I have lived a life in transit. That was the opening line to my college application essays - and probably every essay "about me" that I've written ever since. I then go on to explain that I am part-this, part-that, and have always had to struggle to find the identities that suit me. Sometimes too many options make choices harder. That's how I feel in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, at least. Identity a la carte. I can pick and choose at will - a buffet of life options, so to speak. To me it means that I have to be conscious of every choice I make, knowing that I do it deliberately and with full knowledge of the pros and cons of it all. I inherit nothing. I am the prototypical cut-and-paste job.
A hyphenated identity is often difficult to manage. In some contexts I'm too much, in others I'm not enough. I'm never the right combination - in the right measure. Hyphenating my identity often leaves me feeling displaced. "You have to carry your home within you", a friend recently said. I think I understand what that means now. It's not so much about place without as place within. If my domestic fluctuations are any indication, my home-within is a dubious undertaking!
The idea of home has always been an elusive one for me. I've just never felt settled. As a result, I indulge my nomadic tendencies. I am not sure if my nomadic tendencies fueled my career choice - or if my career magnifies my sense of place, and displacement.
I remember when we moved out of our first house in Virginia. My sister went right back into her empty room and slept on the floor. She tells me she still takes long drives by that old house. I didn't look back once. As the years have zipped by, I've made and un-made so many homes for myself.
I had a beautiful apartment in a chic part of Paris with a romantic balcony overlooking a flower shop, where I could hear the bells of St. Sulpice. I recall moments when the sun would gracefully glide down the Seine as I picnicked on the Pont des Arts. I felt at home.
I set up apartments in Washington and Boston. Mini drive-thru homes.
I pitched my metaphorical tent in the home of a Bangladeshi family in Dhaka who insisted that I live like a good Bangladeshi woman - staying at home.
I occupied a dingy studio in Rabat in a part of town where women living alone were thought to be prostitutes - less than homey.
I spent one year in a derelict hotel in the center of Kabul. And when I left it, I felt it to be an emotional amputation - as if it was my first time leaving home. I still managed to find another home in Kabul. Although I swore that I would never forget my first Kabul home, the visits became less frequent as time passed. I only realized this after the keeper of that first home died. And it was never again home for me.
Life on the other side of the world.
My domestic loyalties are fleeting. And yet place is so very important to me. Every time I leave a place I have loved, I cry. I cry, and I spend 48 hours convinced that (1) I will never forget it, and (2) Home will never get better. And yet (1) I do, and (2) It always does. Perhaps I'm lucky. But I don't believe in luck. The lottery is a false hope for people who fear making their own luck. Maybe I'm pessimistic. This is likely true. I do things that others might describe as fearless, but I think I operate with a lot of fear. I try to be conscious of it, but it often lingers. I believe a healthy amount of fear is necessary, but that I need to do things that I might be just a little afraid of. I don't ever regret it.
I overcome the fear with the idea that I'm doing this for something bigger than me. In countries that I've called home, the fear is greater where the need is urgent.
I'm a self-doubter - and a chronic self-under-estimator - cloaked in false confidence. I might convince others that I can do it but I'm not entirely sure that I really can until well after it's done. But somehow it doesn't get all that much easier. The challenges are always new and different, and I try to arm myself with little reminders of what it was like "last time" in hopes that it will give me the kick in the @#$ that I need to push my boundaries once again.
People often asked me what I loved the most about Afghanistan - and why I remained as long as I did. I would say that it was the most exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting thing I'd ever done. And it tested my limits at every turn. Whatever parameters I use to guide my life were stretched and pulled beyond their limits. Every day was a challenge. And every experience was an explosion for the senses (not always in a good way!).
Maybe I am selfish. I get so much out of what I do. I only hope that I give as much.
But back to home...
I started to think about what home meant when I occupied a guest house in Freetown, where every so often my reveries would be disrupted by a roving roach. With fingers at once on the keyboard and on a can of roach spray, I assassinated the insect invaders who made themselves at home. I called this place home after the third day.
I've always operated with open suitcases on the floor, prepared at a moment's notice to depart in different directions. I open the suitcases the instant I know of my next destination - and I mentally begin to check out of the place I occupy, no matter how much longer I am to remain. And those old suitcases watch me as I place various bits within their gaping mouths. They never say a word.
I now sit on my balcony in Port Moresby overlooking the Pacific. This is the first time I've unpacked suitcases in six months. I wonder how long I will remain in this home.
As I watch the sunset over the South Pacific, I find myself repeatedly thinking "Do I really live here??". The intonation varies: delight, shock, exasperation... depending on what the day brings.
But I know why I do it. I was 14, in a liberal private girls school. The class was called "Comparative Women's History". In one short semester, we toured the world through stories and images. I saw a bound foot, female genitalia after it had been cut, a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, a woman's broken rib cage after wearing a corset, acid burns of domestic violence survivors. I never forgot the images. They are the reason I do this.
My mother was my first feminist. She would cringe to hear me call her that, and yet she is more so than she realizes. My childhood was filled with stuffed animals and Legos - gender-neutral toys. I did not own a doll. I never asked for one. And my mother was not fond of them anyway. My father did not disagree. Every few days, he would quiz me with his favorite question: "What's the most important thing for a woman, Lina?" and I would answer "financial independence", just as he had trained me to. He's right. It is as important for me as it is for the women I work with.
I draw my own strength from my work with women survivors of sexual assault, women who are HIV-positive, those who are in need of shelter and support. It is for them that I reserve my strength, but it is also through them that I find my strength. I don't know what else I would do. I don't want to ever do anything else.
It is the combination of three factors that keeps me going. I love what I do. I know I am good at it. And my heart tells me that it is my duty.
J. prompted so many of these thoughts - at least the writing of them. They have always occupied space in my head, but facing them on paper was a very different undertaking. He started by asking me to define what I do. This made me think of what Ru always tells me about how difficult it is to explain to others "what her sister does". She recently wrote: "Listen, do me a favor and please in simple terms explain your work. I mean I need some kind of explanation of what the hell you are doing over there, for real! I need to know". I was amused and touched. The what of it all has always eluded her. Meanwhile, it is the why of it all that perplexes my parents.
I find that I often don't get a chance to reflect the why. I was able to think critically about how I do what I do when I wrote my dissertation. But that's a different standpoint. And so J. started by asking me how I would explain the life of a "reformer/social servant". My first thought was: "Is that me?!". Reminds me of Mom's reaction to the "Lebanese Activist" article from Sharq Al Awsat. She said: "Activist... hmmm... is that you?". I could see her wrinkling her forehead and bringing her glasses to the tip of her nose. I think she thought it was a disease! Almost like the other title she uses for me in amused and exasperated moments: "Bohemian!"
And here is how I responded:
Amazing... I'd never call myself a "reformer" or a "social servant"... both sound like pretty loaded terms and somehow I don't feel like I fit in either category. I'd sooner say activist/aid worker... or something like that. I love what I do. I never wanted to do anything else. I can't do anything else. And so I would not call it hard. It's just as exciting and exhilarating as it is exhausting. It's fascinating. It's frustrating. But it is the most rewarding thing I can ever do. I do it because I see it as the intersection of a few things: I have an obligation to do it (we all do, in a sense, don't we?), I am good at it, and I love it. It's frustrating in that it's hard to measure "successes", but I see these not in quantifiable terms but as an amalgam of anecdotes... of different little stories that have meant something to me. Those "aha!" kind of moments... where I feel like something has happened, and someone is a tiny bit better off as a result. That's why I do this.
I like how you just feel comfortable in your life. At the end of the day, that's how a life should feel. There's so much talk and thought about making ourselves into a specific role or function. But isn't the freedom of having a life to live just about finding what works and fits? Also, isn't it true that real people end up finding what fits -it's not like we live well if we force ourselves into roles?
And then he asked how I look after myself and retain sanity:
It's the personal stories and little successes and meaningful exchanges that make it all worthwhile... it's the moment when the power goes out (again!) and you can see all the stars and you think... ohman this is the most beautiful moment of my life. Those kinds of things.
I survive in different ways in different places. In Afghanistan I cooked. I specialized in culinary creations in constraining circumstances. It was a challenge every day to make something edible out of the very limited stuff we had. It entertained me. I used the other side of my brain. I felt challenged. I bounced around the kitchen and threw things into a pot and thought "let's see if anyone eats this"! It was a blast. Here I have much more freedom so I don't have to confine myself to house activities to turn the brain off. I can read, go to the beach, dance, etc. I have lots of freedom (comparatively). And I can see beauty in lots of (seemingly strange) situations... I love to sit back and watch how life on the streets "happens". I can't imagine feeling that same tingle of excitement if I lived in DC, y'know? I can look around with fresh eyes and explore and feel like my senses are heightened and my limits are tested and my perceptions are challenged. I am learning all the time out here. It's an amazing experience. I'm lucky to have it.
And J said:
I'm fascinated by the fact you can move into totally new situations with people in extreme positions in life and create your home there. You seem to live literally in the extreme limit, and the thing is, it doesn't feel extreme for you. That kind of throws around categories...
And yet I fight it sometimes... and sometimes the bohemian doesn't agree with other things that I want in life. I miss being able to see my sister every day, sharing a cookie and coffee with my mother, celebrating with my closest friends, watching their children grow up. I miss that traditional sense of home. That's the part of it that I can never take with me. No image of snail-and-shell mobile home can substitute for those things.
The last time the four of us were together under one roof, Mom brought home an apple cake from a bakery. The first day, the four corners disappeared. The next day, the sides were gone. On the third and fourth days, the top and bottom were picked away. For the rest of the week, apple cake innards sat in the fridge, neglected. I think someone finally threw it out.
My family has a thing for crusts. They are quirky, but they are my people. In those moments, I understood a little bit better the meaning of place. I felt this because I belong. I belong to a people who really like crusts of things.
Of the few phrases I've picked up in Tok Pisin, the most important is wantok (literally "one talk"), the people who speak your (perhaps figurative) language. I am lucky enough to know who those people are.
And yet they are so far away. The question "where are you from?" translates as "yu bilong we?". Those are two different questions for me - both equally complicated. I might be able to illustrate - through a series of jumbled lists of 'place' - where I am from. As for where I belong, I'm not even sure where to start.
Although I nearly failed many math classes, I recently managed to make a life-changing calculation. I discovered that I have moved "homes" every year since I was 17. I'm now 32. Where is home, really? Or is it just an amalgam of the 15 or so that I've had so far?
And why do I live on the other side of the world? While I love it most of the time, sometimes I just want to be home, wherever that might be. The idea of home is sometimes a place, but more often a person. Sometimes it's just nice to have someone else around - to live these experiences with me.
The word for soul mate in Urdu, Hum Safar, literally means "travel companion". I think this is what I want - someone who wants to see the world with me, and who sees it the way I do, filled with possibilities and tastes and opportunities. Safar, a journey, with the companion...it must be intoxicatingly beautiful.
J. asked me how I manage my dramatic ups and downs. "Is it just that you have hopes and they are sometimes disappointed?" Bingo, I thought. "Something that happens to idealists and most people who are joy - as opposed to contentment - based". Yes.
This makes for a good transition into the discussion about "growing up" and "settling down". I appreciate how these oft-used and well-worn terms imply direction. We must always be going somewhere! Does growing "up" really entail settling "down"? What is it that strikes me as negative about these two - particularly when they occur as partners in an adult conspiracy, working to lure me into life's tragic traps. Somehow everyone who has fallen prey to this is desperate to get you to join their not-so-little club.
The idea that I have to make choices is one that has recently dawned on me. I started my career with the belief that I can have everything. It was perhaps an 80s-inspired notion that women can really do it all: work, partnership, family. A counter to a uni-directional feminine mystique where women didn't really move - they just stagnated. In my 20s I felt empowered and liberated. I wanted to squeeze all the juices out of life, and then lick the leftovers off my plate with gusto. I haven't lost that appetite. But perhaps I've gained the sense that there are consequences. I might enjoy what I eat, but I could also get fat - metaphorically speaking, of course.
At times, those "up" and "down" movements have appeal - depending on the context and my mood at that particular moment. The tricky part is that the latter tends to fluctuate far more than I think it should. At any given moment I can convince myself that I should buy a "home" and plant roots. And then the Harmattan - those dusty desert winds from the Sahara - might turn my gaze in a different direction. And I think that perhaps I am meant to spend my life in transit. I've always struggled with balancing my nomadic tendencies with my (suddenly increasing) desire to finally unpack a suitcase.
And so it goes... identity in flux.
And then J. asked: "I think it's interesting you associate growing up with putting down roots, literally. It makes sense to me that growing up involves a kind of developing groundedness in life, yet I didn't think of that as rootedness. I wonder if there is a way to grow up and be grounded that is mostly internal?"
And I responded with the following: "Geographic commitment... where to plant? The "where" of it all is so important to me, otherwise I would not spend my life hopping from one country to the next. It has only recently occurred to me that I should think about calling something "home" in the long-term sense. This was a fleeting thought at first, and now seems to nag at me more and more. The other part of my rootedness - or lack thereof - has to do with partnership. I find it easier to move to a place like Afghanistan than to maintain a relationship."
The cliche response at this point usually is: "You just haven't found the right person". But I'm not sure such a person exists. Rather, it exists in our imaginations and serves to amplify our own inadequacies. This idea becomes harder - and the achieving of it more elusive - as I get older. I have no plans for marriage or procreation - although I am monogamous by nature and have strong preferences toward the "life partner" idea. And so, I have become an expert at temporary plantings... I grow roots fast, and then I yank them out again. I have "locationships" that at times might resemble real relationships. And I always leave a little bit of myself behind when I move on. That was Afghanistan for me. And Sierra Leone. I wonder how my little island home will be different.
I have tried my hand at involvement with other converts in my bizarre cult, but these end as they start - with a new rotation to a new land. And so my head and my heart fail to agree. I pack another suitcase, and move on. And still the suitcases remain silent.
My remote control.
In this writing, and in my various musings with J., I connect with my built-in self-reflective component. It is healthy to hit pause on the remote control of life every so often. I check in and see where I am, where I thought I'd be, and where I'd like to be. I do this because, more often than not, I feel like I'm in fast forward.
What I feel now is freedom, independence, possibility. The wind in my hair as I'm driving down the Poreporena Freeway, singing the latest Pacific pop song - in a language I do not understand. It makes me laugh - loud.
I feel a freedom now that I rarely felt when I was young. In fact, I felt the opposite - trapped. I was a late bloomer, product of an awkward youth, a cautious little creature.
Now I am in touch with my inner revolutionary. Or maybe I am experiencing what lots of 30-something women feel - comfort in their skin and in their heads.
I am conscious of how I tread on the earth - lightly in some aspects, perhaps not so lightly in others. I do it all deliberately, with full knowledge of consequences. Maybe in my youth I was waiting for things to happen to me, or maybe I was letting forces push me along. Now I feel like I am in control in a way that I very much like.
I am living my dreams now. There could have been one hundred different ways for me to bring my dreams to fruition, and I feel like I've experienced nearly one hundred of them already. Sometimes they feel like a good fit, sometimes not. The important thing is that I'm not afraid to be true to myself - and I give very little thought to what others think of this.
This is what it means to be in my 30s: I'm just not afraid.
The Bohemian vs. The Nothing.
So what is missing?
For those who have read The Neverending Story, it's a bit like "the nothing" that takes over Fantasia. It's a hollow empty feeling that eats things up as it expands. And so it grows, until those of pure heart come together because they still believe - and their hope rebuilds a better, richer Fantasia.
I witness the cynic in me waging war against the believer - the one who thinks that identities are fluid and evolving by nature, and that decisions are not made consciously because our hearts speak loud, but we often fail to listen. I sometimes listen to my inner bohemian. She tells me that life will take me in the direction that it needs to. It's easier to believe that. Rather, it's too confusing not to!
I wonder how others do it, and if they make these complicated life links between who they are, where they are, what they do, and who they love. Sometimes I see the clouds of their chaos. At other times, their partnerships appear more like synchronized swimming routines. I study those around me, particularly those who could reveal who I might be after 10 years. These are women in their 40s with careers I aspire to. I put on my Maureen Dowd lenses, and here's what I see: women who are either unmarried or divorced. Men who are married with wife in tow, or married with wife at home (and likely having affairs with young idealists in the NGO community). I picture a parking lot of sorts, where the wives of those development types linger, wondering what compels their partners to choose a nomadic life over the comforts of home (an expression that might seem trite, but is often true!). I have yet to see a husband in that lot.
Gender dynamics and warm bodies.
But I am not on a husband hunt. In fact, experience with love has shown me that I can love and care and give better in the macro than the micro sense. This probably explains why I do not want my own children - but could conceive of adopting others. Still, I think that I need to be rejuvenated as well. I give much, and therefore I drain easily. I love the idea of intimate relationships. Sleeping next to someone else. Bodies, skin, and intimacy are essential for me - I am addicted to the physical and emotional warmth that they bring.
Does this sound like a contradiction? I feel 100 different personalities emerge as I write this.
The irony of working on "gender issues" is that I address them constantly in my personal life as well. I lose relationships to the realization that we all operate in our own gender parameters. I can talk to communities about taking men and women's social roles into consideration while I'm in "the field" - but it fails to translate at home. Maybe the cross-over hits too close to home. Maybe because there really is no home... yet.
The title of this little piece is deliberate. It sounds like one of the reports I could write, weighing down another development shelf. But while I work to help others resolve issues of gender and identity in the context of conflict, I also witness this conflict in my own life. And so I think of my own struggles with gender, my own confusion about identity, and the conflict that it creates. My work-life parallel is beyond ironic. It is as if I am on a path that will reveal a certain truth to me - and all roads point in this same direction. I only hope that I will eventually be ready to build my own Fantasia - filled with warmth and peace.
I was recently reunited with my old boss - also an old friend - from days in Washington. As I shared my stories of gender issues in my work - and eerily parallel gender issues in my life - she urged me to write a book. Maybe this is the first page.