love

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

When the universe winks [or: Wagon Wheel]

eternally nostalgic

There have been times in my work with communities affected by conflict when I have longed for a stronger belief in a supernatural deity. I have been compelled to pray, to hope that someone out there is listening. At this stage in my life, my imagination of that "supernatural something" that resides outside of ourselves does not take the form of a deity. Rather, my belief can be summarized in the following phrase: The universe is winking.

You know the moments I am describing: In the face of adversity or great irony, of what seems like undue strife, something happens to reassure you that you are not alone, that the world is not laughing in your face, that life unfolds on a continuum and the narratives of joy and heartbreak exist side-by-side. And, if recent experiences with fragility have been any indication, the universe winking at me comes with a soundtrack---Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."

The song appeared in my life during a relationship that may never have happened had it not been for grief, fragility, and emotional confusion in the first place. As Joan Didion advises in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not" and, in that vein, I need to extend compassion to the self who thought she could drown grief in affection and be blind to the traits that would make the affection shallow and the grief immutable. He hated my music. That should have been a clue. Anyone who hates the company that Cat Power and Brandi Carlile and Rachael Yamagata keep, anyone who cannot reconcile himself with my army of women singer-songwriters, is dancing on a different sheet of music than the one in which I live. So he made me a CD. [Pause for nostalgic indulgence in the quaintness of making someone a CD, not a Spotify playlist.]

Of all the tracks on it, Wagon Wheel jumped out. Even after that budding relationship withered, Wagon Wheel lingered as the soundtrack to a segment of life for which I never quite found the words.

***

Second day in Cairo. I met the girls on an email list of foreigners in Egypt looking for roommates. I met the boys on a sailboat on the Nile the night before, on my first day. Coincidentally also the first day of Ramadan, the first of many firsts. We are in the boys' apartment and I am alive with the exhilaration of belonging, with the relief of how quickly one belongs when she is a foreigner among foreigners, a stranger among strangers---all of whom wish to throw out that label and slide over to best friends already. One of the boys picks up his guitar. Wagon Wheel is the first song he plays.

That song came with me to Uganda... Sudan... Colombia... Guatemala... Jerusalem. "Points South" of all that. Now Boston. So did the guitar. And so did the boy.

***

Katherine's birthday party. Budding friendship, united by parallel narratives which---defying all laws of geometry---intersect as they unravel. The kind of friendship that fills your sails with gratitude, that makes you feel like the universe can wink simply by putting someone in your path. Her friend brought his guitar. Barenaked Ladies. The Beatles. Leaving on a jet plane. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley.

And then, inevitably, Wagon Wheel. A room full of people singing the words along. The universe winked extra pointedly that night, to make sure I knew I was home.

***

My love for the song is immaterial. This is not the kind of song that one feels was written for her. I have never been to Johnson City, Tennessee, never picked a banjo. This is not a lyrical attachment. Rather, Wagon Wheel is my clue to pay attention. It is the way that I know that, even if I am trudging through the mud right now, somewhere out there the universe is winking. It is the music that plays, almost invisibly, to make sure that I am listening.

The responsibility to love

eternally nostalgic

Life had been reduced to a stack of flashcards in the past week. The green ones contained information on United Nations peacekeeping missions: mandates, areas of deployment, challenges. The blue ones referred to peacekeeping doctrine. The orange ones summarized relevant legal citations. At the top of the flashcard stack rested a question: "What is the legal status of the Responsibility to Protect?" Affectionately dubbed R2P, this refers to the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The questions of whose responsibility this is, how to uphold it, and where it fits on the spectrum of legal duty or interpreted responsibility are complex and controversial. Last night, at his speech upon being pronounced the winner of the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama articulated a different set of responsibilities, both on the part of leaders and of citizens. Among the many issues he touched upon, one stood out to me: his articulation of the responsibility to love and to serve. There is something refreshing, and new, and inspiring about the responsibility to love being framed as a duty in a speech on election night. At a time of prevalent cynicism, it is an exhale to hear a call for a triumph of compassion over cynicism. The inclusion of these words, and the lifestyles and ideologies they inspire, elevates them. It renders them necessary.

In my eyes, cynicism is easy. Compassion is a difficult practice. It is exactly that: a practice, a muscle that needs to be exercised. It is a stretch to be compassionate towards those who look different than we do, who behave differently than we do, who hold different values, whose ideology rests on different principles. But that is where empathy lies: in being able to extend compassion not only to those we already care about, but to those whom we do not know and whom we are not already programmed to love.

I am a foreigner in the United States (and everywhere?). A "non-immigrant", as my visa states. A "non-resident alien." I could not vote, though I do not consider the casting of a ballot the only way to formulate and articulate opinions that give one a stake in her own community. I have already handed in a midterm with many misgivings about whether "R2P is a legal duty or 'just' a responsibility." I woke up this morning, however, with no misgivings whatsoever about my responsibility to love.

Grief, love, and Joan Didion

eternally nostalgic

As far as thieves go, grief is the greatest one. She robs us of the people we love, but—perhaps most achingly—she zaps our ability to imagine the future. Lose a place, a person, or a love and, suddenly, measurements of time become irrelevant. Grief warps time; she renders our plans for next week and dreams for the next vacation incongruous. As Joan Didion put it in The Year of Magical Thinking: 

"We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."

For the grieving, imagining a future day of being is a triumph over that "as we will one day not be at all" that Didion describes. Imagining the future is an act of boldness. Didion herself, in a description of her husband's desires for their shared trip to Paris, associates the wishful imagination of a future with being alive:

"He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them, but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living."

My discontent with grief comes from its blocking my boundless want. By drawing strict lines between the living and those whom they lost, grief casts the world in harsh light. She makes it impossible to believe in forever. Instead, she injects a heinous pragmatism into sentiments that would rather be unadulterated by it.

***

My only antidote to that has been love -- the kind of love that floods every crack and fills the vacuums of loss with the promise of togetherness. I do not know Eleni and Stamati. I do not know anything about their love. All I know is that 46 years ago, on April 28, 1966, they felt something strong enough to carve it onto a brick on top of Lycabettus Hill, with all of Athens below serving as witness.

Maybe Eleni and Stamatis are now divorced. Or grieving. Or maybe they have been best friends all along. Or siblings.

What happened on April 28, 1966 on Lycabettus Hill is of little importance to me; rather, I am intrigued by Eleni and Stamatis' audacity. They left a bit of their heart printed so permanently onto a site in Athens that future travelers would have to experience it. That is the triumph of love over loss, of affection over grief, of dreaming over pain.

***

Like a band on its farewell tour, we loaded the car with wafers and pretzels and drove nearly 2,000 kilometers to say farewell to the country we called home and the home that housed our love. There are still wafer bits encrusted onto the map. Those were not the only tokens of the journey. Near the waterfalls of Banias, close to the Syrian border, he found a patch of wet cement. "E ♥ R" is still there.

I want us to go to Banias in 46 years. Or 32. 11? Next year? I want us to go to Banias at an undefined point in the future because love is the imagination of a future without an end point and, in that, it is a triumph over grief. I want to find us at Banias. If not the literal us, if not the "us" carved onto the cement, then the selves we once were.

The trips that weren't

eternally nostalgic

What they do not tell you about the Pyramids is that, grand as the monuments may be, the surrounding area smells profoundly of camel piss. I arrived in Cairo ungrounded: no apartment, no friends, no Arabic, not even my own luggage. I was anchorless to the point of adrift---weightless to the point of exhilarated. Over time, Cairo became filled with the buoyancy of firsts and the gravity of love. It was the first place where I worked with the United Nations and, in many ways, where my passion for gender advocacy and conflict management came alive. Cairo marked my first attempt to live mindfully in the present, an endeavor that ran counter to my inclination to wander in the memory of the past or anticipation of the future. And on the first day of Ramadan that year, I met someone on a boat on the Nile in the kind of way that will make it impossible for me not to consider the river blessed, the city magical, and my time there transformative.

We drank strawberry juice in a street alley across from his apartment building. Pronouncing "Mumkin asir faroula?" became a small victory. The strawberry juice gave way to tea and to coffee and to domino and when we ran out of non-alcoholic drinks and board games, he would deposit me into a taxi and I would employ the only other Arabic I spoke at the time: "Five pounds. The fare is supposed to be five pounds." The driver would argue, I would say no emphatically, habiiiiibiiii would bellow from the radio, we'd run a red light or five, and my head would hit the pillow just as the first call to prayer of the day echoed from the nearby mosques. The realm for a public romance was limited and filled with mines, so our budding love was rife with the kind of companionship that prepares you well for retirement: conversation, domino and tea.

And I had yet to see the Pyramids.

This was a point of contention among my friends. It did not matter that I was filling their inboxes with the cautious enthusiasm of a young love. Everyone would write back asking how Cairo is and "have you seen the Pyramids yet?" "No, but there's this little alley that I love . . ." stopped cutting it as an answer.

Four months of alleys and domino later, I had eight hours before I had to be on a plane to Uganda. I asked the cab driver to take me to Giza for the trip that almost wasn't: the pilgrimage to the Pyramids. The postcards create an impression that the Pyramids exist in a vacuum. They do not tell you that there are apartment buildings poking the air around the area of the Pyramids. The guidebooks do not mention the all-piercing smell of camel piss.

They also do not mention that great memories are not always made in the shadow of historical grandeur. Future travelers should take note of the unmarked alley off the map (which, to be fair, also occasionally reeks of urine). After standing in awe in front of the Pyramids for a few minutes, and waving off the salesmen asking me to buy papyrus, I went back to my alley, for one last whiff of nargileh smoke, sip of strawberry juice, and exhale of gratitude for the memories that were.

In Guatemala, I failed to make it to Lake Atitlan. In Colombia, I never saw Villa de Leyva. In Uganda, I missed Murchison Falls. This was neither my criminal inability to traipse to remarkable places nor a snobbish rejection of the kinds of experiences that inspire universal awe. Rather, I learned in Cairo to allow myself to be attached to the alley---and, like Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, to leave a trail of crumbs to come back to. "The trips that weren't" give me an anchor in a home that once was. They supply a reason to retrace the steps to a self I left behind. Seventeen conflict and post-conflict zones after Egypt, I favored the sites of memories over those in the Lonely Planet, saving the latter as collateral to the promise that I would return.

Jerusalem was meant to be the last stop for a while. After my work there, I would fly across the ocean to the United States to return to an academic study of gender and conflict. I would unpack the bags and own what is gratuitous simply for the sake of not worrying about how to pack it for the next trip. I would own wine glasses and more than one pair of sheets and I would get excited about things like latte art and permanence. This time, I was not interested in leaving any item unchecked. A month before our departure, I made The List: walks, food, experiences to have before we leave. We ate nostalgia for four weeks, stuffing our stomachs with all the food we thought we would miss and our days with itineraries. I thought we did a good job this time, that we did so much and saw so much and felt so much that we would leave Jerusalem with a sense of satiation---as though that could vaccinate us against future nostalgia.

Two hours before we had to hail a cab to the airport, we lit a coal for our nargileh and breathed apple-flavored smoke into the street. We had recreated the alley. Everything else may have shifted, but it was still him and I and the apple-flavored smoke. We looked over The List and realized that "the trips that weren't" had become the trips that were. I was afraid that we had done it all, that there would be no more Jerusalem to discover in the future. We had crossed off the items.

All except one: The YMCA was his favorite building in town. It became mine as well. We never made it to the top.