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