Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Today I went to hear a speaker discuss the relief efforts in Indonesia from the December 26, 2004 tsunami. All I knew ahead of time was that this woman is a fellow alum of Wheaton College in Massachusetts and that she works for the Red Cross. What I expected and what I experienced varied greatly.

As people from campus trickled into the room, people were talking, laughing and eating the provided lunch. In front of a large projection screen hunched a blonde woman wearing all black. Long legs crossed in front of her, hands tucked tightly beneath her thighs, spine rounded so her chest nearly touched her knee, and hair neatly combed into a ponytail--this woman swathed in black all but disappeared behind her lap top screen. For me, her nervous energy was palpable. Later on, I would realize the nervous energy was not related to speaking in front of a group, but instead to all that she has seen, heard, touched, tasted, done and will never do.

Ellen got up to speak in front of the group, but quickly decided to sit, again crossing her legs and tucking her hands beneath her thighs. Speaking quietly and disjointedly, her talk began. She introduced herself as a former executive for large advertising agencies, though her presentation style made me wonder if she had ever given a presentation before. Still hunched, nervously glancing around the room, Ellen's shaky hands tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear. When I stopped watching her body language and listened to her story of transition from advertising executive to humanitarian, I understood.

After working in a number of Eastern European nations and the Gaza Strip, Ellen took on the challenge of Banda Aceh. Stepping willingly into the dessimated landscape of Banda Aceh, Ellen took on the task of creating a line of communication between the Red Cross and the local people. She sees great deal everyday and works with local people who still shudder and shake from their experience with the tsunami. Tirelessly, Ellen works 18 hour days in spite of, or to spite, the feeling that the challenge may be insurmountable. She oscillates between the hope of progress and the reality of impossibility. The Western world wants pretty pictures of newly built homes and smiling children at play, but Ellen sees both the good and the bad. There is still so much to be done, but I perceived that she thinks it never will be done. The more she spoke, the closer her chest dropped to her knee.

Fellow attendees asked Ellen some wonderful questions and she gave candid answers. The Red Cross and other organizations are doing amazing things to support the people of Banda Aceh, but I wondered how they support the delegates who witness death, destruction, and disease. I wondered how these aid organizations support the delegates who put their heart and soul into projects that may never be finished--where their efforts may be a mere drop in the proverbial bucket. I asked. Ellen asnwered.

There is no mental health support for these delegates. No counseling or psychiatric care. Just like our soldiers, we send these workers overseas into deplorable conditions with the mission of making things better, but we do so without providing the support they need upon their return. Instead, they are left to carry this burden--the burden that we only want to hear in minimal soundbites and see in a few heartwrenching photos. We don't want to hear it from the mouths of loved ones or see it through their eyes. We can't relate to their experiences nor do we want to acknowledge that someone we love has been permanently altered because of their service. Left to decompress, to find a comfortable place for the horror in the insulated environment of their own mind, some of these workers and soldiers begin to collapse inward. The burden is too heavy to bear, not because they are weak, but because they are brave enough to actually take action, to feel, to see, to touch, to hear, to experience that from which most Westerners are protected.

As I watched Ellen squirm, shift and struggle through this session, I realized how hard it must be to share her stories. Not just to share her stories, but to edit the stories knowing that we didn't really want to know the full extent of the damage. Though her candor was striking, it was clear that she was protecting us, but I still wondered, who would protect and take care of her.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Twenty-seven is an interesting age. People make so many different choices and end up in so many different places. Many times I have a met fellow 27 year old (or there abouts) and wondered how we could possibly be in the same age group. Some are now married with children, stay-at-home moms participating in weekly play groups. Some are high powered executive types who wear really nice suits, eat at really nice restaurants and drive really nice cars. Others like to date 20 year olds, attend college parties, boot and rally every Saturday night and are lucky if they hold down a "real" job. Some are graduate, medical or law students, poor but working toward something. Then there is me, and I don't think I am that unusual, who worked a couple of years after college, went grad school, graduated with a Master's instead of the projected PhD due to a change of heart, struggles to make ends meet with an unfulfilling job while trying to figure out what to do next and pay off education debt. Naturally, I do have a bit of a complex about where I am currently because this is not exactly where I thought I would be at 27. Don't worry, I am coming to terms with, or going through the phase of acceptance, my current station in life and I have hope that soon enough, my path will be clear. Or, so I thought.

One of the perks of my current job is EAP, Employee Assistance Program. This program provides me with 6 free counseling visits, 1 free half hour session with a CPA and 1 free legal consultation. (Of course, the legal consultation would have been helpgful to know about last year follwing my car accidnet and rodent incident, but as usual, I missed the boat.) Yesterday, I decided that EAP should offer these services in a specific order, especially for poor 27 year olds like myself. Here's why.

I took advantage of the half hour with the accountant, and I am glad I did because I found out that not making enough money is really my problem. Phew! So glad to know that I am doing everything right, I just need to make more money. The next logical step was to then book an appointment with the free counseling service to talk through the stress of the knowledge that I just need to earn more money but can't. When the counselor causes my psychological breakdown, at least I know I can turn to free legal services to sue for pain and suffering--the pain of talking through the stresses that show no signs of dissipating and the suffering of knowing the free counselor can do nothing to help. Thank goodness for EAP!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Routines can make life feel repetitive and boring sometimes, but they can also make life more comfortbale, and sometimes, sometimes, a little more enjoyable. For instance, I ride one or two buses and the train everyday from my small-ish city to the smaller suburb that houses my small college--which is also my employer. Somedays I certainly resent that a normally 25 minute commute by car takes an hour and a half--adding a solid three hours on to my work day. Other days, I feel so glad to hear the rumbling welcome of the train that will take me, stress free, to the smaller suburb in exactly 28 minutes.

As I walk down the stairs of the station, the deep bass of the engine vibrates through the air. Through the doors, I walk to the first entrance on to the train and turn right. I then take the two-seater directly behind the four-seater with the table. If I am on the early train, I also nod and smile to the guy who always sits in the fourth seat on my left. Usually there are only 3 or 4 others in the car with me. I place my backpack on my right and hug it to my side. Then my headphones cover my ears (I don't have ear buds because my ear holes are too small), and I press play on my IPod Mini. Sometimes it is on a quiet mix or Garden State, but usually my morning ears prefer the Magnetic Fields, Coldplay or Damien Rice, if I am feeling a little depressed. Once that is sorted, I do one of three things--lean back and stare out the window, read a news source, or read my novel du jour. Sometimes this is my entire trip, other times a rowdy group of three men and one woman sit at the four-seater to my forward right and I eavesdrop. I still cannot figure out their dynamics--friends, co-workers, husband and wife with friends--am working on that.

After disembarking, usually the only one getting off among hundreds embarking, I gently push through the throng, walk into the little station and sit on the bench in the far left corner. This gives me the best view of the whole station and the bus stop. Usually, I wait approximately 22 minutes for the bus. In this time, I read the Metro or subtely watch the interesting lady who sells coffee at the station. She is a chain smoker who likes clicky-clacky shoes, dark make-up and taking smoke breaks between trains. I also know she doesn't always wash her hands after using the toilet. I think I watch her in the hopes that I will see her wash her hands or at least use hand sanitizer behind the counter. No positive sitings yet.

At 8:30, my bus arrives. Sometimes I chat with the bus driver--I am usually the only passenger. She has two granddaughters she worries about (they've had a rough time of late), loves to sail and to travel around the U.S. She drops me off near my office building even though it is not the real bus stop.

After work, the afternoon routine begins. I catch one of two buses- late or later. I am usually the only passenger, though students occasionally ride and mostly on Fridays. I look forward to seeing my afernoon driver--he is smart, funny and hopeful. At first we didn't talk on the ride, now we always talk and I am glad. We talk about politics, censorship, movies, music and more. He wants to go back to school but he's scared--though he claims he is too old--just like he is scared to date again after his divorce. He is smart though--and he thinks a lot. Not much else to do working this job, he says, but read during the breaks and think during the drives. I talk with him until the automated signs announce,"Train Appraoching."

As I walk down the platform, I look over my right shoulder to check the distance of the train's single headlight. I bounce down the two sets of steps, turn right, walk under the overpass and bop up the two sets of steps to the south-bound platform. Quickly, I move toward my usual waiting point on the north side of the pay phone. As the train approaches, its bell rings -ding, ding, ding- getting louder with each foot of progress. Within a moment, I feel the rush of air from the passing locomotive and smell the burning rubber as the brakes engage. I move forward and stand in the yellow Do Not Stand area as hundreds of commuters disembark. They hit the ground running and hurry to toward their cars to be the first out of the lot.

The bearded, bespectacled conductor stands between the two cars and shifts from foot to foot like a bored, depressed zoo animal. Right, left, Watch Your Step. Right, left, Watch Your Step. Right, left, Watch Your Step. Each word said in a monotone barely audible above the din of descending passengers. Everyday we meet, everyday amidst the hubbub, he says,"Tickets, please." I show him my pink pass, he squints at it, says thanks and goes back to his routine. Right, left, Watch Your Step. I always think he could teach Eeyore a lesson or two. As more and more people get off the train, I stare unabashedly at the conductor--right, left, Watch Your Step. I take in the neat,black beard, conductor uniform (hat included), steel-toed biker boots and the gold band adorning his left ring finger. Each day, I wonder if he is happy, if he likes his job, wife, life. Maybe he just gets through the day and saves his personality for when the bell tolls at the end of the work day.

I climb up the right side stairs once the flow of people stops. Taking the first open two seater--I don't like seat mates--I sit down, put my bag by my side and pull it close. Taking my headphones out of my bag, I place them on my head and choose my music--more flexible in the afternoons with my music selection. Sometimes I proceed to scribble furiously in my journal. Other times I read my novel du jour (see former blog from October). I never read the news in the afternoon--this is my time to decompreess. "Providence, last stop. Providence, last (mumble)..." The conductor shuffles through the car, enthusiastically and clearly announcing that Providence will be the last stop. I smile.

The train pulls into the station 28 minutes later and I patiently wait to get up the stairs. This station rarely has working escalators so departing and arriving passengers maneuveur and push past each other-all eager to reach their destination, each insensitive to the other's eagerness. When I emerge from the platform, I either turn right toward downtown and the bus depot or I turn left toward my wonderful boyfriend waiting in front of the State House. This is where my routine ends and spontaneity is rediscovered--at least until the next morning.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sometimes I wonder why I feel totally overwhelmed by life. Well, that may be a little overdramatic, but sometimes the slightest change in routine, or that one extra chore makes me feel just a little crazy. Then, Melanie asked me to write about what I read everyday... take a peek...now I know why. Perhaps I should cut back a little... actually, now that I think about it, I realize I even forgot some! I need to go find my paper bag...more soon.