The Truth About Reading Your Writing.

I recently listened to an inspiring NPR session about StoryCorps, an initiative started to compel social change through the power of storytelling. The idea is simple yet powerful: honor, create, and preserve the stories of humans for understanding and change. 

I promptly downloaded the app on my phone – useful for recording interviews – but then decided to move in a different direction. Oration is an important part of the storytelling process, absolutely – but so is the tangible documentation of those stories. In turn, documentation creates ownership of those stories, which allows a personal efficacy that as humans, we should all have access to.

Yet, try telling your story. It can be hard. It’s challenging. Capturing small, intimate, yet formative moments often requires a listening ear, and sometimes even, the right questions. And so, in the spirit of communal story-telling, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother, Mary Lou, to hear her story. That’s right, her life story.

We sat with warm tea, sunshine, and my laptop on a Saturday afternoon on my patio. At first grandma wasn’t sure she would have much to share – three hours later, it was clear there was far more complexity and insight in her nearly 75 years than she may have originally thought.

She said wonderfully insightful things like,

“I’m just trying to make my world the best it can be.”

and also,

“…children are a joy…but grandchildren are like strawberries and cream.”

Currently, she’s looking through the initial notes (nearly 28 pages!) and adding any additional happenings, people, or anecdotes she wants to include. After, I’m going to help her draft a prose-form story of her life. It’s intimidating – how do you fully write someone’s story..? – but I’m absolutely excited and awed by this challenge. Grandma has lived a full life – with roots in Uppsala, Sweden, and a story filled with different kinds of work, relationship upheaval, children, life in a small town, and a commitment to friendship. I’m honored to be a part of that process.

The following week, I celebrated Peace Corps Week (celebrating 55 years since inception) by attending International Storytelling Night in Denver at the Deer Pile.

The concept was simple: bring your stories of Peace Corps adventures, travel, and cross-culture interactions and share them on stage. As I entered the red-painted room with odd hipster wall decorations, I put my name in the hat. I thought to myself, if my name is drawn, great, I’ll do it. If not, oh well. I tried.

“Heather” was the first name drawn. Of course. I grabbed a luke-warm PBR and hopped on the wooden-black stage. I read a story I wrote recently called “bird songs” based on the African proverb: Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs

I was nervous. Sweaty. Unsure if this was the right story to share. But it was. It was not only the right story, but the right time to share it as well. The story delves into the tensions of relationship – that much of what we experience in life is actually quite undefinable, which in turn, makes it beautiful. It was a story that extended well beyond the confines of the “Peace Corps Experience” and I believe that resonated with the audience listening.

Reading your writing is an act of vulnerability. Though I have been blogging for years, reading a story aloud (with others!) brings a presence and authenticity with a story that you couldn’t find otherwise. It reminded me what I had already been learning with my grandmother: storytelling is a creative process because it involves both the act of writing and the commitment of sharing what happened in the first place.

Keep sharing, y’all. It’s important.


 

Peace Corps Passport: Featured Blog

Follow the link below to read a story I published for Peace Corps Passport, the national blog for the US Peace Corps.

Corps to Career: how this RPCV found her way back to her host country

IMG_3142

Team Komera: Heather Newell Video

About a year ago, an awesome Peace Corps friend of mine visited my home in Rwanda to shoot a video about my running with my students. Michael, the videographer, had filmed several other volunteers in their personal quests to find strength in running. The video series is a part of his initiative to promote running and inner-strength among volunteers. This was called TEAM KOMERA (‘Komera’ can be translated as be strong).

He compiled everything so perfectly and I’m honored to have a friend with such talents. I’ll be keeping this one forever!

Komera!

it’s time.

I would like to proudly proclaim that I was a big fan of the now immensely popular band Imagine Dragons before they exploded all over the Top 40 stations in and out of the United States.

I’m sure you read that and think, “um. Who cares?

But HEY! It’s a rare thing for me to know about a “cool” thing before it’s actually deemed “cool” by the rest of society – often propelled by strong contingencies of hipsters.

This isn’t just the case because I was abroad in 2012 and 2013 – no, even when trends happened before, I was usually late to the taking.

                Giga pets and pods when I was a small child

Bell bottoms when I entered middle school.

Even facebook when I was about to go into college. I had no idea.

Granted, I will admit when it comes to Imagine Dragons, I didn’t discover them because of my own cultural trendiness. I was introduced to the band by my Peace Corps replacement, Margaux. She visited me at home in Rwanda when she was first assigned to come and work there following my departure later in the year. She came to learn the ropes of our village and towards the end of her visit, I practically begged her for new tunes. I had exhausted my One Republic, The Fray, and country playlists. We did some good ole media sharing and she passed along all of Guster’s albums, Imagine Dragons, and Grizzly Bear.

I started dabbling in this eclectic collection, particularly as I did my household chores. There is something wonderful, I have found, about cleaning and enjoying good music at the same time. It’s cathartic or something.

One day, I remember Divine and I cleaned my house top to bottom and listened to their third song on the album, “It’s Time” on repeat. We both seemed to like it a lot. We shared old rags as we scrubbed on our knees, later mopping, and moving around furniture. And we listened to this music the entire time. That’s friendship.

*

So this is what you mean when you said that you were spent?

And now it’s time to build from the bottom of the pit right to the top, don’t hold back

Packing my bags and giving the academy a rain check

The sounds and words played as Divine and I moved room to room doing what we needed to do to clean my house up to the very high Rwandan standards of cleanliness. It was a Wednesday, I think. I was leaving my village – for good – on Friday.

The cool, wet concrete of the floors refreshed my feet as I moved around barefoot. I sat on my mattress for a moment to catch my breath. Sweat laced my forehead and I glanced at the now empty walls where photos, bags, and artwork had hung for so long. It had been quite a journey, hadn’t it?

I saw Divine washing my jeans in the room over. Scrubbing, rinsing, and scrubbing again. You must be smart and dressed very super when you go back to your family in America, she had said.

I had started the whole-Peace-Corps-thing without a clue in the world. When I came to Rwanda, I couldn’t have begun to imagine the type of life I would live.

Now, I was packing just a couple of bags and it was time to start again, this time leaving a place that had markedly changed me forever. It was time to begin – and to say goodbye – and I think I could finally understand what Imagine Dragons meant when they sang, “the path to heaven runs through miles of clouded hell.”

I witnessed, saw, and was a part of a lot of extraordinarily difficult things. Some of these things I will probably never quite process. But, in the end, the positive always outshone the negative. Darkness never wins.

*

It’s time to begin, isn’t it?

I get a little bit bigger, but then,

I’ll admit, I’m just the same as I was

Now don’t you understand?

That I’m never changing who I am?

For the first time in weeks, I opted out of church this morning. Instead, I slept in. Drank coffee in bed. And cleaned. I left the window of my room open to filter in fresh, crisp air as I removed the clutter that had infiltrated my drawers and closet the last couple of months. I stripped my bed and washed sheets. I got rid of old clothes. I gallivanted around my bedroom in my worn, pink slippers. My playlists of music were playing loudly and eventually I had to put on Imagine Dragons – my ‘go to’ for cleaning and lounging around the house.

“It’s Time” came on and it’s always amazing to me how music has the ability to transcend time and place and yet maintain that very personal meaning for each of us. Here I was, back home, cleaning my room, and that very song affected me just as strongly has it had as my time in Rwanda was winding down.

A bit differently, however.

Instead of reflecting on a life lived over the course of months and years, I thought a bit more about what lies ahead.

I’ve been discouraged lately by what’s happening in my life. While having a variety of options is a blessing and an extraordinary luxury, it’s also deeply disappointing and stressful when things don’t really line up in the way that you imagine it will. I’ve been aghast, wanting to simply give up.

Which, believe me, is a good thing.

You read that correctly. It’s good for me to give up – and by this I mean to give up the plans I construct for myself. I can make them, I should make them (after all, goal setting is incredibly important), but I must be open for God to take me elsewhere. Sometimes, our ideas for our lives are illusions and not exactly what we should be doing. God has always taken me right where I need to go – why would that be any different now?

So, yeah, I give up.

What is important to hold onto, I’m learning, is to not let go of being who you are, standing by your values, and what you believe to be true. Don’t settle. Don’t accommodate. You don’t have to. Even people who live in the worst conditions imaginable have the choice to live their lives fundamentally connected to what they believe to be true. We all have this power. And the last thing that I want to do is to give up all the way in my weariness for what the future might bring. If you believe in something, keep going.

never changing

It’s too easy to accommodate your dreams to the reality of the world. In tears, I recently told my best friend that perhaps all this time I had been naïve. I had been soft. I had been fighting for something that just might not make sense. That’s not the way the world works, I kept telling myself.

Those are all lies.

And while I give up my control to God – in the best way that I can – so that I will live a life that honors Him, there is nothing wrong with holding onto passions and a belief that even in our unclear, unforeseeable future, we will make a difference.

It’s time to begin, and don’t you understand? That I’m never changing who I am?

the awkward post-peace-corps-life-thing

*

Okay, so here’s the deal.

You’ve returned from a life abroad for two years, find a job, get a car, adjust.

Or, you at least attempt the whole adjusting thing. As most Peace Corps Volunteers would agree – adjustment doesn’t really just happen. It takes a while. Maybe it never really happens. I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out.

But regardless, life happens and you find yourself settling back in, awaiting your next big life move. Your life could go a hundred different ways in just a couple of months. You might go abroad again, you might study in the fall, you could take a job in another state, or you could pursue something you never thought you would. Crazy enough, your path could even take you to Rwanda again at some point. You really have no idea. I suppose that’s the beauty of being your mid-twenties with open doors all around you. It’s stressful, uncertain, but it’s kind of fun. When you’re in a good mood, anyway.

You spend most days at work. But you also read. You actually have a strange obsession with checking out a ridiculous amount of library books. You should probably talk to someone about that. You run a hell of a lot. Many days, several miles, at least.

And…?

That’s right, a social life would be nice.

You join match.com.

Yep.

*

I joined match.com about two weeks ago. I joined to meet new people, if nothing else. Turns out, when you are gone for two years, life goes on, and when you come home the friends you have had at home have gotten married, work full-time, and are even starting families.

And the other friends you have live all around the country. And so, I figured why not? I am interested in joining the dating world. I don’t really have a strong interest in getting married anytime soon (there’s quite a bit I want to do first) but it might be nice to see what is out there and find someone who shares similar interests in the world.

So you join. You creepily peruse the pictures of all sorts of men online. You feel strange. You laugh at the absurdity. You are messaged by complete creeps: “hi my sweetie you look so nice” and one guy is relentless in his messages. But for the most part, people look, well, normal. You find some prospects who like being outside, who like to travel, and are at the same point of life that you are.

You exchange some long-winded messages. You feel awkward.

Eventually, they ask for your number and you arrange a date.

A DATE.

Hold the phone. You haven’t been on one of these in quite a while. Moreover, you haven’t been on one of these in America in a really long time.

Peace Corps gives you a lot of skills, that’s not debatable. But when you spend the last years of your life trying to integrate into a rural African village and spend your nights alone writing letters, cooking, listening to the radio, and watching episodes of Friends, you lose a dash of social competency. This is for those volunteers.

I always joked with my friends in Rwanda that I would come home, start dating, and write a blog about all the mishaps, awkward moments, and glimpses of hilarity, courtesy of the incredible social skills that Peace Corps equipped me with. Well folks, here it is.

*

I went on a couple of dates last week.

The first one was at a small, homey Sushi restaurant. We shared a delicious meal.

I gawked at all of the choices and explained how overwhelming it was to see. I explained the various noises that Rwandans communicate with. Yes, noises. I proceeded to do a live demonstration of the “mmmmhms” and “eh-baba-wes” and “yesu weeeeeee” that makes up a large portion of Kinyarwanda communication. I asked way too many questions – just like a classic Rwandan mama. I thought a piece of the sushi was wrapped with bacon, not raw salmon like we had so obviously ordered. A main point of conversation was my fascination with American highways and how so many people drive alone and not together in cars. My eyes almost popped when he commented “to be honest, I’m not sure that I could ever travel to Africa.” Oh boy.

That was just date #1.

Date number two took place at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Denver.

Avoiding my tendency to run on Rwandan time, I showed up 20 minutes early. I grabbed a table and waited. And waited. I drank a margarita and read The Poisonwood Bible. Finally he calls and he’s gone to the wrong restaurant. In Lakewood. Say what? He comes, but an hour and a half after I had arrived at the restaurant. But here’s what he didn’t understand: I literally didn’t care. Doesn’t he get it? I am totally used to things starting late. In Rwanda, if you speak a time, you always tack on 2 hours. No big deal.

He’s tall and cute and I definitely stuttered a bit. Ummm…? I’m used to conversations about the coming of the crops, explaining life in America, and why the cows are the way they are. Now, a guy’s sitting in front of me talking about water purification (his job as a chemist) and mortgages and paying off his credit and all of these “grown up things”. I sit across from him thinking about how we are the same age and yet two very, very different people. Or at least we are in two very different walks in life. He’s well-traveled but tells me about five-star restaurants that his company caters him to. I tell him about pooping in a latrine 20 feet from my house. He smiles, but I think he’s completely freaked out. He asks me the tired, old question of “what was Rwanda like?” and I have a hard time answering. He also asks about what I like to do on the weekends. And the answer is so easy, and yet I feel insecure answering. Doesn’t he understand? Yeah, I love traveling, and reading, and writing, and being with my friends, and eating burritos, and running….but I’m still getting my bearings on living here. And so I don’t feel settled quite yet and I’m still trying to adjust from what I was doing on my weekends in Rwanda to what I do on my weekends here. But you can’t necessarily go into these details on a first-date and so I simply say, “oh you know, relaxing, and spending time with my family, and just exploring.” Which is true, but feels quite inadequate.

Still, we have a great time. And both of these boys, ahem, men, ask me out again. Apparently they liked me enough.

So we’ll see what happens.

*

But I want Peace Corps Volunteers to know this about re-entry: IT IS AWKWARD AND TOUGH AND WEIRD AND STRANGE AND DIFFICULT AND YOU OFTEN WANT TO RUN TO THE BATHROOM AND JUST CRY. But.

Persevere. Own your experience. It does add up to something.

That’s the thing – in dating and in just building other relationships since I have been back—I sometimes feel a bit weird explaining the last couple years of my life because I know people might not understand. It’s not flashy and it isn’t anything like what some of these guys have been doing – closing million dollar deals and building a career in sales and finance. I lose the words to say what it was like and how can you explain the kinds of things you learn from living in some of the most rural and isolated parts of the world?

So instead, I recommend just telling your stories. Because the people that care, will listen. And when it comes to dating, I’m seeing that guys that really want to understand will try. And even if they don’t, they’ll ask questions and be honest about what they think about what you did. And I think in the end, they respect you. Because you apparently did something that a lot of other people might not have any interest in doing.

And the guy you should want to date – or at least the guy I WANT to date – will be a guy that wants a kind of life that values what other parts of the world have to teach us. He will want to help and live a life of service. He will be a man of God and will at least understand that driving force behind what I would like to do with my life. So, I’m not sure I found him on these last couple of dates, but you never know. And there’s a lot more out there and so I won’t be deterred.

I’ll continue to be myself, be proud of what I have done, and you know, own it. And as far as being awkward goes, well, I just like to think that’s part of the package.

*

spending my friday night with my peace corps buddy, suzi. she get's the awkward-post-peace-corps-life thing.

spending my friday night with my peace corps buddy, suzi. she get’s the awkward-post-peace-corps-life thing.