Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Without Fear




What is holding me back from writing without fear? I feel like I live without fear – I make big, international moves, do academic stuff with screaming kids in the background, drive a car in the D.R…all these things are terrifying, and I do them anyway. But there’s something about writing…

I qualify most of my sentences. I condition my arguments.  I don’t use definitive language.  My writing is wrought with insecurity.

Maybe I'm scared to stand behind a statement that could make people argue with me.  I'm not really that into conflict. I generally talk animatedly about controversial issues when the person I’m speaking to agrees with me.  If I sense an argument brewing, I back down making a general statement about how we can agree to disagree. Unfortunately for people like me, ALL academic papers start with “I argue that….blah blah blah”.

What is it about academia that triggers this palpable uncertainty in my ability to make a firm argument? I mean, no author has all the data and every author makes the best statement they can with what they have.  What makes me feel like what I have is somehow not enough? If theirs is enough, then why isn’t mine?

A very wise professor once told me the key to liberation and owning your voice is to “run out of fucks”.  Of course, in my insecure, planificatory manner, my response was, “so when would be the best time to run out? While I’m a grad student? After I get a job somewhere? Or after I’m tenured?”   The response: “Yesterday”.

I think about how my race, gender, and socioeconomic background matter. I’ve gotten along because I don’t make waves, and I've been doing emotional acrobatics to make people comfortable for most of my adult life. But good research is provocative, challenging, definitive, and it makes people engage, push, and take sides.  I’m feeling more ready lately. I might be running out of fucks.  It’s a little scary…but I think I like it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Water Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink



One day this week, I went to my field site and the water pump was broken.  On the inconvenient end of the spectrum, people’s dishes piled up in the sink and laundry piled up on the floor.  On the more urgent end of the spectrum, kids tell mothers they are hungry. And mothers reply, “we are all hungry”.

Since the pump is broken, they can’t cook. You need water to cook rice and boil beans.  Even if you cook with purified water, you need water to wash the dishes you will cook with.  And you wouldn’t go crazy using your purified water because you need it to drink. The water from the pump is undrinkable.

On a normal day, people spend the morning hauling water back and forth from the pump to their homes.  There is one pump that provides water for the entire community of about 100 families. People carry water using buckets, old vegetable oil jugs, bleach containers, anything with a handle. They have to get all the water they need for the day early because it usually runs out by the afternoon.  At about 7am each morning, the running water at the pump starts.  By the afternoon, it stops. 

This water is used for bathing, laundry, cleaning, washing dishes, and sometimes cooking. I would guess that maybe 3-4 houses out of 100 have running water in their homes when the pump is working, so the vast majority of people are hauling water each day. 

One woman teases me playfully saying, “Trini, you don’t know how to haul water!” I defend myself, saying “I can do it. I’m strong!” But the truth is, I have not had to spend my life hauling water each morning. I am probably not strong enough.

They spend this morning, when the pump is broken, wondering if it’s just later than usual or if it will be out for days.

Water is something we take for granted in the developed world, and I just wanted to reflect on the importance of water as a basic need for so many things that we do each day. 

What would you do if one day, the water just stopped running?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing Vulnerability and Asking for Help



Why is it so difficult to ask for help?  We Americans value independence, persistence, and determination but we are rarely honest about the impact of this value system.  People are praised for seemingly individual achievements when really, none of us can claim success independently.  We achieve long-term goals by cultivating persistence, but we gloss over the moments when we felt defeated.  Determination means you push through adversity, but should it come at the expense of our own self-care?  

Why does asking for help feel like failure?

Maybe it's because we fear being someone's disappointment.  But when we show our struggles to people who care about us, they are compelled to show you theirs.  They want to tell you "You are not alone in this life". Give people the opportunity to support you.  Don't make their decisions for them. Let them decide how to lift you up.  Even Dr. King needed to surround himself with people who built him up when he felt weak. (Selma plug!)

Maybe it's because we don’t want to admit imperfection. Maybe imperfection is a sign of weakness. But if we are more transparent about the struggle, then we can begin to see systemic trends that make life harder for some than others.  (I’m thinking of micro- and macroagressions against women and people of color, the LGBTQ community, parents in the workplace…perhaps you can think of other examples).  How can we advocate for change if we keep suffering in silence?

Maybe it's because vulnerability is uncomfortable. It is definitely difficult to let other people see your cracks. People ask how you are doing and they want to hear that you’re ok and things are good.  They can walk away and remain amazed by your awesomeness.  The problem is, this places the ability to do awesome things squarely on “awesome people.”  You hear an amazing story and think “I could never do anything like that.” When really, we all have the capacity to do amazing things. 

Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer. But carrying the weight of life around while wearing a smile is exhausting.  When you feel like wallowing for a while, it is isolating and lonely when you don’t know that others before you have also wallowed on their way to success. So be vulnerable with someone today. Choose a person who cares about you, and tell them that you are lonely, joyful, in love, or in pain.  Give people a chance to surprise you. 


*Note: I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking about vulnerability a lot lately, and this book sparked my interest: Brene Brown “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Emotional Labor: When it Hurts to do the Work



This month, I have learned about the importance of taking a guilt-free break.  My research is on mental health among Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the D.R.  I’ve completed almost 60 in-depth interviews with people (a research assistant did 20 interviews).  In addition to questions about perceived discrimination, I have been asking people about depression and anxiety symptoms, coping strategies, and general life stressors.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this work would have an emotional impact on me, but I was.

I was caught off guard when I started to feel my own feelings.  I mean, can you imagine feeling guilty for feeling guilty? Yeah, I went there…But here is how it started:

First, I felt the pressure and responsibility of being the “only one I’ve ever shared this with”.  Then the urge to help fix the situations that burdened people.  Then inadequate and ill-equipped to listen therapeutically…because I’m not a therapist. Then helpless, when it became clear that a major problem is poverty and I am not equipped to solve poverty in my remaining five months.  Next came the guilt of my own privileged position.  Then I dreaded going to my field site and decided I would never choose a research topic like this again.

I was overwhelmed.  So I started to talk about it.  I reached out to friends and colleagues who have also worked on emotional topics.  I wrote about it.  I read articles about it.  And I started to feel less alone and less guilty.

It also helped me to do “non-academic” things. Many of my respondents used “avoidance coping” – doing other things to take their minds off of daily stressors. (Note: I also felt ridiculous because I was asking them to talk, in depth, about things they would rather avoid thinking about.)  Anyway, avoidance coping is my thing, but I usually use work to cope with personal stressors.  In this case, the work was the stressor.  So I started reading fiction, painting, doing yoga, and watching Netflix.  The work was still there every day, but at least there were moments when I could completely not think about it.

So, this break was a good one.  In hindsight, I would have planned my research design with a break in mind, or maybe small breaks throughout the year to recharge.  Either way, I feel much better after a little distance.  

(Note: If you’re looking for a starting point, Arlie Hochschild and Sheryl Kleinman are sociologists who write about the emotional labor of fieldwork. Also, I bet social workers have good insight on this…)

*photo credit: http://www.liveandlovework.com/2013/09/20/its-break-time/

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pain and the Process of Healing


My research in the D.R. is on how discrimination impacts mental health. I’ve been doing interviews for a few months now and, although it feels like an obvious statement, many things impact mental health. Respondents do talk about discrimination, but they also talk about poverty, job loss, family tensions, marital conflict, and the death of loved ones – things that connect people across the globe as fellow human beings.

In the wake of highly publicized police brutality, the past month has been an emotional one for many of us.  People are deeply wounded and many feel betrayed by a system – a country – that is supposed to protect everyone’s right to life.  There are so many necessary conversations, and I think a conversation about healing is one of them. 

I shared a previous post on the tragic loss of our dear brother. I wrote that I wanted to bring my family back to this place “in search of healing”.  And I’m realizing that maybe healing is not a destination.  Maybe it is a continuum, a constant process.  When I reflect on how far I’ve come, I no longer have nightmares and flashbacks about the day.  I no longer feel broken, like my world was ripped from under my feet.  I no longer feel bitter when someone refers to ocean sounds as “soothing”.  But sometimes, I imagine the most tragic outcome possible when I’m away from loved ones.  And I still have to swallow negative thoughts when I find myself anticipating the worst. And I still have to reign in my fears that joy is only temporary.

A fellow blogger and friend recently wrote about how motherhood changes your body and mind in a way that makes it impossible to be the person you were before.  Not only that, it's an unrealistic expectation to think that you can go back to that person.  That’s how I imagine healing to be.  I will never be who I was before.  Nor should I try to be.  But I’m still healing.  

The point is, it's a process.  We may never know what it looks like to be "healed", and I imagine that there's variation in what people/communities need for their own healing.  I needed to stare my tragedy in the face in order to begin my healing process.  Maybe not everyone needs that.  But I did.

I asked one of my respondents how she copes with sadness when it comes up for her.  She told me that sad feelings are “passengers”, they come and go but they are always there.  My heart broke for her.  Some of us live in a continuous state of sadness, anger, worry, and fear – and have been for years…decades…centuries.  I’m still hurt, sad, angry, and afraid as black lives continue to be lost because of injustice.  But maybe we have to stare the pain in the face before the process can begin. It’s scary, uncomfortable, and difficult.  But maybe it’s one way for healing to begin...and maybe we can begin to see ourselves as fellow human beings sharing this world.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The New Normal – Finding Order in the Chaos Part II




Things are feeling really good here.  The preschooler loves going to school.  The toddler loves daycare. My husband found a part-time job he enjoys. My research couldn’t be going better.  Sometimes, with major life changes, I work myself up over what is to come, then when things are ok, I work myself up in anticipation of difficulties ahead.  So, I thought I’d take a moment to bask in this happy place and share our “new normal” with you.  I wrote about creating a work schedule in a previous post.  It was about our life juggling work and family in the U.S.  Now that we’re in the D.R., we’ve carved out a new routine that works for our family.

Here is our weekday schedule:

6:15-7:15am wake up and get dressed, get the kids dressed, give the kids breakfast, pack school lunches/snacks

7:15am – My partner drives the 4 year old to school on his way to work.  I put the toddler in his stroller and we walk to daycare. It’s a nice, cool, leisurely 5 minute walk where we imitate the sounds we hear (birds, dogs, roosters, and motorcycles)

7:30am – I am back at home. I tidy up from breakfast and check emails.

*I start my work day at 8am and there are two potential work days for me:

Work Day A – at home
8am – 12:30pm  Work from home: writing, reading, organizing the data I’ve collected.
12:30-2pm Go pick up the toddler from daycare, make lunch, lay him down for nap, make lunch for the 4 year old. My partner picks up the 4 year old at 1:15pm on his way in from work.

2-6pm  Continue working. Sometimes I work from home in our bedroom with the door closed to deter noisy children. Other times, I work in the eating area at a nearby grocery store.  The kids nap from 2-4pm. My partner is on duty when they wake up.

Work Day B – at my field site
8am-10am  Work from home: writing, emails, organizing

10am-1pm  Head to my field site. Do 1-2 interviews with people.

1-2pm Have  lunch. Maybe a cup of coffee. Leisurely conversations with people. Check in with my research assistant.  She does interviews in Haitian Creole so we use this time to talk about how things are going. My partner picks up both kids from daycare/preschool, makes them lunch, puts them down for naps.

2:30ish – 5pm  Do 1-2 more interviews. Sit and talk with people.

5-6pm Head home.

6-7pm– Make dinner.  Feed the kids.

7:30-8pm Bedtime routine for the kids: bath, pajamas, story, prayers, song, bed.

8pm-11pm  My partner and shower, eat, watch Hulu or Netflix, check in about our days, go to bed!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Post About Poop


We talk about poop so often in this house that I would be remiss not to write a blog post about it. Once I decided it was necessary, I thought “how can I tastefully write about poop so that I can still get a job in the future?” Then I thought, “people on hiring committees poop too, so…I’m just gonna go for it.”  We have been in the country for three months now and things seem to have stabilized for the moment. Here’s our poop story.

Month 1: Diarrhea
We were all adjusting to the food here, but the toddler and I dealt with frequent bouts of diarrhea.  I would venture to say I had diarrhea about 5 out of 7 mornings each week.  The general treatment is to hydrate and get acquainted with the BRAT diet – Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast.  I got a prescription for Azithromycin from my doctor before I left the U.S., but I never felt bad enough to take it...in retrospect, maybe I should have...ha!

Month 2: Constipation
The pre-schooler has dealt with constipation for about 2 out of 4 years of his life. We brought a vat of Miralax with us and we have definitely needed to use it for our sweet boy.  If we need a re-fill, we can find an equivalent medicine here, or we can have it refilled in the US and ask grandparents to pick it up and mail it to us.

Month 3: Stomach Virus
This month was the worst! The stomach virus that hit our household was ugly.

Bout #1) I woke up in the middle of the night vomiting, then I was out of commission for the entire next day with fatigue and a low fever.  I was convinced I was dying of some rare Caribbean disease, but by day 2 or 3, I was alive again.

Bout #2) First the preschooler fought off diarrhea and vomiting, then it attacked the toddler, then jumped back to the preschooler again!  I was in tears the morning I saw my 4 year old standing at the toilet, vomiting while poop ran down his leg.  We consulted the pediatrician we’ve gotten to know here and she recommended a stool culture to rule out amoebas/parasites/worms if things didn’t get better in a couple of days. But luckily, rest, Pedialyte, and the BRAT diet prevailed, and we all survived.