Tag Archives: stress

Books, glorious books

It was a mostly quiet weekend.

I know, I know. That sentence is so boring that I should enter it into the Bulwer Lytton contest for the worst first lines of books.

This year’s overall winner was Molly Ringle from Seattle for the following:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Another one of my favorites was Rick Cheeseman’s entry for fantasy fiction:

The wood nymph fairies blissfully pranced in the morning light past the glistening dewdrops on the meadow thistles by the Old Mill, ignorant of the daily slaughter that occurred just behind its lichen-encrusted walls, twin 20-ton mill stones savagely ripping apart the husks of wheat seed, gleefully smearing the starchy entrails across their dour granite faces in unspeakable botanical horror and carnage – but that’s not our story; ours is about fairies!

Granted, in light of the eloquence of previous winners, “it was a mostly quiet weekend” lacks a little… spice. Or comic hyperbole. But I like to think that its bland equivocation is a supremely boring sort of elegant. If there were a “meh” category it’d definitely be a strong contender.

Sadly, there’s not yet a category for meh.

So, this weekend. First, it came after five solid days of working on my consultancy report all day, every day. Then it came after three solid days of noise. The guesthouse right next door hosted a 48-hour party complete with karaoke and periodic drumming (at first we thought it was a funeral, but apparently someone bought a house). On Friday the drumming competed valiantly with the circular saws going over the back fence.

By 5:30pm Zulu, who had been locked in the office with me for most of the day, was completely over the din, his toys, and the sheets of packing paper that (desperate, and awash with guilt about my necessary neglect) I’d let him shred. The office was covered with tiny pieces of white paper and he was lying on his back with his head under the bed, moaning sadly to himself and chewing on cardboard. I knew how he felt.

Instead of feeling relieved after I sent off the report draft I just felt exhausted and flat. Why, I wondered, can’t I write a draft of a report in a week that I feel is brilliant instead of just a draft that I feel is a good start?

Then a whole host of other thoughts started to feed into a familiar mental storm – the kind of mental storm that occasionally generates inner tornadoes.

Why were we even living in this blasted place of incessant noise – this place where people think it’s acceptable to drum for two days, this place where people run circular saws eight hours a day, this place where radios only seem to have one setting – loud.

This place of swarms of mosquitoes that invade our house so that our pre-bedtime routine now consists of lurking in the corners of the bedroom watching… waiting… and killing.

This place where we can’t get reliable vaccines for our puppy, or doctors for ourselves.

Where we have no oven. And where I can’t buy pesto in a jar.

Yeah, once these mental tornadoes start to form it’s truly remarkable how quickly I can generate a wide variety of things that I am unhappy about to pull into the maelstrom.

“What can I do to help?” Mike asked on Friday night.

“Nothing,” I said from the depths of my stormy darkness. “I just need to go to bed and get over myself. But I can’t go to bed and go to sleep because they are still drumming.

At some point this weekend, however, the drumming stopped, so did the saws, and the world went quiet. We played with the puppy. We had a new friend, Luzia – a Swiss vet – over for dinner and she gave Zulu a deworming shot for us and shared some thoughts on how to possibly track down puppy vaccines. I figured out that the toaster oven works quite well for roasting pumpkin. We opened the jar of pesto we’d bought with us from California. Mike pottered around happily, and I sorted my books and finally got them stacked onto our new bookshelves.

Novels. Memoirs. Essays and short stories. Poetry. Academic texts on trauma, and peace building, and aid work. Books on writing.

Some of these books have been around the world with me more than once by now, and more than a few were bought in a pre-move literary-spending-spree (or, uh, ten such sprees). Sitting on the tile floor in the silence and sifting through them was soothing. The dozens that I haven’t read were tangible promises of many hours of pleasure to come. The dozens that I have read served a double function. They are stories that I have loved – each a whole world in their own right – and they are also each a small piece of my own story, my own world. I can remember where I was when I read many of the books that I have most loved – what I was doing, and how I was feeling about life.

Whenever I handle The Time Travelers Wife, for example, I flash back to Heathrow airport and a six-hour layover after a brutal week of hard work and food poisoning in Kenya. That book was read in a single stint – lying on hard plastic chairs, amidst the cacophony of constant boarding announcements. It redeemed those six hours, and I loved it even more for that.

Hours of peaceful sorting this weekend have finally yielded some order in our book collection and in my mind. It’s also transformed the corner of our downstairs room. We may not have access to good medical care here, but we now have our own library tucked neatly under a spiral staircase.

Luzia was stunned when she walked into our place on Sunday.

“It’s so nice to see books,” she said, entranced. “I haven’t seen hardly any books during the last eighteen months. This is amazing that you brought so many.”

“Yes, well,” Mike joked as he gave me a hug. “She is the love of my life. And they are the love of hers.”

Resilience – what does it even mean?

Today I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the blog. Sorry guys, but Mike’s been in Vientiane for the last three days, so you’re it.

You see, I’m doing a consultancy project at the moment focused on resilience as it’s related to managers in humanitarian organizations.

I’m loving this project. It’s given me the perfect excuse to call up some really smart people the world over and ask them all sorts of questions that I haven’t yet decided how I would answer. This morning I talked to a friend and colleague in New Zealand. Last night I was chatting to a new acquaintance in Bali – she and her husband are starting a program to provide retreats for international aid workers (Satori Worldwide). On Friday night it was someone in the Central African Republic.

Among many other things during this last discussion, I learned that skype does have immutable limitations. To whit… it will not work for longer than one minute and sixteen seconds when you are trying to connect Laos and the Central African Republic.

(Thank you to the person I was interviewing for ringing me after the fourth time the line was dropped. I do not even want to think about how much the mobile-mobile call cost her, but she had some awesome insights to share and I’m grateful.)

Of course, at some point (like next week) I’m going to have to start weaving all of these insightful commentaries together, figure out what I think, and write a big thought/research paper. That sound suspiciously like hard work to me. But in the meantime, good times!

You might think that by this stage of the process I would have figured out exactly what I mean when I say the word resilience.

Yeah, well, you’d be wrong.

Apologies for perhaps sounding like a professor here, but the definitional waters around this concept of resilience are incredibly, frustratingly, muddy.

The Latin root of the word resilient is resilire – meaning to spring back, to recoil, to return to the original form after being bent back or stretched.

When it was first grafted into the psychology domain, resilience was used in precisely this manner – to denote someone’s ability to “bounce back” or recover quickly from traumatic events and other types of adversity.

Over time, however, resilience has also come to be used in at least two other ways.

Some researchers argue that resilience goes beyond the ability to bounce back from trauma. Rather, they claim, it is an ability to cope well with fast-paced and continuously changing environments – to cope well with high levels of pressure rather than simply being able to recover quickly when you’ve been knocked for six.

Another group of thinkers and researchers have been even more ambitious in trying to broaden the scope of the term. Steve Wolin, for example, defines resilience as, “the capacity to rise above adversity—sometimes the terrible adversity of outright violence, molestation or war—and forge lasting strengths in the struggle.” This takes the concept well beyond merely bouncing back to the status quo and burdens it with the expectation of positive post-traumatic growth.

What to do with all of this? I can’t very well write a thought paper if I don’t settle on a definition now, can I.

This is still a work in progress, so I reserve the right to change my mind – but the definition I’m kicking around at the moment is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change.

I could go on and on in detail, trust me, but I’d much rather hear from you on this topic at this point.

If you’re still with me: What do you think of when you hear the word resilience? Do you consider yourself resilient? What behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes do you think are related to being resilient in life?

To close, here’s a mini-story I stumbled across recently that made me laugh out loud. I think it’s a gorgeous illustration of one facet of resilience:

Daniel Boone was asked by a reporter if he had ever been lost in the wilderness.

Boone thought for a moment and replied, “No, but I was once bewildered for about three days.”

When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision

This story starts in May. In May, Mike was in Laos in the middle of his first seven weeks at his new job with World Vision. I was in LA wrapping up my own job. Mike was trying to find his feet in a new place and in a new life. I was trying to disengage from familiar people and a familiar life.

We were in very different places – not just physically – and as we spent my evenings and Mike’s early mornings talking via skype, I frequently found myself feeling torn. I did want to hear the honest truth about how things were in Laos and try to support Mike through the first shockwaves of this change. But as I was tearing myself loose from LA and preparing to step into the whirlwind I also, often, found myself longing to just hear the reassuring message: “We totally made the right decision. Everything’s great. You’re going to love it here.”

Some days I got that. Many days I didn’t.

The night that Mike first told me about Sommai, I didn’t.

The day before, Mike told me, he’d received an urgent phone call from a staff member, Edena, who was based in a field office four hours outside of Luang Prabang. There was a very sick sponsored child in her district, Edena said. Sommai was seven, and lived in a remote and inaccessible village. There was no cell phone reception or road access in this village – it was another hour north by motorbike, and then a twenty-minute walk into the hills.

Edena didn’t speak very good English. She couldn’t explain what might be wrong with Sommai, but she did manage to convey that he needed urgent medical care or he might die. She wanted Mike’s authorization to send him to the district health center, but here was the big problem with this situation (or, rather, the tenth big problem): the family was very poor. So poor that, even with the organization committing to cover most of the bills that would follow, Edena didn’t think that the family had the money to pay their quarter of the treatment costs.

So Mike was left wondering what to do. The organization has many good reasons for its policies requiring some family contribution for medical care. There are also good reasons why it’s standard practice that the family pays the initial costs that are incurred and then files for reimbursement. Mike couldn’t just ignore these policies, but could he really sanction delaying or denying assistance over what was (to us) a relatively small sum of money?

As soon as possible after Edena’s call, Mike met with child sponsorship staff in the Luang Prabang office. Together they searched for a solution.

No, the staff confirmed – Mike could not circumvent these policies just because he felt like it. Perhaps, the staff suggested, the family could borrow some money from the village development bank (a small community fund set up in many villages to help in emergencies just like this one).

Only, three hours and numerous phone calls later, it turned out that this village didn’t have one.

Then they discussed whether Mike should write to the national director and ask for an exemption from the family contribution co-pay.

Mike was torn on this, and in the end it was the national staff that tipped the scales towards a no, citing two things Mike already knew. The organization supported thousands of children and they couldn’t make exemptions for all, or even most, of them. Perhaps even more importantly, the staff said, if they sought an exemption in this case many other families in the village would also claim extreme poverty. No one would pay their share, and it would ultimately make the job of the field staff much more difficult.

“Sommai’s family will find a way to borrow the money from relatives or friends, or maybe the staff in the field will help out of their wages,” the Luang Prabang staff told Mike. “We should wait.”

To Mike – a month into the job – it seemed like a gut-wrenching gamble to take on the life of a child, but he took their advice and sent the message back to Edena. The organization would help. As per policy they’d reimburse most of the medical expenses, but the family had to come up with the initial co-pay.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me that night in May, over skype, “How do you make these sorts of decisions?”

In California, sitting alone among half-packed boxes in our quiet living room, I shrugged even though he wasn’t there to see it. How did you make that sort of decision?

“I don’t know, Mike,” I said. “I don’t know.”

Sommai lived. Over the next day or two the family did come up with the copay – they borrowed money from their relatives, and others who lived in the village. Sommai was transferred to the district health center. Soon after that, on the urgent recommendation of the district center, he was transferred to Luang Prabang where he spent six days in hospital before he was discharged.

After his return, from back in the village, Edena reported that he was still a very sick little boy, but recovering.

A month later, Mike and I were still chewing over this case. One beautiful evening in June, three nights after Mike arrived back in California, we took a break from the chaotic hard work of boxing up our lives. We sat on the porch with our good friends Matt and Hilary. We sipped sauvignon blanc. We layered triple cream brie and dates on water crackers. We talked about Sommai’s case, and others, all night.

You never stray too far from these conversations when you’re in a job like Mike’s. Physically you can be thousands of miles away, sipping wine and eating imported cheese, but the questions and the dilemmas don’t stay behind – they never stray far.

So Hilary and Matt got an earful. They plunged into the experiential waterfall of Mike’s early days in Laos with full attention and keen interest.

Three nights before we left Los Angeles, we had dinner with Matt and Hilary again. As we were leaving Hilary passed me an envelope. Inside was five hundred dollars in cash.

“Here’s some from us,” she said, “Our part. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe next time there’s a Sommai, or you see a need, maybe it’ll help knowing you have some in reserve.”

We were both awed by this generosity, and grateful, but Mike was also a bit worried.

“Money’s tricky,” he said to me later. “What if we can’t use it soon, or they don’t approve what we do with it? What if…”

“Stop it,” I told him. “Matt and Hilary love us. They gave this to ease burdens. They trust our judgment and know that we’ll be best placed to see ways this can be used. They won’t care if it takes months, or a year. You are not to worry about this, of all things.”

[Next time in Part II of this story, Mike and I visit Sommai in his village]

  1. When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
  2. When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
  3. When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
  4. When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated