Brave Woman

Adventures of a future nurse-midwife


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Posted by Lucille on August 30, 2011 at 9:25 PM Comments comments (0)

I've taken a lot of things out of this trip, and one of the ones that is most apparent in my every day life is a reconnection with basic needs. I try to consciously recognize all of my interactions with food and water throughout the day, and to recognize things outside of that as extraneous. They matter, of course, but it helps keep things in perspective. I am hydrated and fed. It's alright. Really.

I enjoyed their ritual of not multitasking during meals. As they explained, it is respectful of the food. It didn't happen at first, it took a while, but after some time it really does make you feel different, more connected. My first day of class at Berkeley, I grabbed a container of yogurt from the fridge and started walking, and it felt so strange, like I was roleplaying. It was amusing. "This is what Americans do. This feels so weird." But after a while I decided I'd really rather focus on my yogurt (it was very good yogurt) so I sat down on the sidewalk and enjoyed it peacefully. I got a couple weird looks, but whatever, it's Berkeley. Weird is the norm. If I can, I'd like to try to keep this ritual, not because of any moral reasoning behind it, I simply like doing it. I enjoy it.

One of the side effects of this centering around basic needs is breaking down the fifth wall (technology). It still feels strange to me that the lights won't flicker out on occasion. The electricity is on all the time! I've found myself turning them out whenever I'm not using them, and making an effort to work outside when I can. I was not in Gambia long enough to fully understand this, to view our culture as an outsider, but it seems to me that all these harsh fluorescent lights, the constant rushing, must on some level have an effect on people's psyches. The actual effect I can't name, but I know that getting away from it for a while was refreshing. In that sense going to Africa is probably one of the healthiest things I've ever done.

Ten Things I Love About Berkeley

Posted by Lucille on August 30, 2011 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

1. It has a dragon boat team.

2. It has a quidditch team, so awesome that they're competing at the World Cup in NY.

3. It's doing the Vagina Monologues, and yes, I'm auditioning.

4. I checked out my economics textbook, and my teacher's name was on the front. That's right...the person who WROTE the textbook is teaching my class!

5. The house where I'm staying.

6. The Berkeley Student Food Collective, a student run store with organic food, a 10% discount for volunteers (that's me!), and cooking parties. Sweet!

7. Female Sexuality, a deCal course for women designed to educate and empower. Definitely taking that next year.

8. Trees! The Berkeley campus is just beautiful.

9. Anatomy. After some prereqs (that's why I'm taking chem,) you can dissect bodies!

10. Location. The surrounding area includes such awesome things as a yoga studio, frozen yogurt shop, doula training (which I'm considering), a workstudy job in childcare (fingers crossed!) The list goes on. I want to do everything!

Welcome to Berkeley

Posted by Lucille on August 30, 2011 at 6:45 PM Comments comments (0)

 And then it's time to go. We load everything in the car. There are tearful goodbyes with friends. I keep reminding myself that I knew this would happen, that ten days would not seem like enough time, and I agreed to do it anyway. In some ways it helps.

We stopped for a night in Redding, and then stayed with a family friend (free Bucha! Yum!) for a few days while Mom and I tried to navigate the San Francisco highways to shop for everything I hadn't brought from home. My brother had fun drawing characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender on the whiteboard with a focus and artistic skill that continues to astound me. When it was time to drop me off at the house, the whole family drove me down and we got lunch at Smart Alec's on Telegraph, where I had my first ever (yes, ever) hamburger. My uncle decided to document the moment.

       I wrote about the heightened physical senses that accompanied coming back from Africa. There was also an equal and opposite reaction, an emotional numbness. At moments like seeing my friends and family for the first time, and later saying goodbye, I could tell that there was a discrepancy between what I thought I should feel and what I felt. I knew what I'd imagined I would feel, what I should feel, what I would have felt, and I could tell that it was there, but it was like it was somehow muted, certainly not acute enough to be expressed. Saying goodbye to my family was like this. My parents are leaving! I could tell that this should be intensely significant to me. This is it, I'm on my own. This is the dawn of my independence, the terrifying and exciting moment I've waited for all these years, finally upon me. But it was like experiencing emotions through fog. In some sense I was scared, and excited, but I just couldn't quite get there. Then my family was gone, and I was in a strange room with all my stuff and a to do list that would reach around the world. I started with making a sandwich.

       The next few days were insane. I ran around trying to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucratic systems, simultaneously navigating a new campus and the changes in offices hours to accommodate orientation lectures. I apologized to my roommate up front that I would be unbelievably busy for the next few days, and then went through the list, first registering as a student, then for classes, then for the right classes, emailing professors so I could get off the waitlist, emailing my advisor to know which classes to take instead...

       Eventually, the dust settled. I'm taking French 4, Chemistry 1A, and Environmental Economics and Policy. Later I'm going to sign up for Israeli Dance, which is a one unit deCal course, meaning it's taught by undergraduate students. I met my roommate and started introducing myself to the other students staying in the house this year, and struggling to remember all the names. It bothered me that every time I talked to them my voice would come out at least a half octave higher than I intended, the pitch that means, "Hi, will you be my friend? Please be my friend. I'll be a good friend, I promise. Please? Please, please be my friend!" And this led to a sort of out of body experience, watching myself act like an idiot, and saying to myself, "Stop acting like an idiot!" and most of the time I didn't listen, I just ignored me. After a week or so I started being able to carry on normal conversations, and mostly people still talk to me, so I must not have come off as too crazy. Lucille, World. World, Lucille. Nice to meet you.


Posted by Lucille on August 24, 2011 at 10:10 PM Comments comments (0)

For the next ten days I delight in the most Portland-y aspects of Portland. I go to tae kwon do. A family friend runs a business selling Bucha, a mix of tea andd kombucha, that just became available at Whole Foods. My friends and I buy every flavor. The lady at the cash register said, "Have you guys tried these? They are just amazing, I can't believe it. My friends and I all love them." Must remember to pass the compliment along. We dress up for a Bucha party. The slightly more grown up drink gives us an excuse to have a tea party like little kids, and we take full advantage of it. Later we go to the Rimsky Corsa Coffee House, a very Portland-y venue with an underwater bathroom and tables that move up and down. I know that I need to be doing work things. I track down a copy of my transcript, and send off thank you notes to people who sent me graduation cards (was that really only seven weeks ago?). I feel caught in a state of suspended chaos, but I have a strong urge to seek out nature, native forests as I grew up with them, and I keep being lured away to go for walks in John's Creek, to Crown Point for a meteor shower, camping in Oxbow.


Posted by Lucille on August 24, 2011 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (1)

There are some parts that come back readily. People I remember clearly, and I miss them a lot. I need to email them all. There are parts that will never seem real. I held a boy's head off the ground while he seized. I can say that, but it doesn't make it seem true. It was movement around me, it was something I did with my hands. Even when I remember it, it feels like someone else is doing it, like my hands are puppets. That can't possibly have been me. Other parts are dream-like, but deliciously so: the hot sun on a white beach with clear water, smooth water slipping over me in the moonlight, a craft market, a rain forest, fresh mangoes off a tree. These are the memories that make me certain I want to go back.

          The heightened senses were a more intense part than I anticipated. Kind of like the 'causes photosensitivity' label on the doxycycline pills, you know it and expect it to some extent, but you don't realize just how significant it is until you get there. It is days before I can be in the same room as the TV without looking at it. (Seeing Harry Potter 8 in cinema is probably not such a good idea...) Though I'm told it's in the mid eighties, I'm cold, and the hot shower is blissfully intense. The feeling of dry clothes on my skin, and clean hair, is even more so, and the speed of the internet makes me giddy. I feel personally satisfied and obliged to announce to my family every time I have a regular poo.

          I get in the car to go to a friend's house. Right, the big red sign means stop. I do okay until I get to the on ramp and start accelerating down the slope. Ohmygodohmygod so many cars going so fast we're all going to die! But my foot pushes the gas up to fifty and I merge seamlessly with traffic. Oh, yeah. This is my city. I know how this works.


Posted by Lucille on August 24, 2011 at 9:00 PM Comments comments (0)

I was jet lagged, so I was up hours before anyone else in the family. My brother was the first to tiptoe down the hall, rubbing his eyes. He opened them and saw me.

“Sissy! You’re HOME!” He dropped his stuffed animal in shock and ran to hug me.

“Of course I am, silly!” I said, hugging him back. “You picked me up from the airport last night, remember?”

He nodded, and tears started running down his face. “I remembered, but I thought I’d just been dreaming!”

I started crying too, and when Mom came out to find us an hour later, we were still curled up on the couch like two puppies. I missed this kid.

Culture Shocking

Posted by Lucille on August 24, 2011 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (0)

The intercom buzzes on. "If you look out the left windows, you should be able to see the coast..."

          My god, you can. Land, ho! First boats in the water, then sand and trees, and suddenly big streets and freeways, huge houses in weirdly precise rows, and made out of wood, of all things, not the stone compounds I'm familiar with. Is that a pool? Goodness, that thing is three stories. I think it's a school building. You could fit all the schools in Gambia in that. There are so many roofs, why don't they put plants or something on them? Look, another freeway. Is that six lanes?!

          And then we hit the runway, and the engines whir, and we are hustled down to baggage claim. We try to take a group photo, and no, cameras aren't allowed, it's a security risk. Do you have any fruit or seeds with you? Look, there's your bag, someone grab it! Hasty goodbyes as everyone runs to catch their flight. Where's Jetblue airline? Oh, you have to take a train, terminal 4. This place is huge! I find the train. The doors close automatically and I almost fall into a Russian woman with a cart. Terminal 4 is enormous. Where is Jetblue? You have the wrong terminal, hun, it's in number five. Back on the train. Terminal 5 is bigger. Is that even possible? You could fit everyone in New York in here! And apparently they have, everyone is running this way and that, people in uniforms calling to each other, that little kid has dropped her teddy bear, the signs are in so many languges, the intercom buzzes with slurred announcements, and the screens! Big screens the size of a blackboard with flashing colors that I can't stop staring at, and little screens, everyone with their little screens, so many fingers tapping in a background hum I never noticed before, but that now is filling my head...

       I find a bathroom and duck inside. There's a line out the door, so I don't bother hoping for a stall, I just sit down, lean against the wall, and breathe. "Crazy, isn't it?" someone says. I look up, and there's a woman sitting next to me in the same position. Somehow I hadn't noticed her before. She's wearing hiking clothes and a huge backpack like mine, her hair tied back, her eyes a little wild but smiling sympathetically. "Where are you coming from?"

       "Gambia," I say, smiling back.

       "Yeah, I just spent a year in Niger. Isn't this place insane? And the funny part is, I don't know if it's actually crazy, or the culture shock. Will the rest of America seem like this?" she laughs, gesturing vaguely to the mayhem outside the door. I laugh with her. "I'm supposed to be going to gate 23, but I couldn't find it and I just got...a little overwhelmed."

          I look at the boarding pass that is in my hand. (How did that get there? I don't remember waiting in line.) "Hey, I think your gate is next to mine. Do you want to look for them together?"

          We find them, and she leaves to call her mom. I people watch. They've put the gate to Portland, Oregon next to the gate to Portland, Maine, and that leads to all kinds of amusing interactions. There are big screens above both gates. They must have been there when we left New York, but somehow I hadn't noticed them. I had some way of filtering them out, but now they inescapably draw my attention. Even when I'm not looking at them, I'm consciously aware of them, of the way the smooth plane of light adds an eerie glow to people's faces. Faces illuminated by constant, unwavering fluorescent light will soon become my norm, I realize, and I take a minute to visualize faces in the gold, dancing light of sun through palm leaves so that I will remember later.

          The plane is delayed, but after an hour, we board. I find myself thinking about my parents at the airport, having to wait an extra hour, and it seems weird that they are at home, right now, probably getting ready to drive out to meet me. It seems weird that time is passing in Portland, as though America should have disappeared when I left it and will soon pop back into existence. It is 9 o'clock Portland time, a full day since we left Banjul. I fall asleep.

          Tires hitting the runway. What? That can't have been five hours! "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not unfasten your seatbelts until the plane has come to a complete stop. We will unload shortly." I was going to work myself into it gradually, have time to mentally adjust... The plane stops, and people all around me grab their bags and move toward the door. Isn't this all going a little fast? But no one else seems to mind, and this time I go with it, passing them as they move through the hall.

I am the first one out to the waiting area, before anyone has realized that the plane has arrived. My friends are there, I realize with surprise, and there is one beautiful moment of warm fuzziness as I run toward them when none of them see me and they are all just sitting there, waiting, and then Mom, who is facing me, looks up, and my brother turns around just as I tackle him with a hug. I hug everyone, and I feel like I'm going to start crying, but there has been too much crying in the last few days for that and I am glad, because all I want to do is look at their faces, and tears would blur them. We get my bag and I hug my friends goodbye, load in the car.

          I stare out the window as we drive, reveling in everything familiar. We get home, and I carry my bags to my room. I avoided my room before I left. It just didnt feel right, with all my stuff already packed in boxes for college. Now it feels distinctly mine, wonderfully like home. My home has its own scent. I almost never notice it, and after just a few breaths it's gone, but for those first moments inside the door it overwhelmed and welcomed me.

          I change my clothes and brush my teeth. I need to do laundry tomorrow. I should call my friends so we can hang out. And I need to figure out where I left my tae kwon do uniform; I have class tomorrow. I had worried that, coming back, my home would seem surreal. Instead, I slipped back into life here so readily that within half an hour, Portland comprised everything, and Africa was the dream. I lay there for a minute before I fell asleep, remembering everything, trying to convince my culture shocked brain that it was not a long and insanely intricate dream, but reality. I'm fading quickly though, and resign to sleep. It's okay if its a gradual process.

Flight Home

Posted by Lucille on July 16, 2011 at 1:30 AM Comments comments (0)

I slept through most of the flight down to Guinea and then back up to Casa Blanca, where we had a 5-hour layover. I spent most of that time catching up in my journal. I'd made a card for our group leader the day before, but in the 5-hour layover we never managed to all be in the same place at the same time, so we ended up giving it to her as we went back through security. One of our group member’s passports had gotten moldy and severely deteriorated, so she held the bag it was in out to the guard. I would have felt bad if it wasn't hilarious, but he didn't seem to mind. It looked like he'd seen that before.

My pen ran out of ink on the flight to New York, and for an hour I struggled with the existential crisis of having my mind exploding with words and being unable to record them in any way. I finally got up the courage to ask the French flight attendant, who reluctantly found me a pencil. Phew.

At some point our group leader came around and gave each of us a card.

Her letter included an outpouring of love and gratitude to all of us, as well as a personal note in which she shared her appreciation for my desire to learn, calm and kind approach, and the love and laughter I shared in ‘non-quiet’ moments. She observed the ways that my quiet moments permitted my private learning and understanding, noted with kindness my defensiveness when others read my silence differently than I had intended, and hoped that she had encouraged me socially in supportive ways. I felt my heart swell at the end when she said that if I enter midwifery, she would be proud to call me a colleague. I have decided not to share her letter because she intended it to be private, but I will share my reflections.

I paused and scanned through the last part of the letter again. My first response was, "What? I don't have defensive reactions!"

Oh. Wait.

My next response was gratitude. From being a camp counselor myself, I know that you don't put constructive criticism in cards like this unless you're confident they're mature enough to use it. I am grateful to her for trusting me enough to give me this opportunity for growth. So I reflected on it, and yes, I knew the moments she was talking about. There were multiple times when I was sitting in the common area with my journal in my lap, frowning seriously into the distance, when people would come up and say things like, "We know you miss your family very much, Lucio. You will go home soon." And I would think, "Well, yeah, I guess I miss them, but actually I was just thinking about the influence of cultural institutions on gender roles and how it affects sustainability..." I don't remember what I actually said in any of those situations, but I do remember complaining to my group leader about it later.

"Always left me wanting more..." Yes, I've heard this before. A trail of recognition swept back through my memories to other mentors, other cards. Push yourself socially. It's okay to be more outgoing. Speak up, make friends. And I want to. I always think that I am, and then the next time I'm offered insight like this, it comes back to the same thing. I'm quiet. I ran back through my memories of the trip, trying to decide if there was a block of time I decided to spend by myself, thinking or writing in my room, when I should have gone outside, trying to see if there had been an opportunity to shift the balance between the quiet processing and social time. I started suggesting times to myself, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by fear. Every careless word, every thoughtless thing I've spoken came back to me, and the hurt feelings and friendships they caused. I chose this. Think before you speak. Think before anything. Always hypothetical conversations running through my head. And not all of it was out of fear. A favorite character of mine is described as, “a quiet woman, though when she did speak there was great insight and gravity to everything she said." I wanted to be like her.

Food comes, I write for a while, but I keep coming back to this. I find it hard to move on from constructive criticism without finding something to change. There is no way to have both, I realize. Time I spend quietly processing by myself is time I don't spend socializing. There's no way around that. The only challenge is finding the balance, different for everyone, and I think a pattern of behavior going back eighteen years is pretty good evidence that I've found the balance for myself. I LIKE having a lot of time to think. I know this about myself. And there's my answer. I don't have to change it, I just have to know it, and act accordingly. There's no such thing as a perfect personality, the trick is knowing the downsides to your own, so that next time, instead of "What? I'm not homesick!" I can say, "Thanks! I'm really okay, though. I like having a lot of time to process by myself. How was your day?"

Satisfied, I fell asleep for a while, and hours later I found myself reading through her letter again. "Initially, based on age, I planned to worry about you the most..."

I thought you did. I felt like a child. I kept getting myself into trouble more than any of the others did, bumbling around until I couldn't get out and you had to come rescue me... I read more.

Kind approach, mature analyses, beauty, kindness, and love... These are all things I've heard before, but I didn't think they applied in Africa. I felt boiled down past everything that defined me. I was in a completely new environment, which I had no clue how to navigate, away from every kind of emotional security, expected to respond to things I'd never seen before instinctually, without advice or even a moment to think... Mature analyses, my butt. I'm suddenly not sure if I want to cry or laugh, and I decide to laugh, and read through it again. The idea that even when I'm stressed out of my mind, exhausted, hungry, and haven’t showered in a week, people still describe me the same way, with the same strengths and faults I've heard my whole life, is remarkable. I read through it again, trying to think of any time this could describe me in Africa, and I couldn't do it. In some of the most stressful situations, reduced past my sense of self, my personality was still evident to those around me. The idea that, removed so far from the world I was familiar with, people still understood me (and more, liked me!) is amazing. It makes more conventional ways of understanding personalities (prep, goth, bro...) seem pretty meaningless, doesn't it? I will receive a letter later, "Congratulations on your completion of the Summer 2011 Operation Crossroads program...", equally meaningless. I kept her letter with me like a talisman.

More food (Airplane sushi. It probably would have tasted disgusting to me any other time, but I was so starving that I asked to take it off the hands of anyone that didn’t want theirs, and finished it all,) more playing with the kids in the seat behind me, and it suddenly occurs to me that I'm going home. In an hour, I'll be in America, swept back into my life and routines. "How was Africa?" is a question I'm going to hear a lot. How can I answer? How do you sum up something like this? It was crazy. Completely, utterly, and wonderfully crazy. Intense in every meaning of the word. It was wonderful.

Last Day

Posted by Lucille on July 14, 2011 at 1:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Last minute trips to the tailor (they got my V-neck right!) and hurried packing. We all left a lot of things there--I'd intentionally brought worn out clothes, expecting I wouldn't want to wear them again, and there were a lot of left over toiletries and a couple broken mosquito nets. The people from the lodge were delighted and gladly promised to use anything we didn't take. We gave out the gifts we'd brought (I'd picked out a candle, two pens, and some candy in the Made In Oregon store at the airport, which I divided among everyone from the lodge), took some last minute pictures, and exchanged emails.

Later we walked over to the compound to give our guide and his family our gifts for them. He gave us all a necklace and a Gambian flag, and we went around and hugged everyone. The crying started again. I played with an orphaned toddler I've fallen in love with. Her aunt once again encouraged me to take her and once again I wished I could. One of the women gave me a beautiful striped dress. Wearing a dress made from many different fabrics is said to shield you from evil deeds, so she gave it to me to protect me on my journey home.

It was a quiet night. We loaded our bags in the ambulance, and our driver drove everyone from the lodge to the airport with us for a last goodbye. It was a very difficult parting. I love these people like family and we are GOING to stay in touch. Living in the same city my whole life hasn't given me a lot of opportunities to practice staying in contact with people, but I'll learn fast. When we got to our gate, it was one in the morning. I switched my watch to Portland time and told myself I wouldn't sleep until it said nine so I could try to get jet lag out of the way. I tried really hard, too, and stuck with it for a full two minutes. A teammate woke me up as we were boarding.

Lodge Party

Posted by Lucille on July 13, 2011 at 1:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Sunday was, for the most part, a quiet day. We made last minute runs to the Internet and the tailor and began packing our bags. I went to get my last pair of clean underwear, originally black, and found to my dismay that it was now bright green and fuzzy. Oh well. I took it out with a bunch of other things to the trash pile. Within an hour the kids had gone through it and made a toy out of every single thing we'd thrown away, moldy underwear included (for a slingshot, I'm pretty sure). Talk about resourceful.

A woman from the lodge came by in the afternoon, with a big bag full of fabric. She'd made matching outfits for all of us. Others in the family had ordered their own clothes, so we all had matching outfits in true Gambian party style.

One of the men came over and surprised us all by announcing that he’d put together a relay game, which included carrying a lime in a spoon in your mouth and balancing a bucket of water on your head. Our driver’s flattop was a significant advantage; the rest of us all got soaked.

In the afternoon, the elder's council came by to visit. They thanked us and expressed their hope that we would give them money. "This is the message we want to leave you with. This is just the beginning of our relationship." (Yes! Let's build our relationship. You share your value of community and knowledge of how to get by with less, and we'll share our value of using only what you need and our individualism, and it can be rewarding for everyone... but that wasn't what they meant.) "Now that you've seen the conditions here, you see how many babies die here every day, and you know a dollar, which is not much to you, can make a big difference here...This is our message, that if you, because we know you are good people, send us your extra money, we can build our relationship and make sure it makes a difference..."

We were all looking at each other, thinking, "We're college students. We have negative money to throw around." Yes, even a college student could come up with a dollar, but the fact is I didn't see a single baby die because they lacked oxygen or medicine or some other fancy resource. They died because their mothers didn't feed them. I don't want to increase their dependency on foreign aid because I honestly don't think that's what they need. It probably doesn't hurt, to the extent that it facilitates cross-cultural relationships, but there comes a point when it obstructs it. There we were, sitting around the table with the elder's council, probably the last time we will see them, and we were feeling so awkward that when they left we were all a little relieved.

We spent the day cooking with the women from the lodge, and when the sun went down we all ate together, ran around taking pictures, and ended up sitting in a circle of chairs on the grass. One of the men decided to start. "Chief asked us to give you a message." You could see the covered looks of resignation around the circle. He took a deep breath. "And we have asked him to give you that message himself, because we have our own message. We want to say thank you."

They did, one by one, and there wasn't a single one of us that wasn't sobbing by the end. Then it was our turn. We'd agreed before hand to each be responsible for thanking one person. I'd been assigned to our driver. I thanked him for everything he'd done, always being ready to help get us where we needed to be, pushing us out of puddles that I was sure were going to swallow the van whole, hot wiring it in his underwear when we were stranded at the beach, and winning relays for us with his flattop. We went around the circle, all choking through tears, reminding each other of all the little things I'd forgotten to write about: waking up every morning to the women sweeping, being greeted by the women sweeping the shell walkways every morning as we left for the hospital (Isama? Isama. Cortanante? Tanante. Asinotabake? Ha!), how every day when we got home from the hospital we'd ask one of the men if there would be current and if it was going to rain, and he'd smile and say, "It's possible!" I was hugging one of the women, tears pouring down my face, while one of the men rubbed my arm and we passed around tissues. We sat there for a long time, just looking around at each other, all laughing and crying at the same time.



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HIPAA Disclaimer

Sometimes I have the privilege of being a part of intimate, powerful moments in other people’s lives. I cannot and would not share these stories, because they are not mine to tell. However, they touch my life and become part of my own story. When I share these moments here, you can trust that I have not broken anyone’s confidentiality. The characters are invented. They are not real, but could be. I take creative license to communicate the essence of my experience while respecting the privacy of others.