Visits with the Sick and Dying

•July 21, 2014 • 2 Comments

The last time, I went into the small three story house in Queens, there was so much music and people coming in and out of the house, it was clear a celebration was going on. The house had so much energy and laughter, that no one seemed to remember or be concerned with death. Last week, when I back to the house. The place seemed a little smaller and everyone in the home moved a little slower. The delicate balance of supporting and caring for a loved one that is dying, was tiring and everyone wanted to be called out of the game and desperately needed a break.

The few months, consist of calls throughout the day but typically include “L, ____ fell or is the hospital, come if you can”.  In the beginning, I used to ask, if they were ok, if they were still alive.  Lately, I just left for the  hospital.  I realized  that the last time that I got the call, I needed to know more. At that point, I was becoming numb and scared of what I was not feeling. How could life be so polar? How could it be that I was just waiting for this person to die? I thought maybe if I did not distance myself or provide care and support from far, maybe I would start feeling again for this person.

Somewhere in between grieving, being in denial and doing my own thing I fell on the floor in their home, crossed my legs and surrendered to my treasure chest. There was not A Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for watching a loved one die slowly. One of the places in this home that holds memories was the chest with photos. Thousands of photos and proofs from the seventies until early 2000s are in this piece of furniture.

Totally unorganized. Just like that persons life. Before, all the falls , this loved ones health was deteriorating. My memories of this person were so polar. Good, bad. Mean, happy. Young, old. Healthy, sick. Then I went into the treasure chest, the place that I went when I needed to cry, laugh or just think. Photos I had never seen before, things that I learned, things that I barely remember, were all there. They were documented and would be left behind even when this person was gone. And, at that moment, things were not so polar.

I woke them up and said “where was this taken?” Sure enough they remembered many of the details and closed their eyes and laughed a little and I held onto the pictures.  After my visits, instead of focusing on the physical changes, their difficulty to breathe, their crankiness, or less than stellar updates from their doctors. I look at the new pictures, that I am starting to collect in my home,  after visits with my family member who is dying a slow death.

 

 

The Little Boss :)

The Little Boss :) 

 

 

 

Me with the Yellow Bows

Guest Blog: I Made a Decision

•May 19, 2014 • 3 Comments

Editor’s Note:  Today, I am posting the guest blog for my child hood friend Andrea Johnson.  She is an adventurer, sister, friend and all around awesome person.  She writes about her choice to take some time and explore the world.  I hope that you all find this story as inspiring as I did. 

Love & Laughs,

ReFlecktionary!!

 

What makes a perfectly happy 28-year-old female with a good job, an adorable downtown apartment, great friends and loving family decide that she needs to throw it all away to travel the world? It’s a good question, and even though I happen to be that woman, I still don’t have a good answer for you.

The desire to “get away from it all” isn’t something that sneaks up on you; it’s something that is there all along, bubbling below the surface. My parents took me traveling as I was growing up and always encouraged exploration, so maybe that is what planted the seed. But somehow I don’t think so.  Maybe it was something I was running away from, but I must admit that I was actually pretty happy. So that can’t be it either.  I am inclined to think that it has more to do with breaking the image of perfection.

Growing up, I was always the girl who got straight A’s in school; I didn’t often get into trouble, I was dependable and reliable.  I was, and still am, someone who likes organization and having a plan. I don’t like to fail. I graduated from college with a degree in Business, got a good job in banking, and continued my success into adulthood. So why run off to see the world, leaving all this behind. Wasn’t I already doing all of the things I was supposed to be doing? Why not continue checking off items on society’s How to Live a Perfectly Happy and Successful Life List?

I suppose I wanted to see if I could do it: go from earning a healthy salary, drinking wine and eating tapas on the weekends with friends, coming home to my own apartment… to essentially being homeless and unemployed. This is a frightening challenge. In fact, it scared the shit out of me. Here I am, someone who likes plans and certainty: “why are you not putting a down payment on a house? Why not move up in the company, take that promotion? Why not think about long-term relationships and marriage?” I asked myself. But a little voice inside me said, “just go.”

And I listened.

I quit my job, gave notice at my apartment, and got a storage unit for anything that I couldn’t fit in my newly purchased 65-liter backpack. I sorted out a visa for Europe and then I bought a plane ticket: one-way.

The day I left, I was still doing last minute things like saying good-bye to friends and doing a final cleaning of my apartment to make sure I would get back my deposit. In retrospect, I think I subconsciously did this on purpose. I stayed so busy that I didn’t give myself time to think too hard about everything… or change my mind.

When I was finally ready to leave, I headed to my mother’s house and hefted my backpack into the backseat so she and my father could drive me to the airport. I went around the other side of the car to get in myself and everything hit me. I started to cry and panic. I couldn’t help it. Tears streamed down my face and my emotions got caught in my throat, choking me.

Luckily, mothers have the amazing habit of knowing just what to do at the right time to make everything better. Without me saying a word, she came over and hugged me.  Then my father put his hand on my back, too. We stood like that for quite a while before my mom looked me in the eye and told me that it was okay to feel what I was feeling; it was okay to be afraid. She reminded me that something deep inside me, something I didn’t really understand myself, was telling me to go. And I needed to listen.

Now when I think about that moment—a moment that seems so far away—I think two things: Firstly, I laugh that I was so scared. Once you take that initial jump, the journey is so much easier. Traveling the world—new food, new cultures, new languages, new challenges every day—is not as hard as it seems. And secondly, I am thankful. I am thankful that my mother could be so brave to send her daughter off into the big, wide world; that she could be strong for both of us, setting her own fears aside to help me face mine.

In the past two years I have been in twenty-two countries on five continents. As I write this, I am sitting in a hostel on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand, and I have at least five more countries to go before I look at settling somewhere. I have climbed to the top of Machu Picchu and felt closer to religion than I ever had before; I rode a camel through the desert in Morocco at sunset; I mushed my own team of sled dogs through the Arctic wilderness under the northern lights in Norway; I have swam in seas and oceans and rivers and lakes and had more tan lines come and go than I can count. I have fallen in and out of love, made new friends, and strengthened friendships I already had.

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(Wat Chiang Man; Chiang Mai, Thailand)

 

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(Dog sledding in Tromsø, Norway)


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I have lived. And I have proven to myself that I can do anything I put my mind to.

I know I won’t travel forever. I am not the type of person that wants to be a permanent nomad, I still have too much desire for structure and plans and stability pumping through my veins for that. I have not found the “answer” to life by traveling; all of my problems or concerns have not vanished into thin air. When I decide to stop, I will still face the same questions everyone does: where to live, where to work, how to cultivate relationships with friends, family and my community. But traveling has given me strength and the knowledge that I can face every challenge as it arises. It’s okay to take the route that wasn’t planned: it may seem scary at the beginning, but the journey can be truly wonderful.

 

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(Erg Chebbi sand dunes; Sahara Desert, Morocco)

Guest Blog: Transitions are…

•May 12, 2014 • 1 Comment

This is another update from one of our favorite guest bloggers, Bianca Mona.  

Where do I start?  Let’s see…

  • Change is HARD and constant.
  • Transition is usually longer than expected.
  • Following dreams brings discomfort, isolation, and loneliness.

Hmmmmm… I’ll start with this.

Relocation/starting new/new beginning is hard.  It’s emotionally taxing.  You doubt and question yourself constantly. “What am I doing?”  “What is the purpose?”  “What do I want to get out of this?”  Most days I am fine.  I explore new spaces and meet with new folks.  I live.  But there are other moments.  Moments when I’m crabby and sad.  Moments when I feel like it’s me against the world.  It’s with this energy that I write this piece.  As I write, I am tearing up, mostly out of isolation and fear of the unknown.

Upon my arrival, I was reading tons of travel and expat blogs.  I was looking for tips and suggestions on A) what I should be doing with my time and 2) mechanisms to cope and adjust.  I didn’t find any of this.  I did however, find a posting that questioned why one relocates.  It asked the reader to consciously consider what she intends to get out of this relocation.  Now, believe it or not, this was the first time I really thought, “Bianca, why are you really in South Africa and what do you want to get out of it?”  My initial thoughts around going to South Africa were simple:

  • I was ready to leave the US.   I consider myself a global citizen and way back in 6th grade I told myself that I would live around the world.  I had reached a professional and personal lull in the US.  No great job thing happening.  My relationship was rocky and slowly coming to an end.  And I was living with my momma. So I thought, why not?
  • I wanted to live in Africa.  Yes, I do have aspirations to go many places in the world but after many trips to the Caribbean and Central America, I thought it time to travel to my ancestral home continent, even if not in the exact location.
  • Last, I needed to be somewhere, where I could continue to work as an arts educator, administrator, and curator.  South Africa was great for that as its major cities are cultural and artistic hubs.

But now that I am here, (and after reading that blog), I now am faced with reevaluating those initial reasons.  South Africa is nothing like what I expected.  Cape Town in particular can be homogeneously like any other beach town in the world.  The city itself, as well as its environs lacks cultural distinction. I don’t necessary feel like I’m in Africa and thus am not being challenged by the everydayness of a “developing” nation.  So, I’m not feeling too global here.

In addition, I am currently not working and so my hopes of developing professionally are stalled.  This halt definitely has me evaluating why I’m here.  For years, I’ve said “a job doesn’t define me.  I am so much more than a career.”  But let me be real here, for a moment.  Someone like myself who has two Master’s degrees and about to begin working on a doctorate is more than concerned with making a professional dent.  I have knowledge and skills that I want to utilize and am frustrated that these organizations aren’t valuing these assets.  (Yes, I know this is ego talking.)

So now I’m faced with some internal reflection.  “Why and what Bianca do you hope to get out of this adventure?”  I don’t quite have an answer but when I evaluate how I have grown, I do see progress.  Here’s what I have some up with (surprisingly).

I actually am overwhelmingly proud to say that I have survived, at times thrived, in South Africa.  This is with limited resources and a tight budget.  From when I arrived I have continued to build both professional and community networks with the help of friends, friends of friends and others.  I have learned the layout of two major cities and survived their public transit systems (which leaves a girl’s head spinning).  Personally, I have flourished.  Prior to moving to South Africa, I was a wall flower.  No really.  I was notorious for going to art openings and not speaking to a soul.  If I was with my mom and saw a neighbor, I wouldn’t even speak.  My mom would greet them and I wouldn’t say a word, rationalizing this by thinking of her as the family representative. (Yes, I know a hot mess!)  But I have changed.  I go up to strangers and introduce myself.  I make jokes and smile at strangers.  I ask all types of questions, to get information, until I’m blue in the face.  I’m finally personable (without mentally preparing myself to be).  And in general I ask for what I want and will not take no for an answer.  I’ll take a compromise but not no.

All this to say, I don’t really know why I’m in South Africa (this is not totally a bad thing) or what I hope to get out of it.  But I do know that I am open and will stay here until it’s time for me to go.  And that’s still to be determined.

Guest Blog: First Impressions

•February 26, 2014 • 1 Comment

By Bianca Mona

Disclaimer:  This post was extremely difficult to write.  First, I was worried about being offensive so my word selection was long and tedious. I didn’t want to seem judgmental and biased. Then I was worried about the fallibility of first impressions.  First impressions are tricky.  Some are spot on and remain, while others are adjusted as time goes by and an experience is had.  In the end, this post is a mix of my judgments (which I am slowly working on) and some things I’ve noticed.

My semi-liberal self was determined to enter “Africa” with an open mind.  The reality was I had no clue what to expect.  I had no frame of reference, so why bother with assumptions or expectations.  I told myself, Bianca, just be open to the experience.

So I entered Johannesburg, I thought, with open mind and open heart.  What I would soon discover is my subconscious mind had been forming a narrative that would be disproven within days of my arrival.

My initial thoughts are as follows:

1)       The South African sun shines brighter (and longer).

Generally the weather is nothing like I expected.  The days hover around 85 degrees, while the nights go down to anywhere between 68 and 70 degrees.   My mornings here are intense.  The sun rises at a quarter to 5 and vividly shines until a quarter to 7 in the evening.  This sunrise is crisp and refreshing.  During the days, the sun slowly and tenderly kisses my skin.   We have a pleasantly intimate relationship.

2)       The diversity of the people.

I thought South Africa would be Black, White, and Indian.  Ohhhh I was so wrong.  Everybody and their mama lives here.  EVERYBODY!  Besides South Africa’s 11 official languages, in the course of the day I will also hear Wolof, German, French, Cantonese, Finnish, and Hausa.  Most people are multilingual, speaking anywhere from 2 to 12 languages.  One day, I asked one of my bilingual peers, “How do you determine which language to speak when approaching a stranger?”  She simply said, “You try one and if it doesn’t work you try another.  You eventually figure it out.”

3)      Even pavement.

I think the only reason I noticed this is because New York’s streets are riddled with holes.  Every block and every neighborhood is made of bumpy, rocky roads.  And although the city repairs the roads annually, within 2 months, the New York City streets are fucked up again.  I find this perplexing because Johannesburg, which is the size of 3 Brooklyns (which means it’s huge) generally has smooth, pothole-free streets.  There are more people and more traffic, yet nicer streets.  In conjunction, this is a mountainous, hilly place.  Terrain is not flat at all.

4)      Mall culture

Since, I have gotten here, I found that the people that I am around and observe really like malls.  The mall is the hub for all sorts of activity and transactions.  The grocery store is in the mall.  The bank. The phone company. The drug store (referred to here as the chemist). The nail shop.  All in the mall.  I haven’t been to the mall so much since I was 13.

5)      Smoking and drinking.

I thought smoking was passé.  Didn’t the world get the memo that you will get cancer from smoking?  Well, maybe the memo didn’t reach South Africa, because I see many young, brilliant, “healthy” folks smoking cigarettes.  So many people smoke here that I am starting to wonder if the notion that one develops cancer from smoking is propaganda.  Is secondhand smoke rhetoric because no one gives a damn about blowing smoke in my face.  I guess everyone has a fix.  Mine is bread and cake.  For others its tobacco.

Oh but the alcohol here is divine.  (Even the tap water here is delicious.)  Fabulous bottles of wine for like 4 and 6 bucks.  The drinking, of something, happens at every meal.  And it’s kinda endless.  Which makes me wonder, how do you know some is an alcohol if that much alcoholic consumption is taking place?  I have had at least one drink almost every day since arriving.  I soon will have to dry out.

6)       General landscape (architectural, neighborhoods, and the like)

The white colonizers in South Africa were clever as hell.  They systematically created a robust city and beautifully landscaped homes immediately surrounding the central downtown, while simultaneously creating slums (aka townships), partly modeled after Native American reservations in Canada, and barring people of color (anyone none white) from these affluent areas.  My point being, Johannesburg is not “third world.” (I hate common vernacular usage of this term.  For the record, “third world” country is not a country that simply is primitive, underdeveloped, or poor, as most people think.  In fact, a third world country is actually just a country that is not considered a capitalist country (first world) and not considered a communist country (2nd world).  This term was further defined during in “April 1955, twenty-nine countries from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East came together for a diplomatic conference in Bandung, Indonesia, intending to define the direction of the postcolonial world. Representing approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, the Bandung conference occurred during a key moment of transition in the mid-twentieth century—amid the global wave of decolonization that took place after the Second World War and the nascent establishment of a new cold war world order. Conference participants such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Zhou Enlai of China, and President Sukarno of Indonesia seized this occasion of change to attempt the creation of a political alternative to the dual threats of Western neocolonialism and the cold war interventionism of the United States and the Soviet Union.”  http://books.google.co.za/books/about/Making_a_World_After_Empire.html?id=yRdG3-rELNkC&redir_esc=y)  The homes and neighborhood here are simply beautiful.  Old and historic with tons of lush fauna.  And yes while the masses of Black South Africans still remain in township match box houses, these places too, are undergoing a facelift as the Black middle class expands. South Africa is not just your stereotypical, National Geographic’s, tittys out, loincloth nation.

Phew…that was a lot.  Here’s some other random facts about JHB:  http://www.wits.ac.za/placesofinterest/16403/johannesburg_at_a_glance.html

Each day I’m growing and expanding my thoughts about this complex and intriguing place.

The Churches in My Life

•February 7, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Lately, the only places that I seem to travel to are churches. Maybe, my spiritual compass is trying to point me “true” North? Maybe, my spiritual fuel is running on empty and the only place that refills me are churches? I do not know exactly why I now, make time for churches, but I do. It has proved to be very difficult to share something so routine with you all.  Instead of sharing what I thought I would write about, let me share what is on my mind.

This week, I went to run an errand in Brooklyn and passed the church where I am a pseudo member of in Brooklyn Heights.  I started to reflect on my spiritual journey and I started to think about churches from other countries.

In Rwanda, the closest church to me served as a small memorial of the Genocide. It was a building that I had to be pass everyday. It also mirrored many other dimensions of my life during my time in Rwanda. I acknowledged that church, only because I had to because there were small parts of me that could not go into that memorial. It was a small and dark place that held the villages pain.  

In Haiti, there was one church in Port-au-Prince that was very special to me. It was a reminder after a long road trip, that I was almost home. It seemed very inviting, at least, that is the way that I remember it.  Months after,  I remember passing it when I came back to Haiti after the earthquake and it was a pile of grey, dusty rubble. No longer a reminder, that I was almost home, instead a reminder of other people’s pain.

In Rwanda, I learned the power of truth and  reconciliation outside of church. In Haiti, I understood and valued community outside of church. In New York, my current home, church, has provided me with this subtle routine, that I think I desperately craved. And out of this routine, I receive spiritual refueling, stability and deeper roots to my life in New York.

Are there any places of worship that hold a special place in your heart? PLease share them in the comments section below.

 

Mugonero, Rwanda

 

 

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

 

Brooklyn, New York

 

 

Guest Blog: Insomnia X jet lag = blessings hidden in…

•January 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I wasn’t warned about this!

What I wasn’t prepared for was a lack of sleep.  I’ve suffered from sleep deprivation in the not so distant past for many reasons.  The first reason is just staying up really late.  Sometimes, I wouldn’t go to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning and wake up 4 or 5 hours later.  I’m pretty sure I consciously stayed awake later as a means of avoiding the next day.  The days I deemed most important leading up to South Africa were filled with me feeling unsuccessful and pathetic.  What I realized later is that I was too tired to do anything productive because of my lack of sleep.  After a while my insomnia returned and over the last few months, I stayed awake for days.  When I did fall asleep one of two things would happen.  I would either, toss-and-turn, never finding a comfortable spot or I would have hellish dreams.  Although my eyes were closed I was fully aware of my discomfort.  If I did reach REM sleep, I was plagued with all sorts of harassing thoughts.  I had dreams about transitioned relatives, old lovers, violence, and homelessness.  In one dream I was an undercover assassin, forced to kill Jill Scott to maintain my cover.

Once again, I regularly suffer through restless nights.  Ironically, I was surprised at how tired I’d become over the past 6 months.  I’m always tired.  This tiredness hangs over my head like a gray rain cloud, following me wherever I go.  What’s scary was I didn’t know when it would let up.  The many unknowns that lay ahead, especially my upcoming trip to Johannesburg, continued to haunt me. I may look calm and cool on the outside, rarely verbally expressing my inner thoughts of worry and insecurity.   This occurs because my stress and doubt manifest in my dreams.  In my dreams I face uncontrollable emotions and consequences such as death, haplessness, all sorts of inconveniences, and turmoil.

So as I prepared for my journey to South Africa, I prayed the most for peace, peace of mind specifically.  I hoped that my thoughts would calm down enough to enjoy the moments.  While traveling to South Africa once again, I suffered from restless sleep.  As we all know, sleep on a plane is the pits.  I crossed several time zones during terribly long flights, thus adding to my dishevelment.  During the 16-hour flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, I maybe slept 3 hours.  This small amount of sleep was also interrupted by a stewardess who kept awakening me for meals and snacks (I’m not complaining, I was grateful for this food, just saying).

When I finally arrived in Johannesburg, I was a hot sleep walking zombie mess!  My landlord was there to give me a lift, thankfully, but when we arrived at her place we stayed up talking for at least another hour and then after bathing I headed to bed.  I lay in bed for another hour, reading and then forced myself to close my eyes.  I didn’t have high hopes for this modest bed.  To my dismay but relief (and happiness) this bed performed magic.

I slept 10 hours, peacefully.  No tossing.  No turning.  No nightmares.  No interruptions. 10 hours of sound, restful sleep.

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The Rebuilding of Haiti

•January 12, 2014 • 2 Comments

Four years ago, goodoo goodoo (earthquake, ground moving) became a part of everyones vernacular. Many remember, exactly where they were when the earthquake happened and the exact moment, when they found out that their family or friends made it out safely or perished. Since that day, a new Haiti has emerged.  New political leaders, promising ambitious plans for its citizens and for those working in and “for Haiti”.  Haiti, is rebuilding and while hope in contagious, a new population has emerged that are easily cast aside: the vulnerable. As Haiti, becomes “open for tourism” and attracts international investors, the poor, young girls, women, the elderly and the disabled must not be forgotten or pushed aside into new slums. The new Haiti seems promising for “everyone”, many people, genuinely want to see this country finally thrive. Yet, we must always ask ourselves at what cost? 

 

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                      The first elderly woman in the area where I was working in 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

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This tent would be for some of the elderly people that lost their homes. Younger men were tasked with building a tent for them.

 

 

 

 

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                          Morning house chores delegated to young girls

 

 

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    A young girl, who wanted to know specifically, what I would be bringing to her town.

 

 

 
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