Sunday, February 28, 2010

The real story

My favorite part of Quaker meeting is women's group. There was at one time a men's group as well, but it fizzled. Women's group is going strong for any woman who wants to spend 90 minutes listening and talking.

The time is divided between the number of people who show up, and you each get a turn to speak about whatever is going on in your life. If you want, other people give you feedback.

I'm usually the youngest at 24, and I believe the oldest is in her seventies. It means that whatever stage you, your job, your children, your relationship, or your parents are going through, there's probably someone else who's been through it before.

"I'm addicted to computer games."

"I'm doing great."

"Oh shit, my daughter isn't like I thought she was going to be."

"Sometimes you want to say, 'Do you have to chew like that?'"

"I'm fine as long as I get my 30 mg of Celexa a day."

"If it helps, eleven was the hardest year with my daughter. I would have sold her for a nickel."

"I married my wild oat."

It's such a relief to be able to speak the truth and hear other people's truths. I talk to lots of people every day, do many exchanges of "How are you?" with no real answers. You can't answer "How are you?" with "I'm trying to decide if I should apply to grad school," or "I just read the most amazing poem," or "Fighting back tears, thanks."

How could we do this more widely? How could we make spaces where people can talk about what is really going on with them? I think psychotherapy has its place, but I want something different from that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Love in a war zone

One thing I love about Oxfam (where I work) is the attitude about the people we work with. Too many nonprofits paint poor people as miserable victims, waiting for aid from rich countries. There's that inevitable photo of the crying baby.

Oxfam sent the photographer Rankin to a refugee camp in Congo to get a different kind of picture. He writes:

I expected to be depressed. I had done my homework; the statistics were horrific. I could only imagine what the human face of those statistics would look like. The people I met confounded my expectations. I met fathers, mothers, children... all getting on with life, making it through, even having a laugh and a joke. These people didn't see themselves as victims, despite the bad hand that fate had dealt them. They were human beings, exactly the same as you and me.

View a slideshow of Congolese refugees telling about the people and things they love. Don't get me wrong, these people need help. They need clean water, homes, a way to make a living. Most of all they need an end to the war. But they are people, not numbers.

"I love my guitar. It is my most precious possession. I have had to run from my village three times because of the war. I leave everything behind except my guitar. Even if it's dangerous I always go home and take my guitar before I run. I can forget all of my worries when I'm playing."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


I am an introvert living in a studio apartment with an extrovert. An extrovert who whistles. Who reads aloud the parts that annoy him. Who has not really mastered the fiddle.

Sometimes I need to hide.

I recently rearranged one of our closets so there is room for a Julia nook. There's a lamp hanging from the curtain rod, cushions to sit on, pictures on the wall. It gets wireless through the wall from the neighbor's apartment. Best of all, it has a door that shuts.

I think this will be useful for my sanity.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Here's to you, Mrs. Lipovic

I have two paperwhite bulbs on my windowsill, one past blooming and the other about to. I had never really though about plants' ability to make water and carbon dioxide into stems, roots, and flowers. I think I had assumed that they got most of their substance from the soil, like I do from food. But I give these bulbs nothing more than water, air, and a not-very-sunny window, and they go from dry oniony things to blooming green plants. The process is just amazing.

In high school I tutored an eleven-year-old refugee who had moved from Bosnia to Germany to Virginia with her family. They had lived on a farm at one point, and she spoke longingly of the open space and the flock of chickens she had charge of. They lived in a stark apartment complex full of other refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa. The streets had pretentious English names like Regency Drive and Nottingham Village Lane, but you never heard anyone speaking English there. There were no trees. The girl's mother, Mrs. Lipovic, looked worn and gray but always had candy and a vase of plastic flowers on the donated coffee table. I wanted to give her flower seeds, blue morning glories that could grow huge and rambling around the door of their cheerless apartment, but Mom explained that their landlord might not take kindly to that. I didn't want to give her a potted plant for fear it would die (like potted plants seem to do most of the time) and embarrass her.

Now it seems so obvious - I should have given her paperwhite bulbs. They only cost a dollar, and they're nearly impossible to kill. When I look at them, I always think of Mrs. Lipovic in her dreary apartment in a foreign country.