Half Way Through

Three weeks ago I landed in Lima. The boring things to say about time are true, that first day both feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago. I expected to write more on this trip, but the boring things to say about expectations are also true for this trip: it has been both a glorious fulfillment of expectations and completely different than what I expected. And, for hopefully my final cliche, I am not exactly sure where to start.

Lima is a large city, not unlike New York or Los Angeles. I am living in Miraflores, a neighborhood equivalent to West Hollywood or the West Village. The ocean in four blocks from my flat, and in the mornings I walk pass people cross fit training  in the park just like home. The restaurants are considered some of the best in the world. And the traffic is a nightmare (yes, I would say the 405 can’t even compete with this town).

But even in this posh, safe neighborhood, I have to wrestle with American culture shock: a lengthy hot shower can be hard to come by, protecting myself from petty theft needs to be a constant concern, and my usually very stable digestive tract has already take a few big hits. For as much as I morally struggle with American consumerism, the other night when I woke up with a strangely throbbing thumb all I wanted was a 24-hour Target to buy all the first aid supplies available. (I had to settle with boiling water and soaking it, which seems to have worked too.)

These moments are hard, and a little scary, but I am thankful for what they are showing me. I sought out this experience to develop new skills as a social worker.  Learning to speak Spanish so I can work with Spanish speaking communities in the US is important to me. But these lessons in my own reactions in a foreign environment may be even more informing to my work. I am a stranger in a strange land who has money and the luxury to know I will eventually find an English speaking person if I need to. It makes me wonder all the more what my Russian immigrant neighbors in WeHo feel every time they call an ambulance to our street and large non-Russian speaking men strap them onto a gurney.

It also gives me great appreciation for the extreme hospitality I have experienced from the Peruvian people. They have been helpful, kind and delightful. They graciously put up with my terrible Spanish and offer assistance and/or local recommendations.  It has been so fun to share all of this with Jill, who has a sharp eye for humor even in the most uncomfortable situations.

On Thursday after a few days of a mild flu, we went to a bookstore and bought some gorgeous children’s books to practice our vocab comprehension. We took them to the craft beer bar we have claimed as our local spot and read the books over beers. I’ve always experienced true joy as an emotion capable of growing through tension. And it was one of many moments on this trip I have been full of it, or in spanish GOZOSO.

My Partner in Socially Conscientious Crime

There is one last aspect about my trip to discuss before I go: Jill, my travel companion.Jill and I met four years ago in a book club reading The Artist’s Way. The End.

Okay, if you are not familiar with that book, what you need to know is Jill is my friend who dreams boldly. She is committed to self-discovery, empathy for others and living in the moment. She loves people, laughter and travel. When I am with her I feel more comfortable in any space.

Jill has worked as a teacher and now an administrator in the Bronx public schools for the last five years. This past year we talked a lot about our experiences working in undeserved schools and asked each other questions about our roles and personal privilege. It has been a blessing to have her understanding and support through this transition into social work.

Jill and I met in New York City just as I was packing up to move to Los Angeles. We daydreamed about being roommates, but had to admit that LA is a better place for me and NYC is the city that stole her heart.  Since we both love texting, the 3000 miles has not thwarted our daily communication, and one day I told her I was thinking about going to Peru. When she expressed an interest in joining me on her summer break it felt like another layer of purpose to this trip: fulfilled fellowship with my friend.

I have studied a lot about attachment theory the last few years. When we have been hurt in the past by relationships our brains create unhealthy patterns of reacting. Those patterns do not change just by understanding them or thinking hard about them. They change through the experience of healthy relationships. I believe this time with Jill will provide me with continued experiences to encourage my brain to trust again.

 

Claiming my Autonomy to Adventure

I leave on Saturday just about the time the sun will be rising. Jen is encouraging me to pull an all-nighter so I can sleep on the plane. I’m terrible at not sleeping, but I’m also terrible at packing early, so we’ll see what happens.

I asked my friend last night why she traveled to Peru a few years ago. She said that she had always wanted to see Machu Picchu, but really it was because she was trying to find herself again. She said that she travels, usually at the spur of the moment, when she has lost track of herself. She said that travel is the one thing that opens her up when she has closed down. Travel helps her feel the authentic texture of her soul. And that made complete sense to me.

It does not make sense to everyone. I have noticed this when I try explaining to various people why I want to travel. Some faces stay uncomfortably blank, if not quizzical, as I fumble through an explanation that I assumed was obvious. I guess that makes sense too–humans are different from each other. Some of us travel like hobbyists: it’s about the planning, sight seeing and passport stamping. Some of us hate to travel with all the inconvenience and crowd management. And some of us don’t travel as much as we pilgrimage, by default, every time we leave a ten-mile radius of our house.

I’m that last one. Since I was a kid, going to a new place was an invitation for transcendence. Not that every trip has been to Nirvana, but that is the kind of romantic expectation I have put on all travel.  I become infatuated with all the possibilities I can imagine. And upon return home I have had good trips and bad trips and always want more.

Except when I didn’t.  Going through my divorce and the subsequent years that followed made me really tired. My desire to travel and explore disappeared. It was disorienting and disappointing. It was another way in which I didn’t know myself anymore. And if there was going to be any upside to the single life it should have been the autonomy to adventure, but I could not muster up the will to bother. That lasted for five years.

Then a year ago, this shoot of an idea started to breakthrough. At first just as a dainty little blade of grass–what if I took the summer between grad school years to study Spanish abroad? Before I started my new career and was back in the 50 week work year? While I still had some singledom say? I let the stalk grow slow and steady for months and one day I opened my email to a subject line: (PERU STUDY ABROAD) Spanish & Human Services.

It said…

At a glance:

  • exclusively for future counselors and social workers
  • no Spanish pre-requisite (though prior Spanish is helpful)
  • 6 weeks study abroad in Lima, Peru
  • late summer (early July to mid-August)
  • shadowing of Peruvian social services professionals
  • volunteer opportunities in underserved barrio
  • $30,000 in scholarships available to students anticipating using Spanish in their career

 

AND it was decided. Logistics ceased being a consideration. The refrain from Beauty and Beast was on repeat in my head, “I want adventure in the great, wide, somewhere. I want it more than I can tell…” This is how I make decisions.

Everything so far has worked out, so I trust that it will continue to do so. It feels good to feel the want again.

There’s always a Preface

My dad came to visit the other week and at dinner one night he started laughing as I began to tell a story.

“What are you laughing at?”

He smiled, “There’s always a preface with you.”

To which my friend Mary yelled out, “That is sooo true! You always explain yourself before getting to your point.”

And the whole dinner table laughed together at my expense.

Fine.

But I think context is very important. It gets my audience on the same page. It let’s us all enjoy my insightful/hilarious/compelling story together. It’s really very considerate of me.

In the case of this blog though, it is very daunting. A lot has happened since I trailed off two and a half years ago. And my intimidation over trying to catch all four of my readers up has kept me from returning.

But writer’s block be damned! I’m about to go on the adventure of a lifetime and I want to write about it. So in preface, I will explain what I can, and invite you to place questions in the comment section if you need further explanation.  Fair? Fair.

“Sarah, can you please get on with your point now?”

Fine.

The biggest change since we last talked was that I started graduate school. This has dramatically shifted my life not only onto a new career path, but onto a new way of being all together. I really love this work. Last year I interned in South Los Angeles schools as a mental health counselor. The kids I worked with stole my heart and gave me a sense of purpose I have not felt in years. It’s work that certainly weighs heavy on my shoulders some days, but it is also work that makes me laugh on the regular. It is work where I constantly confront despair, but it is work that has taught me more about hope than I have ever known. It is work that I feel naturally good at and I am so very thankful.

South Los Angeles’s population is 57% Latino. A few of my student’s parents did not speak English and I studied the very practical language of French in school*, so there was a major communication breakdown. Since being a social worker involves being social to work, I believe learning Spanish is a critical tool for me to help the undeserved communities of Los Angeles throughout my career.

That is one of the reasons I am heading to Lima, Peru on Saturday for a six week Spanish immersion program. The other reasons are more complicated to explain…Stay tuned if you’d like.

 

*All I can remember from my middle school Spanish primer course is, “Camarera, camarera, dos coca colas por favor” which explains my white privileged upbringing perfectly.

Travel Log Day One: LA to Grand Canyon

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Susie, the car, got her back adjusted and a set of new shoes. Jen and I packed her up with a bag or two or seven. Brooklyn frantically jumped in to assure not being left behind, and Remi promptly nestled into a nook between sleeping bags. It was 77 degrees driving east through San Bernadino. But eventually all the other cars fell off route 40, and the sky shifted into the softest shade of blue. We’re heading to Telluride for Christmas and New Year’s to see Audrey and breathe some crisp mountain air.

When I first starting talking about moving to California and living with Jen, our brother Dan laughed.
“What?”
“Nothing.”
“No. Do you think this is a bad idea?”
“I just think you two might kill each other,” he admitted.

My sister and I have had our moments, but no one makes me laugh more. I’m glad I get to travel with her into new spaces. It makes it all feel like home. And today has been seamless and silly and sincere. Out here on Route 66 in AZ it’s 27 degrees and the whole galaxy is on display over our heads.

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Sometimes things feel like they are really falling into place. For a moment. Like when I am walking the dogs through the park behind my place and I pass the tennis courts. Like tonight. I watch the tennis instructor giving someone a lesson. Sometimes it’s a kid. Sometimes it’s an older Russian lady. He is a tall light-skinned African-American man with a bleached blonde afro. I got his card six months ago from the woman who rents out the courts. I want to learn a thing or two about tennis–I have for years, and I think he knows because he’s taken to nodding me a hello every time I pass.

I’m not really sure what to say. I don’t really have a plan for this “waiting” exercise. But I don’t want to give up on it Day 2…

I just opened this large envelope telling me, I think, about my 401K.  And it made me really sad.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  Some days it’s hard for me to spend so much time around people who are so talented at something I don’t understand at all.  Certainly it’s a bit of pride, but it’s also about not getting to play ball.  I like being a part of things, and this finance thing is not a game I play.

So that’s one thing I’m waiting on.  Waiting on my game.  Looking for my team.