New Things I’ve Learned This Year (2017)

2017 has been a huge year. There have been momentous times of joy, and also, seasons of deep hurt. Adulthood is showing me this – that we carry these tensions together, often, and that holding both hope and pain at once is completely, one-hundred-percent okay. There have been travels, adventure, and also, writing, decision-making, and new seasons. This year, I’ve learned some important things, and I feel motivated to share. The truth is, we’re all always learning – can you see it? Can you notice it? Do you allow it to change you? It’s in these places that we grow and we can become consistently, fully ourselves. Cheers.

IDINA MENZEL IS THE REAL DEAL. 

Like everyone in the universe, I was a fan of Frozen when the Disney classic was first released. What I did not understand – fully – from enjoying the film was just how much talent Idina Menzel holds.

Luckily, in perusing options for celebrating Chelsea’s birthday, I stumbled across tickets for a summer Idina show. Chelsea once had mentioned that Idina was her “girl crush” and so attending her concert would be the perfect kind of gift. I purchased the tickets and she was delighted. We attended the concert and oh my good gracious – I was absolutely blown away. The cadence of her voice, the intensity of her stage present – it all rocked me. Finally, fully, I could appreciate the gift of Idina. It was easily one of the best concerts that I have ever attended.

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Idina at Fiddler’s Green in August.

NOBODY GRIEVES THE SAME WAY.

Tragically, during the month of August, Chelsea lost both of her grandparents, lovingly called “Omi” and “Poppi.” Simultaneously sifting through photographs from childhood and hearing stories of their life together, I knew this was a major loss for my beloved. As a partner, standing in the grief, I was initially overwhelmed. Ultimately, there was nothing I could do to change what had happened.

More than that, Chelsea was handling her sadness different than I would. She was handling it head on, where for me, I often put my grief or sadness in a box and deal with it later. Bravely, Chelsea chose another way. At first, it was hard for me to adjust to. But, eventually, I came to learn and respect the value of difference and how we each have to take steps in our journey that aren’t the same as others around us. It’s part of being human, and I am grateful that she could teach me this in a genuine and authentic way.

REST, FOR ME, MEANS SPONTANEITY. 

Towards the end of this year, I felt frazzled, overwhelmed, and really, just all over the place. Work was bleeding into my personal life and I felt like everything was meshing together. I was trying to take time to be quiet, to be still, but I wasn’t necessarily re-entering life fully refreshed. And then! One evening, Chelsea and I were discussing the way in which we wanted to live our lives, yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily. A common theme emerged: spontaneous fun. Yes, fun, but fun that wasn’t coordinated or planned or etched into the calendar. Literally, fun for the hell of it.

We have started to do this – whether it means grabbing our favorite sandwich instead of doing laundry, or seeing a movie last minute instead of watching our normal Netflix show – we are learning the value of going against a hard, rigid schedule sometimes. It is reenergizing, surprising, and honestly, so fun.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL (AHEM, THE SOONERS) ARE BETTER THAN THE NFL. 

One of the things that I have always known about Chelsea? She is from Oklahoma.

Because of that, inheriting Sooner fandom was a part of the package deal. Her family loves the fandom of Boomer Sooner and so this year, I had the opportunity to attend my very first college football game in Norman, Oklahoma. Together with Chelsea and her father, we went on a Sunday afternoon to arguably, the country’s epicenter for football. I could barely contain myself with everything – the colors, the size of the stadium, and the adrenaline. Sure, the NFL is fun to watch, but what is better than watching a sporting game with new, enthusiastic family? It’s pretty hard to beat.

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Oklahoma vs. Tulane in September. The Sooners won big, with a score of 56-14.

LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS ARE REALLY (REALLY) HARD. 

Beginning in early January until early March, I was in Rwanda for work with The Women’s Bakery. That meant that at an important time in my relationship, Chelsea and I would be growing together from a distance – a really long distance. When I flew out of Denver, to Detroit, and on to Kigali, I was nervous. I had never done this before, not like this, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I learned is that loving another human from far away is difficult. I grasped that sharing the little pieces of life becomes much more challenging over a screen. We persevered, of course, and what happened upon coming home was that I was surer than ever that this was the woman I loved and the woman I wanted to be with.

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Rwanda in February.

GOOD READERS NEED GOODREADS.

Several friends introduced me to Goodreads back in the day, but truthfully, I didn’t really understand how it worked. I gave it another go this year and it was exactly what I needed to help me read a book at least every 2 weeks. Goodreads is great, and certainly a must-have application for the phone, especially when tracking reading progress throughout the year.

MY BEST FRIENDS ARE STILL MY BEST FRIENDS.

For the first time in my life, I traveled to the state of Massachusetts and Rhode Island this year! With Ali, Michelle, Rachel, and Jordana – my best friends from college – we gathered together, again, to catch up on life and spend time together. We sipped coffee in the morning and wine at night. We went on walks. We told each other stories. I understood from these precious moments that these girls, now women, will always, always, have a special place in my heart. They will always be my best friends – and that makes me immensely joyful.

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Together again this past May! The Hey Girl Heys hit Rhode Island and it was everything.

HOME ISN’T NECESSARILY A PLACE.

I struggled in my early twenties to find “home.” Sure, there was home home back in Colorado, but I was confused with how much I had grown to also love Arkansas. And then, there was Rwanda. For many years, this was my home, a place that I felt most like myself. Yet, as I readjusted in my mid-twenties back to life in the United States, I was confused about where I belonged. Sure, Denver has always (and always will be) my first home. But this year, I learned that home is more about the people than the place itself. I fell in love hard this year. I began to love a woman that saw me differently than anyone ever had. Time with her, and being known by her, this was home. I was a bit surprised by this; I did not know love could be like that.

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Exploring Red Rocks over the summer with visiting family.

PURSUING DREAMS CAN SOMETIMES BE A CHOICE.

For many years, I have wanted to go back to school. Social Work. Education. Counseling. I have thrown many ideas around, hoping that I could land at one that would be the one – as if a diploma could complete or validate me at all (it can’t). In moments of peace, clarity, and quiet, along the shores of Kivu in Rwanda, I re-discovered a deep knowing. More than anything, I want to help people. And, more than that, I want to be a person that can hear the stories of others and help them. I want to be a counselor. I want to be a counselor because all of us deserve to be heard, and all of us deserve to find healing. In July, I applied to the Graduate Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver (specializing in Clinical Mental Health (Multicultural Track)). In October, I interviewed for a competitive spot. In November, I got in. I start classes next month and I could not be more ecstatic. 

PUFFY CHEETOS ARE CRAZY DELICIOUS.

I might be the vegetarian, and thus, have introduced Chelsea to all sorts of ways to prepare vegetables (deliciously), however, she has introduced me to White Cheddar Puffy Cheetos and my life will not be the same. You MUST eat these wonderfully addictive snacks. You won’t be sorry.

PROPOSING IS MORE THAN A QUESTION.

In October, I asked Chelsea to be my wife. Admittedly, I scoured the internet for ideas or stories of how other people have gone about proposing to their significant other. Eventually, though, I had to step back from the noise of others and reflect honestly and authentically. What did this experience mean for me? What did it mean for Chelsea? As I planned, I prepared my heart for this huge step. More than just a question, “will you marry me?” is a commitment, a statement of love, and to me, a promise. More than ever, I know that she is the woman I want to share life with. That deep knowing – that is what proposing is all about. 

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November: Celebrating our engagement in San Francisco, California.

ACCEPTING YOURSELF WON’T HAPPEN JUST BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE ACCEPT YOU.

One of my areas of weakness is that I sometimes do things for the sake of making other people happy. A less nice way to say this is being a “people pleaser.” While looking to others’ happiness can be a nice gesture, it is otherwise unhealthy when it becomes a centering objective in what you do. That’s what made “coming out” so hard – I knew that I would upset people. Eventually, I had to recognize that my happiness, in this case, had to come first. However, I still have a lot of work to do on this. This year, now with Chelsea and fully out, I discovered that even so, I still carry a lot of shame with me. Earning acceptance from others, I have supposed, would allow myself to come around fully to who I am. Honestly, this has failed. I cannot wait for the approval of others so that I have the approval of myself. That must – it must – come first.

WALKING IS THE SPORT OF THE SEASON.

There have been seasons of my life where running – the harsh breathing and flowing movement – has been my main way of de-stressing. Those days, at least for now, are over. Instead, this year, I’ve learned to love the joys of walking. One foot in front of another, looking up and around, I have found a lot of peace in taking morning and evening walks to re-center myself. The pace is slower than running, but for now, that’s what I need. I need to notice. I need to look. I need to take the world in. And still, I must move. That’s why walking has become so important for me.

 

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Walking & exploring the topography in New Mexico, just outside Sante Fe in September.

MIRACLES HAPPEN. 

I have always believed in miracles. However, sometimes the hardness of life stiffens my usually open spirituality and miss the many small miracles happening around us. This year, I witnessed a big one – my brother graduating college. This act, this celebration, propelled me forward to remember, always holding to the truth, that miracles are around us, and they are happening all the time. They don’t have to be dramatic or completely unheard of – they can be small, daily things that prove that we are stronger than we know and that we can do things that we thought to be impossible. I still believe in them, and I hope, really, really hope, that I always will.

It’s been a good year and I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings. 

Onward & Upward

Driving to the Denver Coliseum last week, on a Friday mid-afternoon, I found myself nervous, giddy, proud, and ecstatic all at once. Grandma, smiling with a dark red lipstick, was in the passenger seat as the soft sound of Google Maps ensured that I took the fastest route. We parked close to the old beige-colored building and were able to find the rest of my family waiting inside.

We – all of us – had gathered to witness something miraculously momentous.

My brother was graduating college. Lance – he did it!

The anticipation was palpable as the ceremony begun and the commencement speakers shared their keen words of wisdom. I was particularly inspired after hearing from Metro State’s current President, Janine Davidson, who formerly served as an undersecretary for the U.S. Navy, among other high-level leadership positions in the Pentagon (um, so cool). She acknowledged that for many students, the path to success is not linear – it’s bumpy and windy, and often, ends up in places that we couldn’t necessarily expect. She shared that the youngest graduate from the December 2017 class was in their twenties – the oldest, in their seventies. She noted that over 300 graduates were the first in their families to secure a degree. From anecdote, to fact, to story, she exemplified why graduations are important at all – and I couldn’t help but glance at Lance ever so often, remembering all that he has been through to get here.

Simultaneously, I sat next to (and at times, held) Kysyn and AnaLynah, my nephew and niece, encouraging them to cheer loudly when they heard their dad’s name. Eventually, he stood, and meandered toward stage in a slow-moving line.

Lance Taylor Newell.  

We cheered and clapped and smiled. Yes! It was happening.

You see, the path for my brother was not and has not been easy. He has had to overcome challenges that I could not dream of facing. And yet, he has survived.

I don’t say that lightly either; many times, especially while I was living abroad, I wondered if I would see him again. I feared that we would lose touch. That maybe, things would never get better. In my heart, I knew how badly he wanted a solid, strong future. But, ultimately, he was going to have to fight for it. He did – and he won.

As I heard my brother’s name called for completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I tried to freeze and capture the moment as best as I could. I looked around at our family, I gazed at him, and I held closely to my feelings of joy. I did not soon want to forget the rawness of miraculous joy. There really is no feeling like it.

A couple days later, at his graduation party, my mom and step-dad showed a slide show with pictures from many points in his life. From his teen years, from his time in sports, and even his earliest pictures, at just over 3 lbs, when he was still in the hospital. It was those pictures that made me weep; I have known Lance my entire life and for the duration of his life, he has been fighting. He has been brave. He has been resilient. He is not perfect – nor am I – but he’s done something that I hope he is proud of.

My biggest hope for him is that his story becomes one that he not only shares – but one that he can look back on and be proud of.

More people need to know that surviving (and thriving) is an option. More people need to know that overcoming addiction is possible. More people need to know that addressing mental illness is critical and necessary and NOT a weakness. And, more people need to know that it has been done.

My other biggest hope is that Lance can know deeply, and fully, how valued (and loved) he is. Though a diploma is a testament to one kind of success – it can never give a person the full value that they deserve.

Lance – wholly and completely himself – is worth gold. I have never been prouder and I simply cannot wait to see what is next on the horizon.

Sibling relationships are special – after all, at least for Lance and me, it’s the only kind of relationship where we’ve have shared so much of life at similar ages and at similar times. I used to say that Lance was my best friend. Though adult life has taken us to different places for different reasons, I still believe he is.

He knows me. He is my best friend.

And, he’s a newly graduated young man with so much ahead of him.

Onward and upward.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

28 things.

28 things I’ve learned in my twenties

Recently, I turned 28.

It felt good. More than that, I feel 28. In the best way possible.

I have lived enough life to have learnt a thing or two, but am still young enough to know that I will forever keep learning. I’m in a good place with that. As I’ve reflected on my years, experiences, and seasons, I put together a list of lessons I have learned – specifically in my twenties. The Roaring Twenties is a time full of varying experiences, full of both exhilaration and mass confusion. They are not easy, but they are formative.

Cheers to more great years to come.

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Asking questions keeps you humble. And helps you make friends.

When we meet new people, we must remember that we know nothing. The best way to start the process of learning about someone? Ask questions. Some questions in my standard repertoire include: if you could eat only one food the rest of your life what would it be? Who has had the biggest influence on your life? Where is your favorite place to visit? If you were an animal, what would you be? Small talk is not dead, my friends.

Snail mail is an important practice.

I grew up in the advent of the internet; we’re talking AOL-style dial-up. I got my first phone at 14. Communication mediums have continually evolved and with the integration of emojis and facetime, it becomes tempting to abandon the practice of writing, sending, and receiving hand-written notes. I grew to love this when I lived in Rwanda; I would spend hours listening to the radio and writing letters to friends in far-off places. Writing notes like this reminds us of our connection. The personal touch shows us also, that we are dearly loved.

Love is a verb. Practice it. 

A parent will visit you across the world. A friend will study with you all night. A lover will keep you safe. A sibling will reach out for help.

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Grace hurts.

Entering relationships of every kind assumes a risk: at some point, we will disappoint or hurt the people around us – even the people we love. Recently, I did something that hurt someone I loved. With some space and time, she forgave me, wholly and completely. I was left in a dizzying circle of doubt: but I hurt you! I can’t take what I did back! I made such a huge mistake! And yet, her grace was supreme. It hurt to accept, but I believe that our relationships hinge upon the ability for us to offer and receive the grace extended to us.

Everyone is a teacher.

On planes, in homeless shelters, in rural farms, and in investment banks you will find humans that you can learn from. Around 25, I began a simple, internal mantra with each person I would meet: “what can I learn from this person today?” Believe me, this isn’t always easy. Without coffee, on my period, or on a crappy day, this would fall by the wayside. But, it remains a practice I take seriously. It brings equity into relationship – and that’s powerful.

Life can be intense, boring, interesting, difficult, passionate, energizing, engaging, and confusing – all at once, even.

Life is not static; it can be a million things all at once. Moreover, the small moments filled with a delicious cold-brew coffee, a beautiful sunset, an act of kindness, or a colorful mural are what sustain us. Instead of seeking “big adventure” all of the time, I’ve learned to be more observant, aware of what small wonders are happening around me.

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Stuff is just stuff.    

My dad always told me: you can only live in one room at once. He was right. I like my laptop. I treasure my books. I hoard my journals. But, there’s a place for stuff, and it should not come before ourselves or the people we love.

Pray with the people you love.

I pray weekly with one of my best friends. This has created a deeper level of fellowship and awareness than I could have ever imagined. Prayer is powerful. I’ve seen it work.

Invite people for a home-cooked meal.

I learned to first host community members when I first was a teacher in the Peace Corps. I was consistently asked to visit homes from students’ families for a meal of potatoes, cassava, and bananas. We often shared our food from one plate. I realized then – as I know now – that there is no better practice of building respect and admiration than by including people in your home and in your meals.

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By simply existing you will “change” the world. You have the power to influence this.

It’s tempting to think (at least as a millennial) that your job alone will carry the value and contribution you have in the world. This isn’t true. Your “change” in the world will be felt in every aspect of your life: in your family, in your neighborhood, on the roads, at coffee shops, and in your participation in civic engagement. Existence merits value which precludes change. Once I realized this, I felt free to know that I could change innumerable things: the precedence for how we treat refugees, how I speak to elders, how I respect strangers, how I manage my money, how I live openly and authentically, and how I commit to a sports team.

There is no secret to happiness.

You could read every self-help book available, but the real “secret” to happiness is that there isn’t one. Happiness is a bountiful mix of contentment, gratitude, and hope. It comes in sharp, surprising ways sometimes. Other seasons it feels absent.

Yet, of this I am sure: we all have the right to be happy. No matter where we are from, or who we are, we deserve to fight for the right to be happy. What I’ve learned, as our society has grown in division and in strife is that our happiness is bound in each other. We can’t seclude or isolate our happiness at the expense of others. It’s completely unacceptable.

Seek wisdom from those who’ve lived more years than you.

I’ve met with a woman for lunch (Red Lobster, in case you were curious) above the age 70 on a regular basis for the past year. Like a sponge, I ask questions and note the lessons they share, ranging from successes to failure. They know more than me, and I respect that.

Your dreams will change.

When I was 21, I wanted to work internationally forever. I thought it would be the only way I could advocate for women’s rights or in deference to poverty issues. With more time in different places, I realized my dreams expounded larger than a job or vocation: I wanted to help. Make a difference. Stand up for others. I could do that in many ways. That was a real kind of liberation.

You won’t be able to explain everything. That’s a good thing.

Like art, things happen in your life that you won’t have the words for. Surviving a motorcycle accident. Falling in love. Losing a loved one. Experiencing Jesus. Meeting the right person at the right time. If we could explain these things, life would be formulaic and rigid. Instead, we live in a world that is full of complexity and mystery. I find comfort in that.

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Long-distance friendships add significant meaning and intention to life.

My 5 best friends live in 5 different places. And yet, we’ve seen each other through years and years of changes, difficulties, successes, and celebrations. We are intentional to stay in each other’s lives, and because of that, it’s worked.

We are formed by the environment around us. That makes traveling even more worthwhile. 

Culture runs deep. Inevitably, we are formed by the people, places, and communities around us. Thus, it’s important to think about the place you live and how it affects your life experience – and how this might be different from someone else.

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Parents are real people.

Somewhere in my mid-twenties I had a jarring realization: at one point, my parents were also in their mid-twenties, just “trying to figure it out.” That brought me a lot of peace and patience for where they are now and the way our relationships have changed. I’ll always be their daughter, but now, I can speak, understand, and see my parents as more than just “mom” or “dad.” We are more than singular identities.

There is no blueprint for how to let go and move on.

One guarantee: life will change. Anticipate it, acknowledge it, prepare for it. In the last eight years, I have lived in over 10 different places. However, as things changed, I took things with me and left pieces of me behind. Our legacy becomes the crevices and corners we have let ourselves be known.

Women can do anything.

During my twenties, women became my superheroes. Men are also incredible people, but women have a way of instigating truth, advocacy, and strength. From my grandmothers to my co-workers to my friends (and yes, to Beyonce) I have seen the ways in which women defy (and continue to defy) all possibilities.

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“Love is love is love is love.”

Before I could believe it, I had to learn it. And learn it, I did. The hard way. I wrestled with what love could be for several years. I recognized who I was. I denied who I was. I wrestled with who I was. I celebrated who I am.

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My early twenties were spent learning about what I want. My mid-and late twenties focused on learning how to have the guts to follow through.

People will want to tell you exactly how they would do something. We all have perspectives, but at the end of the day, the one that matters is the one you carry. At some point, you must know yourself well enough that you live your life accordingly. Trust your gut.

 

Read. As much as you can.

I realized during my twenties that I much prefer non-fiction work to fiction. I like memoirs, sociological pieces, and national narrative pieces. When I returned from Rwanda at 25 my first order of business was getting a library card. I’ve never looked back.

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People want to share their stories. If you listen, you are being richly blessed.

Old stories are like treasured diamonds for some people. More than once, I’ve found myself in hour-long conversations about a person’s path to some circumstance. We all end up somewhere for some reason. It’s too darn interesting not to learn why.

Most clichés about love are true (damnit).

It’s as splendid and as hard as they say, and still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time.

On the enneagram, I am a type 2 (“the helper”) or an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. Hence, I’m all about positivity, enthusiasm, and energy. Yet, I’ve matured emotionally and have come to know that instead of being afraid at signs of unhappiness, I can welcome the spectrum of emotions, realizing they are all necessary and needed.

Our lives and journeys should and will look different. 

It’s tempting to compare yourself to colleagues with families or friends with high-powered careers. Whether we envy stability, money, families, or futures, we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t acknowledge the value of our own journey. 

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Taking care of yourself is a skill – and one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

I still struggle getting enough sleep. But, I eat decently well. I exercise regularly. I journal and try to take time to myself. This is like recharging my batteries, and without it, I would burn out, again and again and again. Living through my twenties has shown me my own limits. We all have them. We must be aware of them and honor them, too.

 

Just be you.

The world is better when you are authentically YOU. The one you are made to be. The one who is imperfect, odd, caring, and determined. Let that part shine – that’s what the world needs more of.  Come hell or high water, I will be me. I’m a Maya Angelou enthusiast who loves roller-blading, mountains, writing about stories, and red wine (cheap). That’s me, and that’s just how it is.

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A Sojourner’s Staff

When I stumbled upon Communal Table, a publication about recipes and sharing meals together, it was in start-up phase, being launched on kick-starter. I knew I wanted in.

I submitted an inquiry about contributing to the online journal one of the upcoming issues. I got my chance. And so, I wrote this.

It got published and I was over the moon.

Becoming a writer does not happen just because a piece of work is posted somewhere officially.

No, becoming a writer is more nuanced, hidden between the pages of coffee-stained journals and late nights of contemplation. It’s frustrating as hell and also, one of my deep, great loves.

Capturing life, it turns out, through word is no easy task. But my, I do think it’s noble.

When my words appeared back to me for the first time, I realized that someone else had found meaning and power in them. And that was invigorating. It was as though being a writer was no longer an isolating experience – at least for a moment.

Communal Table  is all about the conversation. On their website, they map out their purpose by answering the question below:

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Their editorial team issued a call for submissions on a recent issue with the theme of “staff.” It was described as:

The staff of life keeps us going, and so does the staff that makes it. We appreciate all those who work in the background to make our daily lives happen. Consider this our ode to them. This issue is all about the hidden inner workings of the seemingly ordinary day and the people who make it all occur.

I submitted a piece about my grandmother. It’s called “A Sojourner’s Staff.”

To my delight, their team agreed to work with me to edit, refine, and perfect it. Five drafts and two months later, it’s finished. And, it’s here.

It’s about aging, love, and the tension of embracing the seasons we enter. Enjoy. And, keep writing.