The Bookmark Project, and Your Own Dreams.

The Bookmark Project in the making!

Hello wonderful readers,

I just want to give you an update on the Bookmark Project. For those who don’t know, I had started a little project with my neighborhood children in Nigeria which involved them decorating bookmarks, me laminating them in Nigeria, and then selling them upon my arrival in the U.S. The project will benefit the children and help their families pay for school fees, uniforms, textbooks, school supplies, and art supplies.

To read more about the Bookmark Project, please see my blog post titled, “Breaking Up with Doing My Best.”

Thanks to sixteen wonderful donors plus all the United Airlines flight attendants and Silk Road Montessori families who contributed to this cause, we were able to raise $374 for the children. Here in the States, $374 would only buy one week of education for one girl at St. Mary’s Academy (my alma mater). It would buy basic school supplies and a couple new pairs of shoes for two kids for one year at a public school.

But in Nigeria, and with the awesome exchange rate (well, awesome in one direction), $374 becomes N58,568. And THAT goes a long way. After this money is divvied up among the 17 children who participated, you’re looking at N3,445 per child. Do you even KNOW how far that will go?

This is enough for each child to get one year of public school fees paid for (yes, public schools cost money, which is why some children can’t go), plus enough for basic school supplies and even enough leftover to nearly pay for a brand new school uniform. Did I mention that that’s for seventeen children? Of course, not all the families will use it exactly like this. Some children attend private boarding schools (but don’t go thinking they’re anything like ours), some children will probably have more need for textbooks and supplies, others for art supplies. It’s really up to each family to decide.

I wired the money to my lovely and trusted neighbor, Mama Aina, via Western Union. I made it very clear to her that the money was for the children’s educational and creative benefit only, and she – as a Yoruba teacher at a secondary school – was fully on board with that. I called her today and told her how to collect the money, so hopefully there will be none of those hitches and glitches that all too often come with the Nigerian territory. She and the other families are beyond appreciative, and she said once the money is distributed they will get together to write a letter to me to pass on to all of you as well. I will somehow attach or scan or link up that letter on my blog when it arrives.

Stuff like this makes me happy. Even the frustrations of trying to accurately dictate the ten-digit tracking number to Mama Aina over the phone (you have no idea how hard it is for an oyinbo to say “three” and “six” in Nigerian English) made me smile. This world is an incredible place. Mama kept telling me how I’ve touched their lives forever, and it was easy for me to respond to that with an honest, “Me too.”

I’m so grateful for that entire experience, and if any of you out there have that urge, that bug, to get out of your comfort zone and reach out to the world in whatever way your heart moves you, I strongly encourage it. Despite the hardships and challenges I faced abroad on both internal and external levels, I wouldn’t take it back for anything. So check out VSO. Check out Peace Corps (though you won’t be getting sent to Kazakhstan anytime soon, so I’m blessed to have gotten the chance to go there when I did…). Check out travel destinations. Check out places in your local area you’ve always wanted to see. Do things you’ve always wanted to do. Reward yourself with experience, no matter how small it seems. It’s not small. Trust me.

This blog has been and will continue to be a metamorphosizing work in progress. No longer in Nigeria, there will be far fewer stories to tell about snakes, strikes, and schoolchildren. I’d like to be able to tell you how I see this blog evolving, but evolution is smarter than I am, so I’ll just stay out of the way. Much love, and until next time!

The Ainas

My okada driver and his family

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Making the Time to Notice Your Life

The hamster in the wheel. The racing rats. The gardener furiously chopping the tops of weeds and leaving the roots to flourish. This is me right now. This could be you. This is just about everyone at some point or another. Being in Nigeria – in all honesty here – with not much to do, gave me that much more time to to be inspired and to express that inspiration. It allowed me to look within, lean into my situation, analyze, discover, reflect, and interpret. It sparked creativity and moved me to write. And write. And write. I typed over 200 single-spaced pages in my journal. I wrote my blogs. I wrote lengthy emails. I started a book. I had TIME. I had SPACE.

And then I came home.

Bye bye, TIME. Farewell, SPACE. Adieu, Creativity, Inspiration, Writing.

I’m one blessed girl to return to this economically repressed country and snag a full-time job that I love in two weeks time. No complaints here. But since I’ve started work, my capacity to look within and search for meaning has been bleaker than black and hollower than a hole. And it’s because I have “no time.”

Do you ever have “no time?” No time to work out, no time to relax, no time to “live your life,” no time to express yourself creatively? Many of us have phases in our lives (for some it’s days and for others it’s decades) where we run and race and rush our way to that final moment when we say, “What the heck did I just do with my life?”

And it’s not to say that answering such a question would yield a depressing answer. Many of us love the things that keep us uber-busy. Many of us thrive on our fast-paced working and our go-go-going and our crossing things off the to-doing. But when we’re too busy to notice our movements in life, it is then that we feel like we missed out on it all.

Ever sat through a movie but didn’t really watch it? Ever gone to a concert but caught yourself daydreaming the whole way through without hearing a note? Ever eaten a meal and not realized it? I bet you have. And I bet you’d wished you had paid more attention. Because if you did, you may have enjoyed the movie (or turned it off because it was crap). Or you may have felt seriously moved by the music at the concert (or gone home and gotten a good night’s sleep because it was crap). Or you may have melted into the scrumptiousness of your meal (or saved your body the effort of digestion because it was crap and you weren’t hungry anyway).

But the more important questions are: Have you ever lived your life on autopilot, not noticing what you were doing and why? Have you ever stopped to reflect on, well, anything? The incredible trait which sets humans apart from nearly all of the flora and fauna out there is our capacity for self-awareness. So we might as well use it, eh? But often I forget or I push it aside. (“Yes, yes. I’ll think about that/deal with that/process that later.”)

My somewhat liberal schedule in Nigeria gave me time to be self-aware. I felt alive there, despite the ups and downs (or rather, because of them). The mere consciousness of these moods and motions and the time I made for reflecting on said consciousness gave me that deep sense of living. For me, being as busy as I am now in the States, I feel starved of that self-awareness. I’m living my life, working my job, hanging with friends, reading my books, enjoying myself, but not reflecting on any of it.

I miss my pondering and situation-dissecting. I miss my spiritual outlet and expression which comes in the form of philosophizing and writing. I’ve put it all on the waitlist for the next available backburner. I’m wondering if you also have a creative passion or self-reflecting outlet that’s been put on hold because you just don’t have the time or energy for it. I’m also wondering if we should let this keep happening. I’m thinking no.

When it’s all said and done, I want to know how the heck I’ve lived this life. I don’t want it to be a blur. I want to remember the good, the bad, the ugly, and the lovely. And this is why I stayed up WAY past my bedtime to write this post. Priorities.

Much love to you all, and thanks for being the better half of my creative outlet, the socket to my plug!

In Loving Memory…

While this may not be the appropriate forum to be sharing something like this, I nevertheless feel a desire to pay tribute to a blog follower of mine who just yesterday died from cancer. The reason I’m sharing this here is not to depress anyone but rather to uplift us. I believe that when something good comes our way, the more we can pass the energy forward, and learn from it ourselves, the better. I think Kari would agree.

I only met Kari once over a year ago; she was a dear friend of my Aunt. Despite our brief encounter, she has nonetheless made an impact on my life, just as many of you have. Her comments to my blog posts and a few personal emails she had written to me were inspiring, truthful, loving, and encouraging. I gained a lot from her simple words, her honest and open expression, her support and care. I could feel her love halfway across the world and I took energy from it. Her words gave me strength. One could tell from her comments alone that she viewed life in a very deep way, appreciating it for all its ups and downs, its challenges and excitements, and its depth and significance.

The other day I was driving down the street and a little phrase flashed in my mind out of the blue: “Live to Love.” It’s hard sometimes, to really get down to basics and realize that all this surface stuff that happens in our lives is really not the point. Not our careers, not our leisure activities, not the stuff we own, not our hobbies, not the shapes of our bodies or colors of our skin, not our political activism, not our convictions, not even the people we know…none of these are the point.

We have to live our lives, and we all do it within the context of this place called Earth and this human world theater we have thus created. This fact is inescapable. So I guess the point of it all is that behind all these things that we do, and own, and create, there is Love. And the good news is that love is available to everyone…not only the poor, not only the rich, not one religious group over another, not the educated as opposed to the uneducated. Everyone has the capacity to love.

So it’s not what we do, but how we do it. And if we try to do everything with love in our hearts, then we really can’t lose. Live to Love.

I think that’s what Kari did.

So thanks, Kari, and thanks, Readers. Let’s try to keep love in mind. It’s not always easy (though wouldn’t it be great if it were?), but we owe it to the world and to ourselves to give it our best shot!

Much Love,
Julie

Coming to America

I first started getting excited when our ten-hour Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Denver reached the far Northeastern part of Canada. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I first-first got excited when the gorgeous German velodrome cycling team was on our flight and one particular cutie had a seat next to mine. After that excitement wore off, I experienced a second wave of joy because I had finally reached North America!

On Hour 28 of the 34-hour journey, we landed in Denver. With the backdrop of the great Rocky Mountains, I noticed yellow wildflowers blooming along the brownish grass lining the taxiway. This actually gave me goosebumps and I had to take a picture. A couple minutes later I saw a huge Southwest plane roll by followed by a United jet on a nearby taxiway, both companies for which my flight attendant sister and mother work, respectively. Ahhh…My sister. My mother. My family.

I wish I could lie and tell you I was overwhelmed and even a bit disgusted by my reunion with America like they say I might be: the consumeristic airport shops, the oodles of options for just about everything, the sterile cleanliness, the ridiculous airport security with their naked body scanner and shoe removal. But the honest-to-God truth is that I was overjoyed by all of it. Giddy, really.

In the customs line, I could barely wipe the grin off my face. There was one dude ahead of me with hair and sideburns done up just like Elvis. Another guy boasted a long, red hippie beard and Birkenstocks. Some pale kid with a pierced lip looked super-lost without his skateboard, and a couple of giggling college girls wearing flip-flops and plaid pajamas reminded me of days of yore. At the front of the line stood a customs assistant: an adorable old man wearing a khaki vest, a southwestern-printed bow tie, and a cowboy hat, greeting everyone with a cheesy joke and telling them which customs window to wait at. Well this is new! I wanted to tell him I loved him, but I refrained. Many Nigerians are very friendly; it’s what they’re known for. But so are many Americans, as evidenced by this Wild West themed customs assistant. When the customs official was checking my passport and declaration form, we chatted a bit and I sputtered out something to the effect of how much I love America and God Bless this country. I hope that doesn’t come off as suspicious for some reason.

After arriving at the terminal, I went to a little restaurant and ate my first on-the-ground American food: moist carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and a real Diet Coke with lemon. YUMMY.

It is strange how everyone here looks familiar. I don’t know if other returning expats ever noticed that. But one out of every five people I saw, I thought, “Hey, I know her!” or “Oh, I’ve met that guy before!” Of course, I didn’t know her and I hadn’t met that guy, but I guess all white people do kind of look the same if you’re not used to them. I also noticed that just like in Nigeria, everyone was still staring at me. But that’s probably because I couldn’t stop staring at them! (Especially the German cyclists).

I know all this excitement is part of the initial phase of coming back. In fact, it’s already started to wear off a bit and things are getting back to normal in my mind. Evidently I’m in the honeymoon phase of reverse culture shock. For some people, once this wears off they may start to really miss their country of service or become quite cynical about America. They may even get depressed or feel isolated, and their friends won’t understand (or care to understand) all that they had just experienced. Some don’t feel like they have a home anymore: they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in their serving country, and now that they’ve changed from the experience, they no longer feel at home in their country of origin. For some reason, I have a funny feeling this is not going to happen to me.

In fact, the closer I get to home, the more solid I feel about the decision I made to leave. Of course, this is nothing to do with Nigeria, but everything to do with me and my own reaction to my job placement and general life there. During the near seven months I was in Nigeria, one VSO volunteer lost her dad. Another lost her mum. Another left early because of the trauma incurred by the post-election violence up North in April (over 500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced…oh, you didn’t hear about that?). Another volunteer was sick for several months with some mysterious something and had to have an unpleasant surgery in Nigeria. Another couple got their house robbed while one was sleeping there. Another had to get a placement change because of really sketchy and totally scary circumstances which I can’t go into on a public blog. And a VSO staff member got in a car accident breaking his collar bone after only three months of being in the country.

Nope, I don’t regret leaving when I did. These stats don’t seem to affect many people. But as I mentioned in a previous blog, I’m a softy and they sure affect me. Which is sad, because leaving early means that I’ll always feel some disappointment for not completing my service. But all things considered, work placement included, I did what I had to do. I will also continue to love and miss the people I met and the experiences that have made me mature in so many ways.

But the bottom line is that there’s no place like home, and God Bless America. I feel at peace. And so do my parents. The greeting at the airport with them and my brother was joyous! AND I came home to a fridge full of grapes (they’re in my belly now), Greek yogurt, three-bean salad, jumbo bananas, almonds, and Adams natural peanut butter! Complaints? I think not!

The next blog will be an update about the children’s bookmark project for those wondering about its progress.

Much Love,
Julie

Gate to Portland, Oregon

Goodbye, Nigeria…

Loveth by her daddy's okada

Can you believe it? Can you believe I’m going back to Oregon in two days? Well, if you’ve only been reading my blogs, you probably can’t. But if you’ve been a listening ear (either here in Nigeria or back at home), you probably can. And if there were a window to my heart and mind, you most certainly could.

I agonized over a three-page blog about why I was leaving: writing, rewriting, and editing for about 12 hours in total. I scrapped it. Then I slaved over another one, trying to be really honest and accurate. I scrapped that, too. I can’t find a way to publicly share exactly what happened because there are too many feelings, thoughts, opinions, and other people involved to really expose on the worldwide web. If you’d like to email me privately to get more of the scoop, please feel free! I don’t mind sharing, I just can’t do it via a public blog.

So here goes nothing!

———————————————

Within days of arriving at my small town placement in Kwara State, I struggled. I struggled with isolation, I struggled with missing my parents and friends, I struggled with the not so far-fetched thought that each time I boarded a vehicle – be it bus, taxi, van, or okada – it could be my last. I struggled with the fear that if anything happened to my family or to me while I was gone, I would never forgive myself. Barely a day went by in the first couple months where I didn’t cry or feel like crying. It. Was. Tough.

And then there were things I didn’t exactly struggle with, but that pulled the tension wires just a bit tighter. These were the expected nuisances like schizophrenic electrical supply, being greeted every 14.2 seconds when out in public, being stared at, being expected to offer money and gifts, sociological beliefs I didn’t agree with, and the heat. (Surprisingly, I didn’t fret too much about having no running water, no refrigeration, taking bucket baths, or sweeping wall-to-wall carpeting with a Nigerian broom).

But the biggest concern was my job at the College of Education and my personal relationship with the work I was supposed to be doing. If I had felt emotionally satisfied or at peace with the work, and if I had felt supported by the College (which had been a ghost town for 2/3 of my time spent in Oro due to on/off strikes), I know I could have worked through all the other struggles and tensions. In many ways I was much tougher than I thought, and was able to pick myself up and forge ahead, despite the hardship. But even with the guidance and support of organizations like VSO and ESSPIN, I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the seemingly hopeless work at the College, and I couldn’t wrap my heart around anything solid to help motivate me. So this was the main issue I had, not the hardships of living in Nigeria, not the isolation, not the culture shock or national security issues.

And after a bit over six months, signs dropped like bombs, both literal and figurative, telling me it was time to go home.

August 25: Fifteen armed robbers stormed into a bank in a very nearby town and murdered three people. This had happened in another town close in proximity just one month before. Locals feared Oro was next.

August 26: A suicide bomber, purportedly from the growing Islamic fundamentalist group in Nigeria called Boko Haram, detonated a bomb at the UN building in Abuja, killing 23 people.

August 27: A personal relationship I was in completely dissolved. This relationship had been wonderful in so many ways and had given me a lot of incentive to stay. It was like my glue. When this disappeared, I wasn’t emotional; I simply looked around and saw that there were precious few reasons for staying, particularly when weighing the risks involved in living here.

But let me clarify. Having “precious few reasons for staying” by no means indicates there weren’t amazing things happening. In fact, the most profound, life-changing, heartfelt, significant experiences of my entire life have happened here in this country. That is no exaggeration and I’ll try to blog on it later. These experiences have come mostly in the form of personal relationships. But when here to do a job, when I’m supposed to be spending the majority of my daytime hours doing a specific task, and that task is not working out for various reasons, it’s really hard to justify staying (especially considering all the struggles and safety issues), despite the wonderful people I have met here. I couldn’t just stay simply to hang out during the evenings on a friend’s porch while she cooked stew. I couldn’t just live here 24 hours a day for one and a half more years because my presence gave the neighbors joy. I couldn’t rationalize suffering during the workweek simply because I enjoyed the company and friendship of other VSO volunteers and expats during the weekends.

I came here to do some soul-searching. I came here to find myself, to gain strength and confidence, to have an impact, to acquire new perspectives on life. I accomplished all of these things and SO much more. I have changed the lives of others for the better. I have made connections and friends which will alter my life forever. I have left a legacy and have been an ambassador of not only my country but of the West. I have discovered more about what I want in life, and even more about what I don’t want. I have finally found peace with who I am and where I’m from. I know that the journey will continue, and I’m looking forward to every moment.

I am not leaving Nigeria because of safety and security issues. I am not leaving because of the relationship falling apart. I am not leaving because I miss my family and friends. I am not leaving because of my job. I am not leaving because a lizard once fell on my head or because the weather gives me zits. There is no singular event that has pushed me to this. I am leaving because a voice inside of me, which I’m starting to trust more and more, whispered to me that it was time. It hadn’t been the right time before, not even when I was crying every day for weeks straight. The voice didn’t really speak to me then, which is why I stayed. But now it has spoken and it’s time to go.

And the way I can know that this is true is because I feel at peace in my heart. I feel this strange sense of contentedness which one only finds after making the right choice or when one has completely finished a project. Despite the four days of crying while saying my goodbyes to my neighbors and friends, and despite the fact that there are many things about Nigeria that I will deeply miss, and despite the fact that this experience has changed me forever, my work here is done.

And to completely affirm my decision, a couple of days ago, a volunteer friend of mine called me with some very sad news. She was visiting her homeland to celebrate her mother’s 65th birthday. Several days after the birthday celebration while my friend was still visiting, her mother died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. I. Can’t. Imagine. And this has been a fear of mine, varying in intensity, from the start of this trip: that something would happen to me or my family while I was gone. How I interpret this fear is that I love my home, I love my family, I love my life in America. And I know this is such a cliche, but I have to say it: I absolutely had to leave home to appreciate it. And who knows, I may have to leave again somewhere down the road. Life is funny like that.

But when weighing the pros and cons, which I painstakingly did at the end, I have found that the reasons for staying here no longer outweigh the reasons for going back home. And that’s the end of it.

I feel terrible that I’ve broken my promise to CUSO-VSO, VSO, ESSPIN, and the people I’ve met and am leaving behind, and even for the College. I promised two years and I gave them six and a half months. But when considering intensity of impact rather than longevity of stay, I would say that my VSO placement was beyond 110% successful (wink to those who read my last blog post!).

VSO’s motto is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives.” I did that to the max. However, my skills had little to do with “teacher training” and everything to do with just being me. For example, I gave one family love, hope, and quite a bit of financial support, which will give them the opportunity to start a business and pull themselves out of poverty. I offered a young boy a new standard of what it means to be treated well when he cried and told me, “Julie, nobody has ever been as good to me as you have.” I gave neighborhood children time and space to express their creativity by inviting them to color and play at my house, and soon I’ll be selling their bookmark artwork in the States and wiring the money back so they can have new art supplies, school uniforms, and support with school fees. I had a short but powerful relationship with someone which helped both of us heal to become stronger and better people. The sheer number of tears shed and sad words shared (my own included) on account of my departure proved to me that lasting impressions were made.

It’s not like I came to hurt people or myself by this coming-and-going. I came to feel more alive. Nigeria and its people will make you feel alive.

This blog post is long enough. Sorry it’s not as well written as some of my others. My brain is just tired. I will write some more on the bookmark project, lessons I’ve learned, and more stories as I recall them, especially about the potential culture shock I may experience from going back home!

And for those curious, my plan now is to temporarily move back home with my parents, then find a lovely little house in Lake Oswego, a good job, perhaps a partner, certainly a cat, and live with appreciation and joy for my life. Until the next bug gets me and I have to stir it all up again. Such is life.

I can’t thank all of you readers enough for joining me on this journey. Knowing you have been here, graciously allowing me to share my ups and downs, has been such a blessing. You have inspired me to dig deeply into myself and uncover both the jewels and the junk. In fact, when I recently compiled my (weighted) pros and cons list to help in my decision-making, I found that writing this blog and receiving your responses in the form of emails, comments, and phone calls was one of the highly-rated pros. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

Breaking Up with “Doing My Best”

Aim High!
Give it 110%!
You can do anything!
Reach for the stars!

But I ask you this: what’s wrong with aiming no higher than personal satisfaction? Or giving it a percentage that mathematically exists? Or recognizing that yes, you might be able to do anything, but do you really want to? Or seeing that reaching for the stars is a bit overkill?

I’m taking you in this direction for a reason, so just bear with me for the next few paragraphs.

This past week, thanks to the creativity of my Supermom and my own get-up-and-go-ness, I have embarked on a little project for the neighborhood kiddos whom I enjoy so much (read the previous post for more details).

Since they adore hanging out at my house, either coloring, reading, or playing games, I figured why not turn my home into a little playhouse of sorts? Well, to do this would be great, but I have no books (the ones they read last time belong to a school), a short order of art supplies, and limited games (aside from the ones made out of throwaway items).

Soooo, the idea is that we will sit together and design and decorate bookmarks. These will all be very unique, particularly considering the children range from ages 4-15. After they make a zillion gajillion bookmarks, we will have them laminated and tasseled, and then when my sister comes in October to visit, she will take them back to the States and give them to my mom who will then sell them for whatever people are willing to give. All of the proceeds would then come back to setup the playhouse, where kids can come and do activities that they normally don’t get to do in their own homes.

So that’s the plan. We had our first and second bookmark making sessions this week and they were both a success.

Success? Did she just say success? Martha Stuart would be rolling over in her grave if she heard that and if she had one. To start, the first day I didn’t provide appropriate cardstock or art supplies to make the bookmarks, so we just used regular typing paper and markers. I didn’t really show them any special way to make the bookmarks look professional and artistic; I just gave them a few ground rules and said “Go For It.” The second day I did obtain cardstock, but the crayons were too thick and the markers too few.

Nevertheless, between ten and twelve children joyfully made 58 bookmarks this week, and they can’t wait to come back and do it again. And I had fun, too! See the pictures attached.

(If you want to place an order, please leave a comment on my blog saying, “I want, I want!” And I will figure out a way to send some to you; but you won’t receive them till November!)

But after they left my house, I kept hearing the fiendish little voice from the Ghost of Julie Past haranguing in my head,

You could have done better. You didn’t try very hard to find the right cardstock or coloring materials. You’re kind of doing a half-ass job of this. Everyone’s going to tell you this could be really big, but you don’t really want it to get that big. That sounds like a lot of work. What’s wrong with you? Why are you so unambitious? Why don’t you want to make it better and more professional and more successful? You know you can do better and not be so half-hearted about it. Don’t you care about the kids? Don’t you want the most for them?

And during this episode of psychotic self-beratement, I stopped dead in my mental tracks and thought, “Julie! Shush!” I know, I know…not a deep thought. But the subsequent thoughts kind of were. I started questioning why I felt so bad about doing something good in the first place. It shouldn’t be that way. I should feel proud of what I’m doing, not guilty for not doing enough.

AHA! That was it! …not doing enough. Not good enough. Not working hard enough. ENOUGH! Western culture is constantly pushing the idea that one can always improve, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also told that not only can we improve, but that we should improve. That we should not settle. We can always work harder, be happier, be wealthier, be thinner, be stronger, do better, and all those other irritating “-er” words.

Why can’t we just be who we are? By believing we should always seek to “do better,” many of us assume therefore that we must not be good enough as we are.

I am finding a lot about myself here, particularly in terms of balance. I’m not a person who enjoys or functions well on stress and high expectations (particularly the self-inflicted sort). I gather many people aren’t. Ironically, that’s how I’ve spent much of my life. And I’ve made the mistake too many times of quitting or not even starting something because I didn’t think I’d be good enough at it, or because I knew I wouldn’t be willing to put in the effort – the 110% it would take – to be exceptional. You can see how this kind of logic actually works against a person.

So with this bookmark project I realized I had three choices:

1. Quit and not do it at all because I know good-and-well that I don’t have the energy or desire to turn this into a entrepreneurial escapade resulting in a fully equipped play center with a multimedia library, a laser tag venue, an art studio, and an inflatable castle.
2. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, yet all the while feeling guilty and ashamed for not “reaching for the stars” and only giving my 65%.
3. Continue the project the way I’m doing it, with a few improvements here and there, as I feel comfortable doing, balancing my own desires and drives, and all the while feeling good that the kids can come over and be excited and proud of their work, and even make a little money from it, despite me only giving my 65%.

“But,” you ask, “wouldn’t the kids be more proud and more excited if they had better materials and a more prepared teacher, willing to go the extra mile to make these bookmarks look like they came out of Barnes and Noble?” Probably. “But, Julie!” you exclaim, “It would be so easy to turn this thing into something really successful if you just dedicated more of yourself to it!” Probably. But that would be at the expense of me and my time/energy expenditure allotment. I just want everyone to have fun with this and see where it goes. It’s just that simple. No stress, just good times.

I know that in order to be at peace with myself, I need to live in balance, both literally and mentally. If I don’t, I’ll just end up quitting or crying or both. Not pretty. I’m not saying never try to improve or never work hard. Not at all. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t put out great effort. I’m just saying that it helps to know what your priorities are and to not beat yourself up for having to prioritize in the first place. I can’t (no do I want to) give everything my all, and I’m finally learning that feeling guilty about that is highly counterproductive.

Sometimes reaching for the stars burns you. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you actually doesn’t make you stronger, it might really end up killing you. And sometimes you freeze and end up doing nothing because you’ve been told you can do anything. So I’m peacefully pleased to be starting this humble little bookmark venture, seeing where it goes, and enjoying each moment of it with the kids. And that’s good enough for me.

Quitters Sometimes Never Prosper

I’m approaching August 13th, my six-month mark, and as many of my friends and family know, that was the day I was going to allow myself to pack up my bags and a few Nigerian souvenirs and go home. During those first three months, when a general underlying misery got the better of me, I told myself that I couldn’t leave before six months were up. I knew I had to give this experience time, and I also felt that it would be very irresponsible and unfair to CUSO-VSO and VSO to leave so prematurely. I had to at least stick it out for 25% of my commitment.

And I’m really glad I did. Like REALLY glad. This is not to say I don’t ever miss home or that I don’t have those moments where I wish I were at the 23 month mark instead of the six. Disappointingly (to myself), I’m not one of those volunteers who integrates into her new environment so much that she disappears into the background like Waldo from those 1990s Where’s Waldo books. No, unfortunately, up to this point I’ve been the volunteer that still feels and lives like an outsider looking in. A happy and lovable outsider with a growing number of Nigerian friendships, but an outsider nonetheless. I guess I’m less like Waldo and more like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I’ve been finding that when I get in downer moods here, I get a strong urge to throw in the towel and call it quits. But when everything is hunky dory peachy keen, I absolutely love this place and never want to leave. (I call this the Pendulum Syndrome). In Oregon I didn’t have the luxury of “quitting” and going home when things got rough, because I was already there! There was no home to go back to. But if I dig a bit deeper, I can discover quite a bit of hidden irony: I did indeed quit my life in Oregon, which is perhaps one reason why I’m in Nigeria. But that’s waaaaay to deep to get into here. Let’s just agree that moods are moods, and they happen everywhere you go, whatever the circumstances. It’s just that they feel far more intense when you’re Clifford instead of Waldo.

But despite the ups and downs, life here is pretty darn amazing. So the rest of this post is just going to dish out a few of the reasons and stories that explain why staying here, despite any personal hardship, is worth it. The cake is most certainly worth the candle.

1. A Kindred Spirit.

I have made a friend here that I never would have expected and who is changing my life at every corner. I just thank my lucky * stars * that we met. He’s helping me gain so many new perspectives on life, myself, living in Nigeria, and everything in between. And on top of that, he’s just loads of fun and a breath of fresh air. Merci, D!

2. The Neighborhood Children.

LOVE them. Seriously. It all started with a little 11-year old who I invited over once a week to “tutor.” His mom thought we were being all academic and responsible, but really we just ended up playing games like hangman and making puzzles and coloring (which, by the way, is just what the doctor ordered for both of us). He started opening up to me about all sorts of things – some sad and some shocking – and I know that just me being me is changing this little guy’s life. The other day as he was leaving my house, he turned around and said, “I will never forget you, Julie.” Like WOW.

Because of my visits with this little guy, word on the street is that Julie’s house is fun. So now I find myself in a situation like yesterday, with one young girl absolutely absorbed in a storybook on my couch, another little boy drawing, five other kids “bowling” on my veranda with a balled up reusable shopping bag (Thanks Mom!) and fifteen plastic bottles, and me and another boy keeping score. Every now and then they would break into dance when my iTunes started playing something groovy like electronic raver music or Kathryn Claire’s KinderQueen. It was just too awesome for words. The best part was when I turned around to see one tiny three-year old girl giggling behind the visor of my full-face motorcycle helmet, her neck swaying to keep her heavy head in place. I don’t know how she didn’t tip right over with the weight of it!

And just a few days before that, I had four children of various ages, reading silently for over an hour on the couches in my sitting room. When they were done with one book, they went quietly over to the box of storybooks I have (that are actually for a school but I haven’t delivered them yet) and would choose another one. In the midst of this, I was trying to read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but it’s near impossible to read about existential despair when you’ve got four adorable children sitting around you with their heads buried in books because there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.

3. Animals.

Oh, the joys of fauna here in Naija. The other night as I was walking across my yard with my neighbor friend, I felt a sharp bite on the top of my foot. I lifted my leg to brush whatever it was off and noticed that it was just an ant. But oh, no! Don’t be fooled! There is no such thing as “just an ant” when it’s the biting kind! I gulped, looked down around the steps to my front door, and saw exactly what I knew I’d see but hoped I wouldn’t. Soldier ants. Thousands of them. And the little terrors were marching not in lines but in blobby masses right toward my front door and into my veranda. At this point I already felt at least three more pinches, from my feet all the way to my chest. They can get under your clothes and up your body in seconds! If you’ve ever heard stories about ants in the millions killing sleeping infants and small children, these be the ones. Thank God I’m a 5’10” adult. And if you haven’t heard the stories, Google it. (Sister, I know what you’re thinking…don’t you DARE back out of coming to visit! Read on!)

Anyway, long story short, my neighbor ordered me to take off my clothes immediately and hang them up on the washing line. She then got some insecticide from my kitchen and doused the area where the ants were invading. In minutes, they were dead. My security guard refused to go home when I told him to, even though he spends the night in the open-air garage of my house. That night I slept with my door shut tight and the insecticide bottle by my door, ready for action. The next morning, I was pleased to see my brave guard alive and well, yet not so pleased to find him laughing jovially at me and my previous night’s display of trepidation. I guess this wasn’t his first time with soldier ants. Eventually some guys came over and sprayed chemicals on my lawn and cut it down with handheld tools called grass cutters.

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Soldier Ants Bite. (See, Sister? It’s all okay now! See you in a couple months!)

And on a lighter and less lethal note, the other day when I was going on a run I came across about twenty Fulani cattle and their herder (quite an adorable young man, might I add). I didn’t want to scare them, so I very considerately slowed down to walk past them. As I was greeting the herder with a wide smile and wave, I ever so gracefully stumbled over a rock and yelped. ALL the cattle (and about five goats) started bolting in every direction imaginable. The herder looked quite bemused but not without a slight trace of annoyance. He went along to regroup his herd, and right when he had them all back together, I skidded a bit on a rocky little dip in the road, and the poor beasts started running away again, this time back in the direction from which they came! Oh boy…the cute herder man was not amused this time! He rounded them all up again, and – with intense concentration – I managed to get past them without a stumble.

So hello and goodbye August 13th; you’re just another day on the calendar now.

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