessed a faint but still consistent narrative. Instead of victimizing themselves in their own story, they acknowledged the impact of the disease, and focused more on the role they have in the situation. The focus was not the alcoholic themselves – it was understanding where freedom exists for us (the witnesses to alcoholism) within the arduous situations we all face, releasing any perceived control of the situation.

I don’t typically speak about alcoholism like this; for me, it’s often been framing the conversation about the pain I have experienced and the ridiculousness of words, situations, or traumas that have occurred. This is not inherently toxic, but when we fail to see the alcoholic as a person with a disease, we rob them of their humanity.

I am guilty of doing this.

Like I said, this disease has forced me to look in the darker places inside me and try to find what I hope to be possible: liberation.

Initially, this confused me. So many sentences of these stories began with, “my recovery…” and I mused defensively, wondering, “what, exactly, are we recovering from?”

It only took me a week to find out.

Recovery, in this context, means living in freedom, even while alcoholism persists. Recovery means reclaiming myself and releasing the blame I have previously claimed. Recovery means recognizing and overcoming the damage it has done in my life. Recovery means letting go.

Recovery removes my expectations of what should happen.

Most importantly, recovery acknowledges that I cannot save the people I love. Yet, I can still love them – regardless of the choices they make.

This does not insinuate a resignation of hope, or of love, or of the past.

After just a couple of Al-Anon meetings, I grasped that this chapter of healing has been (and will be) demanding and gritty and grueling.

Alcoholism is a terrible, unfair, and horrendous disease.

However, we persist. We must always persist.

Recovery is always an option – for everyone.

IMG_2195

20 questions you should always ask.

20 Questions You Should Always Ask

So, it turns out that I am (proudly) in my late twenties (holler).

A strong marker for reaching this age (somewhere in that fuzzy window between 25 and 35) is that you have likely attended at least a dozen awkward, slightly uncomfortable networking events.

Just gonna be real, here. For the most part, I enjoy going out and meeting new people. However, I must be honest and say that I am so, totally, completely, whole-heartedly over the trite question that permeates networking events everywhere,

“What do you do?”

You know, that dreaded, standardized and bastardized “getting to know you” inquiry that pervades nearly every schmoozing event known to man-kind.

I might be being dramatic, but I think that you know what I am talking about.

It’s not a horrendous question, I admit. However, if we are trying to get to know who people are, it has often confused me that we start with someone’s profession and employment, not insights about the person themselves.

Yes, our work matters.
Yes, our work can tell a lot about our interests, talents, abilities, or preferences.

However, sadly, I think we place too much stock in who a person is based on the job they hold. The employment written on our resume, Linked In, or name-tag has come to equate the value a person has. And that’s not a good thing, in my opinion.

I’m guilty as anyone.

For a good chunk of my life, I committed myself zealously to one thing, and to one thing only: I must change the world. And, obviously, this can only happen through my job or the work I do.

I’m being facetious, but this line of thinking was and has been 100% true.

Lately, instead, I’ve been trying to think “outside the box” and consider that perhaps, maybe our lives (and our jobs) don’t always need to be solution-driven. Our work doesn’t have to exist only in direct opposition to a problem that persists in the world.

Most of the time, our work is much more nuanced and complicated than this. What about researchers? Waitresses? Graphic designers? Bus-drivers?Principals? Ministers? Economists? Manufacturers? Car Salesmen?

FullSizeRender

A lot of the time, our work is providing services, skills, projects, or tasks that are value-adds to economies (globally), to education, to business, to communities, to health services, or other kinds of sectors that then might be helping with the world simply by being a part of a collective work. We can change the world because we are a part of it and addressing injustices, gaps, and wholes in all kinds of ways.

Our singular job title will never tell the whole story. It adds to the story, I think. Usually, people are in a line of work for a reason: perhaps they need the paycheck only, but sometimes, they’ve selected that industry or sector because they are passionate, want to help, or are hella smart. Yes, I said hella.

This year, I have started writing a book that is focused on influential women in my life. The concept is still evolving, but the main idea is to capture the power that stories have relationally: who we are inherently affects the people around us. Writing a book that tells the stories of others has meant a lot of interviewing and asking questions – and my, oh my, I love asking questions.

In my handy-archive of questions that I enjoy asking to new friends, old friends, and strangers on the street (that’s not an exaggeration), here are the 20 that I love the most.

If you would like to change the conversation too, then hey, these questions are a great place to start. These questions help brighten those occasionally mundane and stuffy networking events – especially if there is cheese and wine – so have fun, and be bold. They help bring out stories – not resumes – and to me, that’s always a move in the right direction. These are good for those spaces – but also for friends, grandparents, neighbors, and co-workers.

You never know what small questions might lead to.

Good luck, and happy conversations.

What is the earliest memory you have?

 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be? Did it change?

 

Have you been in love? What was it like?

 

Do you believe in soulmates? Why or why not?

 

Who had the greatest impact on you in your life?

 

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?

 

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

 

What three adjectives would your friends use to describe you?

 

What is the one thing you have always wanted to do in your life but

haven’t?

 

If you could only have one super power what would it be?

 

Describe your biggest fear.

 

Where would you go if you could go anywhere for one day?

 

In your world, what does “balance” mean and look like?

 

What makes you most sad about the world and do you think that issue or problem is solvable?

 

How would you describe “home”?

 

Share a moment from your life when you were completely, totally free and/or happy.

 

What do you like most about yourself?

 

What is your greatest weakness?

 

What do you think the point of life is?

 

What will always make you laugh?

 

OP ED: Let’s Not Politicize Everything

Learning things starts with one important attribute: curiosity.

Recently, as I’ve been trying to better understand the life, stories, and experience of being a refugee in our current climate, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve read articles from the New York Times, The Heritage Foundation, and The State Department.

What strikes me most rapidly in our current discourse on refugees is that we have politicized every part of the issue. I understand there are different ways to implement policy on people moving to this country. I also believe we must consider the social, economic, and cultural implications of integrating our country.

But, I believe in it. And, more importantly, I believe there are some parts of the issue that don’t need to be politicized. For many of the individuals relocating to the United States, they are coming from violence, war, and pain. They have been forced to leave home. In fact, they don’t have one.

And, when they do finally get a chance to come to this country, you can see from graphic below that it is not easy. The likelihood of foreigners attacking us is a narrative that is promoted to incite fear. It’s hard to ignore in these days of ISIS and attacks happening globally. I get that, and it’s true, it is scary. But in fear, we shouldn’t blame the vulnerable, marginalized, or other.

Sometimes, the issues that we face aren’t “issues.” Instead, they are people. They are stories. We can’t forget that. It’s easy to paint over the complexities of people and war when we don’t come face to face with it.

So, in addition to reading about the process of for refugee screening, I want to publicly encourage people to get involved in knowing refugees in their local communities. Reach out to organizations working within these communities. Get involved. Go outside your bubble. When you do, you realize that politics is unnecessarily stripping people of their humanity, and when that happens, we are at risk for forgetting what community, unity, and peace can actually look like.

America, we can do this. We can do this. I believe, and I always will.

I have much more to say but for now, I will simply hope these words and hopes are sufficient, and that the America I know and love will come together in these uncertain, questionable times.

We have a big opportunity to grow as people and communities, and I hope we do just that. Get informed, read, learn, and make friends. You won’t regret it.

wh_blog_refugee_workflow_1125.jpg

when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 6.51.29 PM

That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

FullSizeRender 7

hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

IMG_1594

My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved.