Tag Archives: strength

ten words

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This one time at college (how many stories start that way? Oh so many…) my friends and I were sitting around, chatting, laughing, hanging out likely until the wee hours of the morning. I think a lot of college stories start this way. Well, at least with my friends and I. We’re talkers. And thinkers.

In fact, one of our great thinkers, Michelle, once posed the ever-present question in one of those long-winded dialogues that I really never wanted to end. You see, talking with friends about anything and everything is, I think, one of the best things that friendship brings us. Often and ideally, friendship gives you the freedom and space to talk about whatever is on your heart, on your mind, or frankly, what’s in your belly (who doesn’t love talking about the intricacies of food?). Michelle was my very first friend at college (and has remained like a sister since). Not counting my roommate, anyway. And let me tell you, the “friendship” I had with my first roommate was essentially non-existent. Awkward, if you will. Actually, it was my roomate’s ex-best friend that would eventually become one of my very best friends. Are you lost yet?  That’s another story entirely.

Like I was saying. It was Michelle—the Texas born, cowboy boot wearin’ woman—that said something in one of our long discussions that has stuck with us ever since. We were probably laughing or something (laughing was of the upmost importance in our friendship; the first time Michelle and I hung out on our freshman orientation trip we laughed. The entire time. I was laughing at her laugh…and she just laughed…and so the cycle continued. People thought we were legitimately crazy. They were right.) when we were perusing Michelle’s writing in one of her many classy journals. As she flipped through the pages, she read aloud one of her entries that asked, “what is time?” I can’t remember exactly, but I am certain we laughed for a very long time. After all, this particular entry was of the existential sort, exploring the conundrum of how time passes so quickly. In fact, I think she even asked something along the lines of whether or not we move through time or whether time moves through us. Like I told y’all, Michelle’s a thinker.

The what is time joke-catchphrase-thing is something we continue to say, even today, though I’m finding these days, we’re taking Michelle’s words a lot more seriously. The thing is, Michelle was right.

Because somehow, it’s 2013, I’m 24, and I’ve lived in Rwanda for 16 months.

Somehow, in 365 days, I’ve become a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a community member, a traveler, a bi-lingual woman, and a volunteer.

But, where exactly, did the time go? Like we always say, what is time?

A friend of mine told me that a fun little exercise to remember the year can be done when you try to summarize your year in 10 words. I probably took him too seriously (because I love these sorts of things) and so I thought about this exercise for hours. What exactly could I say about this year?

This year, in 2012, I started teaching secondary students in Rwanda. Some days, I earnestly tried to teach grammar. But often, we did things like sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, or went outside to observe nature, practiced dialogues, and looked at photos from my life. Some days, I think I might have had a break though. For example, before last term, I decided I was sick and tired of having the following conversation:

Me: “Hello students!”

Students: “Hello teacher!”

Me: “How are you?”

Students: “We are fine!”

You may look at this and think, well, what’s the problem? Let me explain. Every single student says the same thing. I am fine, they say. I am fine. I am fine. I am fine. It could drive one crazy. And it did. I decided enough was enough. These kiddos were going to learn different things to say upon being greeted in English. And so the I am fine days became the days of I am fantastic! I am wonderful! I am SUPERRRR!! (they love that last one). I taught them negative ones too, and I just MELT when a student tells me they are grumpy. Mostly because they say it like, “gra-mp-ie”. It’s too cute.

And so, I tried teaching. I don’t really know what they learned. Who knows. But for the most part, I showed up, and so did they, and we tried to speak English in the best way we could. I shared my phone number (not necessarily kosher in America, but let me just emphasize that Rwanda is quite different and I have been very open in my own personal boundaries here) and so every day I get anywhere from 3-12 calls from students wanting to greet me. And most of the time, they do this in English, and so in some small way, I find this to be a success.

We had three terms this year, and I finished all three. Phew. Teaching is hard work.

But I was much more than a teacher this year. I also ma friends—both in and outside of Peace Corps. To have a friend in Peace Corps is of the upmost importance; they, more than anyone, understand this experience, and so they offer an invaluable amount of support. My friend Suzi and I talked nearly every day. Maybe it was for a quick 1 minute funny story of our awkward lives, but more often, it was 10 or 20 minute conversation sharing our struggles and victories, supporting each other, and to be honest, ensuring that each of us could continue to stay here. Suzi and I have an uncanny amount of similarities. We’re different though, and so it works. It’s a blossoming friendship and without her and my other Peace Corps friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be here.

My friends in my village are a special brand. For one, most are my students. I know, I know, I know. Super un-traditional. But the best part is, I don’t really feel a need to defend it. The truth is, I connect with them in a very special way (mind you, I’m not talking about ALL my students here, how could I have that strong of a connection with over 350 students?). I’ve blogged, journaled, and talked about it and still I can’t capture what it feels like to be a role model, a friend, and an admirer all at once. What I mean is that while the students have been very clear that they see me as someone to look up to, I feel the very same way about them, and so this beautiful ebb-and-flow friendship has been created. I am in awe when I see what they give and do for their families; they ask question after question about my culture and why I believe what I do.

And then there is my friends and family back home.  In 2012, I had friends start the path of finding their vocations, I had friends graduate college, I had friends continue to study, and I had friends have babies. I had family members decide to have weddings. I had a cousin get engaged. I missed out on the small, daily things with my mom and dad, which could be even harder to be away from (it’s often the small things that I miss the most). Two of my best friends from high school both got married, and it was heartbreaking to be absent. Being absent and distant was a common theme for my year because, well, hello, I live in the middle of a small, rural African village. But distance doesn’t always disconnect. In fact, it can bring you closer. While I’ve been absent for a lot of important things in my friends and family’s lives, I’ve put as much energy and love as I can, even so far away. I talk to both of my parents weekly. I email most of my friends, creating these wonderfully Oprah-esque (continuing our love for “life” conversations) chains of emails. I’ve managed a few amazing skype dates. I’ve developed an even stronger love for snail mail (as always, the packages have been unbelievably wonderful). None of these things make up for being absent. But you really can’t have it all at once. And eventually, you make peace with this, and just do the best you can. I hope all who are reading this know how much I do love you. And while I am doing this for me, I’m doing this whole entire thing because I believe in it too. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago. I want you to know that while I maybe did choose Africa and Rwanda for a time, this is also a season of life, and who knows where life goes next. Time moves just too damn quickly, as I’ve been saying, and so it’s best to just enjoy where you are and believe that things will fall into place as they should be. Being away is the hardest thing about being a Peace Corps volunteer, and to be honest, it’s often the source of a lot of sadness and dark times. But we keep moving, we keep persevering, because let’s be real, it’s the best way to live life. Recognize where you are. Feel what you feel. But take all of this, and go outside, and just work with you got. Because in the days, weeks, and months to come, it will be something different.

In 2012, I saw a lot of beautiful lands. Not only my little corner of Rwanda, I was blessed with an incredible journey of visiting the Northwestern part of the country with dad on his visit. We hiked around a volcano chain, saw gorillas, and spent Christmas lakeside on one of the most beautiful pieces of land I have ever seen. Y’all, I can’t say it enough. If life can bring you to Rwanda, whether now or 20 years down the road, come. It’s a great place, promise. I even went on an epic 32 hour bus ride across Tanzania, en route to Zanzibar. I was in the ocean when one ferry sank, and by the time I reached shore, the Aurora shooting was plaguing news headlines. It was a weird time. But, like Rwanda and yet in a very different way, Tanzania is gorgeous. I ran on those white sandy beaches, amazed that I was here in Africa. Travel is great that way; you can never really wrap your mind around just how big this world is.

And so as the year has closed and a new one has begun and I have now turned 24, I can’t help but do a bit of self-reflection (if you know me, you know I love doing this…I already have THREE FULL JOURNALS from my Peace Corps experience, and so you can just imagine.). Physically, I look a lot different. Blond highlights streak through my hair from the Rwandan sun. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight—last time I checked, I had lost 30 pounds. Though, from dad’s recent visit, I really think I put back on 10, but absolutely no regrets there. I ate like an American for two weeks and THAT was amazing. The physical changes are obvious, aren’t they? It’s easy to look at your reflection and find what’s different. But what about the other stuff?

Am I a better person? Am I kinder? Am I closer with God? Am I more mature?

I don’t know if I know the answer to those questions. I think about them, but it’s often hard to say. Because even those questions, they take time to understand. They take time to see. And really, I don’t think I’ll know what Rwanda has done to my heart and soul and mind until it’s all over later this year.

But I do know this. I am unequivocally grateful. I thank God every day for this—yes, even when I’m crying, upset, and unsure that I can go on. I thank God because between the people that I have met and the stories that I have heard, I know that in 2012, I have been bettered by the people I know. I know people who are so different from me. And yet, they have value. More value than the world would ever say, but they are some of the best people I know. My dad will tell you, the people he met, and the hospitality he experienced; it will literally change your heart. It will make you reconsider how you can treat people with more kindness and consideration in the world—not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s life transforming, y’all.

And so I’ll put those questions of how I have changed on hold for a while. But I will say, that my capacity for love has grown, not because of me, but because of them. Just when you think you’ve given all you’ve got, God shows you that you have so much more. And He shows you through the people he brings in your life, short term or long term.

I thought about all of this as I tried to summarize my year in 10 words.

It took time, even a fitful night’s of sleep (once I get thinking, it’s hard to stop). Here’s what I came up with:

2012

Just when you think you can’t, you can.

For every time that I wanted to fly on a plane and get back to the people I love, God’s always shown me a reason to stay. Whether it was for Divine, for the girls’ football team, for my opportunity to grow, for a capacity to help, or for the undeniably delicious Coke, I stayed. And, honestly, I’m so glad I have.

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IMG_0422 sara tanzy

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living your best life (or at least trying).

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Come August—just when deep summer heat strikes the US and it will simply be just another 75 degree Rwandan month (here it’s not about the temperature as much as it is about rainfall: rain? Or no rain? That’s the real marker for seasons…)—I’ll be helping to lead GLOW. GLOW sounds like a new perfume scent recently released from J.LO or Beyonce but instead it’s a summer girls’ camp with the mission of instilling self-confidence in young women, discussing gender equality, and even creating a comfortable atmosphere to discuss HIV/AIDS.  GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. In addition to assisting in creating the schedule and curriculum, I’ll also be a cabin leader for 10 young ladies. (!!)

Maybe even more exciting (probably for me than anyone else) is that each cabin leader chooses a strong woman from any country—a “hero”—if you will, and the cabin leader is responsible for creating a cabin theme surrounding this person or figure. True to form, my friend Sara has chosen J.K. Rowling (she, Sara, is indeed cooler than me) and as for me? Well it’s a pretty obvious choice: OPRAH. Hello. I can see my girls now…cheering live your best life!…In fact, when submitting Oprah’s bio that I put together to our camp director for approval, Caitlyn, the director, applauded my detail, but gently reminded me that these young Rwandan girls would have to understand everything in the biography. And, it has to fit on a relatively small piece of paper. In essence, cut it down sister.

In doing so, I got to thinking, what’s so great about Oprah anyway?

I just read a fantastic article entitled, “The Glory of Oprah: Why the ‘talkinest’ Child Understands Women and the Power of Television Better than Anyone Else” (by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic). A good portion of the piece is devoted to examining exactly how Oprah came out of a deep poverty in the Jim Crow South and was able to make something of herself. The article is good though, because while acknowledging and celebrating Oprah’s connection to women, it also is unequivocally fair and doesn’t shy away from issues regarding her celebrity and the controversy surrounding her almost religious (no—I take that back—her very religious) elements within her pomp and circumstance.

Anyway, that really has nothing to do with this. I just try to keep up on my Oprah reading and this writing piece was particularly riveting.

My reasons that I chose Oprah as my ‘hero’ and why the slogan Live Your Best Life appears as my ‘about me’ on my twitter account are quite simple.

I first watched Oprah in my grandma’s kitchen: newspapers scattered on the coffee table, plants creeping in from the garden outside, and often full of the irreplaceable smell of a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

I was probably in like second grade or something, but I remember watching her speak, eating away at slices of cheese grandma had prepared for me (with a fresh apple of course), and thinking that this woman was very cool. Plus, grandma liked her, so she had to be good. Lance would be there with us sometimes (or he’d go play Oregon Trail on the big hunker of a machine that was the computer in the 1990’s) but somehow, Lance or not, it became a tradition.

Wednesdays in elementary school, grandma drove her proverbial big boat (the maroon Chevy Lumina) to school and waited for us with open arms. Sometimes we’d mix our routine up with fro-yo (YUM), the library, or a quick spin past my dad and uncles’ childhood home nearby. However, two things were constants in our visits with grandma: walking to feed the ducks at the park and Oprah viewing sessions.

Whatever episode we watched, even as a young girl, I deciphered the shows and the long, sometimes arduous lectures from Oprah with a true sense of positivity. Oprah’s message, when you really boiled it down, was about taking a problem,  our life, because that’s pretty hard too, and pushing forward. Cry, scream, smile, whatever. But do your best because you can do it. And life’s too short not to. Yeah, it’s the gospel of self-help books and maybe grandma read too many of those too (she wasn’t the cleanliest of folks and I remember these books littered around her 4 (or was it 5?) story townhouse) because as I grew up, grandma carried and shared the very same message. I don’t really know who said it first—Oprah or grandma—but it didn’t matter. Grandma’s echoes of positivity and believing in yourself, I know, came from her own life experiences. And, I believed it. And, I still do.

I don’t think my relationship with Oprah is unhealthy. I joke—often, especially with my friends—that it is, but I promise, I have my head on straight (most of the time). Oprah is not God, is not my grandma, is not the world’s perfect person or idol, however, she went to hell and back when she was young, took life by full force and followed a dream. I admire that. Plus, she’s pretty funny to boot and has about three million inspirational quotes to draw from. I. LOVE. Inspirational quotes.

The trick with all of this rhetoric about ‘living your best life’ is that’s hard. Really really really hard.

For nearly 8 months I have been living and breathing Rwanda.

8 whole months.

That’s a long time.

I think it’s possible that I’ve spent some of my very best days and very worst days here. That’s how this goes, I suppose.

I love what I do. Through and through. Even on the tough days. And it’s really coming together—my first football and volleyball practice (with me coaching!) is tomorrow. Our first matches? THIS weekend. On top of that, I have wonderful neighbors and can’t speak enough about the transformative experience of integrating into something completely unfamiliar. It’s unreal how blessed I am to have this. Yes, I love my job. That’s 110% true.

But the other truth is this: like anywhere or anytime in life, we’re human, and with that comes beautiful happiness, but also sometimes, intense sadness. Lately, I’ve been feeling sad. And there’s all kinds of sadness: sometimes I’m sad about the intense poverty here, sometimes I’m sad because every day, at some point, I am called umuzungu. Sometimes I’m sad because I wonder about how much of a reach I really have.

Am I able to do this?

Is my presence here really actually doing anything?

Yeah, self-doubt is not very fun.

But more recently, I’m sad because I’m alone. No matter how you slice or dice that, it remains true.

People are here, yes, and some I’m growing to really appreciate. I have friends here in the village, and I couldn’t even ask for more support than I’m already getting from them.

Yet, at the end of the day, the story is mine, isn’t it? How do I begin to share what life is like here? And how do I share life with these people I am beginning to know?

What a weird feeling, indeed. I think that’s one of the things that made studying abroad in Ghana my junior year so special. Amidst volunteering, studying (sometimes), and travel, my best friend, Rachel, and I were doing it together.

But here, it’s me.

For nearly 18ish more months I will continue to teach,  help, listen, motivate, share, and reflect as a Peace Corps Volunteer, out in the village, trying to figure out what this journey—this story—actually is.

For a few days now, this has saddened me. I’ve felt unmotivated, restless, and tired. I’ve cried just a couple of times and getting out of bed has felt…challenging. It feels good to be honest about all of this. It was at Rachel’s encouraging that I share this, because yes, emotional challenges have a place in this story too. I was afraid of singing my own sad sorry song, because I fully and completely realize that there is much, MUCH more in the world than my temporary loneliness. But again, it’s what I’m going through. It exists. So I recognize it, I feel it, and I deal with it. Certainly doing this—living this life—is taking a lot more strength than I imagined, particularly because some days just feel so easy and effortless. Peace Corps warned me this would happen. I can’t blame them. They told me, time and time again, that I would miss things from back home. I would miss weddings, funerals, graduations, engagements, and I would be here, away from it all. I listened. I knew it would be hard. So, this really should come as no surprise, right?

I am ready though, to take all of these emotions in stride: feel them, live them, but do not be defined by them. Most importantly, as alone as I feel, I am not.

Taped to my desk is a note from Philippians 3 that says this,

“Let us live up to what we have already attained.”

God has a hand in all of this. It’s not me achieving, accomplishing, and overcoming; it’s all possible because my strength comes from something much more than just myself.

And also, sometimes living your best life is just doing the best you can on any given day.

Some days, it’s just a smile, while other days it’s full of immersing yourself with everything you got.

Yesterday, in class, in one period mind you, I managed to teach my dear students how to ‘disco’ (and along with that, provided a completely inaccurate historical explanation of where the disco came from—I said it was because Americans wanted peace during the Vietnam War?…*) and also provided reinforcement with the verb ‘to win’. To do so, I demonstrated the power of T-Pain lyrics (an artist most of them, if not all, know) with the classic and memorable hit “All I Do Is Win.”

All I do is win win win, no matter what.

Let me just say. Watching students disco and singing T-Pain at the same time? As an educator, it doesn’t get much better. It’s quite possible my um, teaching methods, might be a little unsoud (even by American standards) but whatevs. Sometimes, you just have to have a little fun, right?

I did all of this—laughing hysterically of course—and also while dealing with this whole loneliness thing. Did I walk out of class completely cured and rejuvenated? No. Because human emotions often don’t work like that.

But, I did feel better. And I know that soon, this loneliness thing? Well, this too will pass.

 I can do it, I can do it, I can do it.

 Grandma’s mantra is fresh in my mind.

 How I miss her.

 Maybe it’s scary to know I’m doing this alone. But it can be empowering too: the stories, the experiences, everything—I have all of this to share for the rest of my life.

 Anything can be a miracle, a blessing, an opportunity if you choose to see it that way.

–Oprah

 *the history of disco is rather extensive after skimming some of the information provided on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. While some of the elements of the disco craze certainly are traced to the culture of the 70’s—largely shaped by the war—the dance itself was even considered a reaction against the domination of rock music.