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!

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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.