just like people, places change.

Just like people, places change.

Flying into Kigali, Rwanda last week by way of Denver, Detroit, and Amsterdam (read: crazy amounts of jet lag), I was unable to ignore the expansive landscape of bright, yellow lights over the rolling hills that I have seen many times before.

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The Convention Center is open and the Marriott is now operating. Plentiful (perhaps unnecessary) roundabouts have been added to the city roads as more and more cars seem to fill them. There is a new dance club, a handful of new restaurants, and newly launched start-up companies. Whether in the IT sector, drones consulting, or in business incubation, Kigali has transformed into a flashy choice for investment. I saw this happening years ago and yet it still it surprises me. This city isn’t the way I left it.

My work has changed immensely too.

With The Women’s Bakery, I was most recently in Rwanda at the end of 2015 when we were at the tail-end of our first cohort, before the launch of our first Kigali-based bakery. We had a group of women, start-up capital, and big dreams. We were fine-tuning our business model, trying to refine how we could best educate and empower women for economic opportunity throughout Rwanda (and East Africa).

This week, I had the incredible honor and experience of baking, observing, and tasting our nutritious (and delicious) bread from these same women, in our 6 days-a- week bakery. Beet, banana, carrot, and honey bread galore, the intricate process of making this bread proves, once again, that the application of education is potent leverage for opportunity. Our bakery, lined with green metal, sits amidst a bustling part of the city as proof that commitment, belief, and grit can make dreams a reality.

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My eyes filled with unexpected tears when I was shown how to properly knead and shape some of our new products, like our tresse bread, for example. Patient with me, our ladies demonstrated the varying preparation techniques for ideal fermentation and shaping. I loved being taught. I loved baking with women who were now our teachers. The moment was small, but it left a deep impact.

Our work as a service-provider in Rwanda continually changes too. We’re training more women’s groups this year AND for the businesses we’ve co-launched, we are seeking and exploring avenues for profitability.

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To see tangible change like this is evocative and meaningful because you are reminded (humbly) that the things we work, sweat, yearn, and long for can actually happen.

Though incremental at times, change does deliver.

In the year since I’ve last been on this side of the world, my work, the landscape, culture, and atmosphere of Rwanda aren’t the only pieces of life that have changed here.

The girls I have supported in school since 2012 are all nearly graduated and exploring post-graduate options. The teachers, like the students have moved on too. My Peace Corps site in the Eastern Province has since seen 3 additional volunteers and educators. The sports materials our soccer team acquired through a grant were stolen. The care-taker of the cows at my old school passed away. My host father has a booming milk business. My Kinyarwanda teacher got married and a baby. The woman who helped take care of my house (and me) has made enough of an income to buy goats, pigs, and a cow. One of my students now posts regularly on Instagram.

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Rwanda has provided me a unique lens by which I can measure the change around me – and within me. I’m realizing, each time I come back, that I come back a different person. Like the changing architecture, views, and life circumstances of my friends in Rwanda, I too have pivoted, made mistakes, adopted new ideas, achieved new successes, and continue to grow into just being me.

Sometimes, these changes are visible. It’s easy to see when I’ve grown my hair long or have opted for a different style of clothing. It’s also relatively straight-forward to speak about updates on my family – their work, homes, and families.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder, how to express the internal change that has molded, shaped, and impacted our development as people.

How do I contextualize the joy of a new relationship?

How do I give words to the changes I’ve experienced in how I view gender, faith, politics, and policy?

These are just some of the questions.

Change happens over time – with small (and big) experiences – and we are challenged each day to enter conversations, relationships, and life with what has already happened to us.

Perhaps the struggle is not choosing how we express our change, but instead, we can choose to faithfully move forward into it. We don’t have to be afraid of change. It’s going to happen. The weighty, more implicative question remains what we will do.

I sat in our Kigali bakery this week, chatting with a Rwandan male that explicitly (and genuinely) expressed concern over what the implications would be with the plethora of executive orders released throughout the week in the United States. Like many, he was apprehensive about the onslaught of change happening so quickly.

Today, on a much-needed slow Saturday morning, I took the time to catch-up and read all that was taking place in public policy from the White House. I was appalled, shocked, and in disbelief.

I considered the changes I have noticed so intensely within our bakeries, within Rwanda, and within myself and wondered, how much change can America take?

I don’t know. I’m tired of not knowing, but honestly, nobody does.

What I do know, for certain, is that change does not have the final say. We do.

Like these hills that remind me all that I have been through for the past 5 years, we will overcome.

And whether it’s about your country, your work, or yourself, we have the communal responsibility to join each other. We can’t give up – not now. Not ever.

Because places, like people change, I think they can serve as mirrors for the way in which we see our own progression through life. Perhaps places can serve as powerful mechanisms in this way, addressing change without agenda, without reservation.

I’m grateful for Rwanda because of this. I’m grateful I have a place that helps me benchmark my life, propelling me forward with new dreams, goals, and hopes, mindful of how far I have come.

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adulting.

Reflecting on the last year, and in preparation for 2017, I’ve noticed the development of a strange phenomenon that has taken hold in my life: adulting.

Adulting: a lovely millennial-driven term that alludes to the process of transformation from the formative years of youth to being somehow “grown.”

Just a year ago, while visiting a museum in Montgomery, Alabama in early January, a curious, spirited, middle-aged woman pulled me aside gently to ask about my age.

“I don’t mean to be nosy, but my dear, are you grown?”

I hesitated for a moment. Grown? What the heck was she talking about?

“Ma’am, I just turned 27…”

“No! Oh my. I thought you weren’t anywhere over the age of 20! It’s those clothes, your spirit, you seem young!”

I’m sure this can (and should) be taken as a compliment. But, coming from a refined Southern woman, I’m not so sure that it was. Alas, this was a year ago, and because 2016 was you know, 2016, I grew up a lot. I came into my own and so yeah, if I saw that woman again I would proclaim boldly and without reservation: I am grown, honey!

To be sure, I’ve engaged in adult-like tendencies for a few years now: I pay my bills on time, I plan and cook meals, I know the ins-and-outs of my health insurance policy, I budget when possible, and I understand weird concepts like 401k, HOA, quarterly taxes, and swaddling.

Yet, the actual experience of maturity and “growing up” are felt more starkly in paradigm shifts and “long-view” perspectives than it does through the day-t0-day responsibilities of being a grown woman. This growing sense of becoming an adult is less about the things I do and more attune to the ideas, knowledge, and experience I gain.

We commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week and so I set aside 20 minutes at the start of my morning to reflect on one of my favorite quotes from the famed Civil Rights Leader:

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For years, I have read quotations like these and appreciated the timeless sentiment they hold for each generation. After all, I’ve owned Martin Luther King Jr. books on his best speeches, messages of reconciliation, and case for justice since I was a young teenager. These idioms and words of wisdom have shaped the woman I am – the woman I want to be – and so it’s not as if the power of them has left me untainted.

Yet, I don’t think until recently that I could tangibly understand them.

The arc of history meant little to me back when I was a 21-year old. I was too young to notice patterns, to observe implications, or note the impact of things that were happening to me. Simply because of the lack of perspective, I couldn’t have known the influence my brother would have on my life, or the direction I would take because of a trip to the continent of Africa, or really, who I would become as I entered a journey of faith: full of bible studies, spiritual questions, small groups, church visits, and real-life, existential experiences.

In my early twenties, I couldn’t yet see the evolution of my past. I couldn’t appreciate the movement of time and what happens over the course of days, and months, and years. I didn’t yet know how we can and often change – sometimes, in unexpected ways.

Now, near the end of my twenties, it’s as though my past has come into a sharper view with stronger lenses; I see how my travels and relationships across the United States and the world affected my political, religious, and personal attitudes; I know how my educational background shifted my perception of others; and perhaps most importantly, I have experienced how commitment to justice, fairness, and love plants seeds of change with time.

The world does not become better overnight. But with the passing of days, people and circumstances do change.

I have.

Later this week, I saw another quote worthy of note, from Civil Rights Leader Angela Davis, that said,

I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

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I immediately loved the sentiment, namely because it began to capture the feelings and change that I have experienced within my adult life – a subtle shift from only observing, to believing, and eventually, doing.

It’s more than understanding inspiring quotes too – it’s also knowing how to comfort my friends in times of grief; it’s discerning the right moment to share truth; and it involves valuing yourself enough to take care of yourself as you would any other person.

Being an adult is hard work.

As an adult-in-progress, I hold both perspective and a future together.

There are days when I would rather play in the mountains, roller-blade around the park, and eat three (or four) scoops of ice cream. Sometimes, I do those things, and it’s awesome.

But on a lot of days, I recognize that I have a responsibility to both the life I have lived and the life I will continue to live. There is no such thing as a compartmentalized person, and so I know that I can be all parts of me fully, all at once. Knowing the kind of perspective that comes with age, I am anxious about the people, places, and circumstances of my life now and how it will affect my life in five, ten, or fifteen years.

So, when does this adult-sort-of-thing happen? 25? 27? 30? 35?

Perhaps, and what I tend to believe, is that you don’t wake up one morning and voila! You are an adult. Instead, it happens with time. With people. With life experience.

At some point, you begin to hold all your life together, in one basket, and appreciate it. Honor it. Protect it. I like this part of being an adult. I’m willing to take on that kind of maturity, because it means that I don’t have to isolate one part of me.

As an adult, I know who I am.

And, I can be her. I like her.

you were found living in the wild sun

*

It might be sometime around 26 years and 50-some-odd days that adulthood strikes and blood is drawn.

It’s somewhere between washing down the distasteful toilet stains with a dirty sponge and the third stack of open bills on the counter table. Thank goodness it’s pay day.

Baking, with a glass of white wine in hand, country music echoes softly in the background, humming just loud enough to become lost in thoughts of weekends, work, and both wasteful and wishful thinking. You are placing jiffy muffin mix with milk and an egg, by the way, so it’s not like you can even pretend to have the Martha-Steward-Suzie-Homemaker sort of thing down. You just know how to stir mix from a box. Congratulations to you, too.

For some of us, spouses sit idly by, staring through a television glass screen; for others, home is a more solitary experience, an island away from the rest of the world.

Adulthood is decisions staring at you in the face, health care purchases, and the clarification of a Roth IRA. Apparently, it’s not the same as a traditional account. Who knew?

Adulthood is full of those kinds of things – responsibilities, maturity, and ownership.

Maybe it comes a bit early – 24, 25 – or a bit late, 29, 30 – but eventually, it will come.

But the weird thing, I think, is that adulthood is becoming redefined, redrawn, and re-understood. So little has it anything to do with age anymore. The last few months have brought new friends (median age? 40) with my younger friends focused on their long visions of successful careers in Congress. Seriously.

It’s like we don’t even take that transition seriously anymore.

In fact, at the office the other day, a friend of mine jokingly remarked,

“it’s not like it’s we’re adults…”

I snorted, “oh girl, please, you are definitely an adult.”

“Whatever! I am not. Are you?”

“Um. You know, uhmm…I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m mature enough. I’m a kid, I tell ya. I silly, dorky, little kid.”

Instead of actually embracing our sense of coming of age here we are actually rejecting it.

Is it possible that we could very well be adults that are debunking the associations of adulthood itself?

Let’s take the word at face value. Adulthood.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the word as, “the period in the human lifespan in which full physical and intellectual maturity have been attained.”

I hate the definition. Hate, yes, a very strong word, because it implies that we are somehow a finished or complete product. Um, have you met a human lately?

I think adulthood is something along the lines of, “the full acceptance of self-strengths, character weaknesses, with a full willingness to realize potential, limitations, and the ever-present opportunity for growth.”

I get it. It’s fluffy and soft and cheesy. But I think it fits this new kind of adult we are seeing more and more. And hey, get this. It’s not like America has the monopoly on this cultural and transitional shift. Even in Rwanda, it’s happening. Women and men – in their mid-to-late twenties move away from their families but not solely because of marriage (the typical occurrence for young adults in the country). Other interests are at stake and they are deconstructing the cultural norms of a place even in resistance to what’s acceptable, appropriate, or expected. Even in smaller villages – where there is no city to easily escape too – questions are being asked. And of course, it doesn’t mean that moving away qualifies a person as adult-eligible. Not even close. However, leaving your parents is the first paradigm shift in a framing of a new worldview – outside of your parents – which is the first mortar to brick experience in the young adult maturity process.

And so it’s confusing. I’m not really sure what I am half the time. I think even my married friends wonder themselves, too. Which goes to show, age, marital status, and gender have nothing to do with it. Maybe one day, you wake up and voila! Things are different. Maybe. But I can’t be sure. I’m clearly no expert.

All I know is that in the same evening that I began packing for a summer away for training in ministry, I placed my large pack on the top of a shelf, smothering a smaller bag of notes. Initially forgetting the bag of notes even existed, I went back to remove the bullying black bag. I dumped the notes on my bed. I sifted through a few of the 8th grade classics: about girl drama, friend fights, and math anxiety. Goodness, I had a lot of worries. About 5 notes in, I found two that made the entire bag worth keeping.

A note from my grandmother,

01/05/2003

Dear Heather,

Enclosed is your really big or best birthday present from me. I totally forgot to give you this but once you see it, you will why it is yours. Love you, Grandma Genevra

And it’s killing me. Because this would have been around my 14th birthday. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the gift was. But it had to have been something special.

A note to Santa (from me),

1999

Dear Santa,

I can’t believe it Christmas is coming! I have been waiting all year for it and I realize that it has come rapidly. My early Christmas present from my parents was what I’ve REALLY wanted for a long time. I got a dog named Buddy who is just  so delectable and loveable. Anyway, I have wanted several things this year. Here is some: Clothes (any kind!!), CDs (I really want these. Some I want are: Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NOW5, NSYNC, and 98 degrees), jewelry, movies (basically anything with Julia Roberts), books (chapter books), & beanie babies.

I am really thankful for all this and I am thankful for the holiday seasons because I get a bunch of things that a lot of unfortunate people won’t ever get. Once again, thanks so much and MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!

Thank you, Heather Newell

PS: Some people told me that Santa Clause is just your parents, but I don’t think that is true. Thank you for all you do. Please watch over my family and Buddy.

I wrote (or received) both of these at important stages in life. One was before I was even a pre-teen, and the other (the one from my grandmother) comes from just a couple months after my parents divorced and a couple days after becoming 14.

When you compare where I am now with the girl who existed in these blocks of time, then yes, easy answer, I am an adult. I no longer believe in Santa. Or the beanie babies.

But the notes – all hundreds of them in this silly little paper bag – show our capabilities of developing and changing over the years (or not). I like to think of myself as moving in that direction. Yet, for any of us, there is nothing wrong with where we are at. Where person A decides to start their life is going to be different from Person B….C….and so on. As humans we can be so united, but we also are granted the liberties and freedoms of reason to live the life we feel led to do. So that’s exactly what we must take control of.

*

There’s this great band. Their like, indie-rock, which makes me about .0000001% cooler as a person, right? Anyway, when I first heard their song ‘Equestrian’ they had me sold. Hook, line, and sinker.

They sing this fantastic song and frankly, it’s the perfect tune for adventure. Next time you find yourself driving up a mountain road, with gravel scraping and crawling amidst the wheel edges, put it on and you’ll feel like you are flying.

The best line, you were found living in the wild sun, tells me what adulthood could be – should be – like.

It’s not something to be hastily suspicious of. Instead, let it come. But come as you are. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You don’t need a 5-year plan. But come honestly, and adulthood will show you a darn good reflection of the first part of your life. When you start having a voice, maybe it’s then where your adulthood begins to matter. When you start laying the stakes you have in the world. When you start sharing, embracing, and speaking truth.

Adult or not, days pass, years pass, and we move forward in time. Live fully, joyfully, and love the days you have. We don’t have so many, you know.

When the light crept up in the hills
I headed off for home
Memories of times spent away
Vanish into the sun
You were found
Living in the wild son
In the wild living with the wild ones
You were found living in the wild sun


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*

beyond boxes.

People fear boxes.

Lost Angels, one of the many, many documentaries available to be screened on Netflix shares the story of people living on Los Angeles’ famous “skid row”, where an extraordinary amount of people live with no place to go. The term itself originated in Seattle in the mid-19th century. In fact, at that point the term referenced a saw mill area in town. A century later, the term has all kinds of connotations, most notably referring to areas of “homeless people”, “society’s rejects”, “low-life’s”, “disadvantaged”, and “poor”. The quotations may or may not be needed – your definition probably depends on your attitude.

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Residents of skid row live in housing that has served the poor for years – until being gentrified by groups of wealthier people, organizations, and movements. Skid row then shifts geographically with changing boundary lines as the people, places, and culture are pushed elsewhere. It grows, gentrifies, moves, repeats.

Case and point: New Orleans, Louisiana.

I saw the implications and consequences of urban tension when writing my senior thesis on recreational youth development in New Orleans. City dynamics altered unforgivingly after Hurricane Katrina and revealed the established and long tradition of stark separation of rich and poor. Areas like Audubon Park provide a plethora of recreational opportunities for children in the neighborhood; take a trolley down to Treme and you will find run-down, 1-acre plots reserved for parks but have been largely left by the wayside. This impacts youth development, city perceptions, and how people move about. Really, it affects how people live. At some point, you might end up with 4,000 + people living in a relatively small section of the city, all poor, nearly all suffering from mental illness, and many using drugs. That’s exactly what skid row in Los Angeles has become.

Cities all over exist with their very own versions of skid row – Vancouver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

It seems odd then, that on the very same day I am packing my own boxes for a move, my brother’s current location for recovery is described as “Denver’s skid row” in a conversation. Which, is true. It’s been known as that part of town for decades. More than that, it was that particular evening that I chose to watch the aforementioned documentary on skid row and I’m left thinking,

Wow. What do I actually think about all of this?

People fear boxes.

That’s what I think.

In the documentary, footage is shown of police officers scrounging up every box they can find on the city streets and taking it away. Belongings or not, it doesn’t matter.

A box carries things. For me, it carries a lot and for others it carries everything.

When we move places – homes, countries, rooms, colleges, states, jobs – we take our stuff in a box and we aim to remove it as quickly as possible. At least I do. I certainly don’t want boxes hanging around.

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I’ve moved a million times before and yet this one feels different. It feels better.

We changed houses when I was growing up, we separated houses when my parents divorced, I left houses when I went to college, I stopped living in American houses when I entered the Peace Corps, and I was relatively nomadic at that point, unsure of where my houses, my boxes, and my idea of home fit. I was scattered.

I feared boxes because I kept acquiring more than just physical things to take with me – I was transporting memories, people, relationships, and a hell of a lot of journals. Putting a bit of myself into each place I went, I felt like I had to pack up that part of me too – somehow fitting it in my already crowded identity.

I feared them because I feared losing them.

When I moved to Hendrix in 2007, my boxes were full of high school memorabilia and knick-knacks from growing up back home in Colorado. When I left the country in 2011 for a handful of years in Rwanda, I brought the bare essentials and yet made room for photographs and letters from my college days, adding to what I had originally felt was important. When I came back from Rwanda the first time, circa 2013, I had a suitcase full of lesson books, grade books, and literally every item I could bring back that would allow me to hold on to all I had experienced in two years. I couldn’t explain it so I was going to try to do so with the things I brought with me, I thought. Then, I went back to the land of a thousand hills for the summer, and repeated the coming home process, only this time with much less.

The simple truth?

No box or suitcase can fill experiences.

It’s that realization that has made this move and this season of life so, so sweet. I don’t care about the boxes anymore. Here’s why:

I’m writing wrapped in a blanket from Ghana. I’m surrounded by a china cabinet that my mother and father had for a very long time. The teddy bear I received after having appendix surgery when I was young is next to me. The coasters from Mexico keep the sweat of my water away from my beautiful, wood dresser that I had at mom’s house. My grandmother’s jewelry and red lipstick tube fills my great-grandmother’s jewelry case and the pottery that Jordana made me shares space with the traditional pestle and mortar given to me by my mama and papa in Rwanda. Letters from dear friends, photos from Disney World, and key chains I collected from all over the country are displayed.

The secret, as probably many of you know, is that the more life passes, the more of life you have to share. You don’t have to put it into a box either; the box serves as a resting place for the mementos you pick up along the way. The way in which we live our life, yes, that’s how we carry our stories, memories, and years.

You can spend too much time worrying about your calling ahead or the callings you have already lived out. Do this too much though, and you miss what’s right in front of you. Sometimes all you can do is just put one foot in front of another.

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For a lot of people, there is only one box. Maybe there’s not a box at all.

My brother – whether he’s near skid row or not – is at the point of no boxes.

He OWNS very little. His life could probably be put into a duffle bag that he may or may not still have. Some pairs of pants, his state championship ring, a few sets of shoes, and some notebooks.

However, despite the dismal picture that skid row initially paints, he’s not at the point of no return.

He’s not.

Skid row, the suburbs, the ritziest places in the country, and the most dead-beat corners of our land have people. Good, bad, whatever. We’re just people and we’re just trying to figure out how we live life.

It’s felt weird as I have started to unpack the last 7 or so years of my life, knowing that my brother is where he is, doing so much more than that. I’m removing pieces, fragments, and evidence from my cardboard boxes and my brother is trying to figure out how to not live in one permanently.

Hope transcends the fear. Hope is so much bigger than anything that we can contain. Like jars of clay, God has chosen to place a piece of him – a piece of His son, Jesus – in each of us.

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That’s the miraculous part of our lives. The boxes, the years, the mistakes, the victories, whatever it may be – it does not define us. We live in a “worn and weary land” – skid row, you might say, but we will never run dry.

Just to know You and to make You known

We lift Your name on high

Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide

We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives

It’s time for yus to more than just survive

We were made to thrive

-Casting Crowns, Thrive

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Life in Dulles – Welcome to the VLOG World

The force of just how small I am in this world hit me like a door in the face as I entered Denver International Airport (DIA) today.

Man, I thought, I’m crazy. 

Dad’s gold Ford truck hummed haphazardly away from curbside check-in and suddenly, it was me and my 4 bags full of American goodies, clothing, and books.

For some, “getting real” looks like a down payment on a house, or a car, or that feeling of when you spend the night in your first grown-up apartment. I guess for me it’s taking multiple international flights with all my big girl stuff and dreams full of tamed idealism so that I can live in Rwanda for a few months and see what micro finance in education actually looks like on the ground.

This ain’t no Peace Corps thang. While Peace Corps is beyond tough when it comes to adjusting with integration and life style changes, on some level you always have a safety net of support that’s there. Sure, it’s not always the best, but it’s there.

For the first time in….well, ever, I feel totally, completely grown up. I’m an adult. All of this is in my hands. Finances, food, health, and work. It’s on me.

I realized today as we soared high above the beautiful American landscape that for me to be “successful” this summer I will have to believe in what I am doing. Not just now, but as the process unfolds.

Like a small piece of malleable clay, I need to be open to learning and change as a student ought to be.

But, I need be also assertive, strong, and confident in what I know, who I am, where my beliefs guide me, and what I think.

This, my friends, is the real sign of adulthood.

Which….feels a bit ironic considering the first episode of my “vlog” that I’ll be using throughout the summer as I work everything in my fellowship, live in the city, and experience Rwanda again, albeit differently.

It’s certainly not the most “adult-esque” or mature thing I have ever done, but hey, even with adulthood comes the right to always be silly.

Episode 1 – The Lion Queen – Life In Dulles