Being Em
Monday, September 12, 2005

The tide was coming in as I dodged the waves with my new running shoes. Not wanting to get my feet wet, I searched for compact sand as I ran as close to the receding water as I dared. I didn’t see the large wave coming before it completely drenched my shoes. Water oozed from the netting that covered my toes. Sand clumped under my socks. I continued for another 10 minutes along the Maryland shore -- jumping, dodging, and scurrying away from the waves until I tired from the effort. Running through the surf was sheer joy.

Yielding to the incoming tide is exactly what I have been practicing for the past 7 months with Dawn. After all the dreaming, being in a relationship with Dawn has been better than any fantasy I could imagine. It has been worth all the waiting and all the driving to be with her. I have been living, hanging on for the ride.

Since I last wrote I have spent much of my free time driving between Ithaca and Washington DC to be with Dawn and her daughter Mollie. Additionally, I ran the Boston marathon and began training for another, traveled to two conferences on different coasts, participated in formal graduation ceremonies to receive my doctorate, attended three friends’ weddings, visited 9 states, had two manuscripts accepted for publication, applied for 5 jobs, marked the one year anniversary of my dad’s death with my mom, sister, and brother, and spent time with three friends visiting from the UK and Uganda and many others in Boston, Washington DC, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Life is very rich. I’m working on yielding to the tide. When I do it is sheer joy.

Postscript: I wrote the above the day before Hurricane Katrina, but was not ready to post it until after the news broke. In the wake of the devastation to the Gulf Coast, the imagery of breaking waves and tide means something different than it did at the end of August when I went for the morning run I described above. Over the past few weeks I have grieved as if I lost a distant relative. My heart aches for the many people who were directly affected by the storm and its aftermath.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Running the 109th Boston Marathon yesterday reminded me why I love running, especially distance running. Mid-way through the marathon, after I parted from the five other runners who belong to the Baltimore running group I joined after I returned from Nepal who I happened to encounter on my way to the bus to the start of the race, I found myself evaluating the sport. "Why do I spend my time training and my days off running marathons?", I asked myself. I wondered, while I found relief in the uphills after enduring 15 miles of grueling downhill.

For me, running is a microcosm of life. It teaches me more about myself and human behavior than anything else I do. While running I am able to tap into a host of human emotions and am forced to be patient with the process of attaining my goal.

It was a priviledge for me to have an opportunity to run this marathon. It was cathartic for me to run with former training partners and be a part of the support network we provided each other as a collective unit. It was uplifting for me to touch base with family and friends after the race who tracked my progress and were pulling for me while I was running.

Alive is the adjective I would use to describe my state yesterday. Running the Boston Marathon made me feel very alive.
Monday, March 21, 2005

“Do you want to go to San Francisco?”

On Tuesday a judge in California ruled that it is unconstitutional to ban gay marriages, opening the way for same-sex couples to pronounce their vows. Last year during the height of the gay marriages, I found myself wondering whether I would ever have an opportunity to meet and eventually marry a woman. Would it still be possible when I am ready? Although the recent decision will surely be appealed and I am not a California resident, I am in a very different place than I was last year at this time.

I think about marriage. I wonder how planning a wedding with Dawn would differ from the experience I had planning two with Ben. I wonder what it would be like to marry a woman. I wonder what kinds of thoughts would float through my guests’ minds on the wedding day. It strikes me as odd that -- given enough time -- our friends and family could be more enthusiastic about the event than Ben’s and mine were about the one we intended to host. Is it really possible that a non-traditional wedding could be viewed more favorably than a traditional one? When Ben’s mother is included in the traditional category, I suppose it is possible. Don’t people respond favorably when they sense genuine emotion, love, … a healthy relationship?

It moves me immensely to find acceptance for my choice to embrace my lesbian identity. I have never felt so supported by my family and friends as I do now. It took me 28 years to admit to myself that I am gay and an additional 7 years to find what I feel like I have been looking for my entire life. It feels as if I have finally located a hidden network of paths that have previously been obscured by tangled delusions of being heterosexual. It was the weirdest experience to reveal that I am attracted to women and then question whether being with a woman was really part of my destiny when I had trouble meeting lesbian women. Some of my straight female friends would tell me about experiences they had had being picked up by lesbian women. Was something wrong with me? Was I sending out the wrong signals? I almost gave up last fall when I felt disillusioned by the idea that I had met a woman with whom I had an incredible amount of chemistry, but who made a choice to be with someone else. You never hear about sparks flying and then being ignored. What do you do with that?

I am not ready to be married. There are many things that I must figure out before I get to that stage, but it is a wonderful feeling to have met a woman with whom I can envision marriage being a point along our path. Time will tell. Right now I am toying with the idea that everything has a cost. The cost I am paying to spend time with her, Dawn, to get to know her better is in the form of muscular tightness and limited time as a result of spending 12 plus hours in the car each week. To date, the benefits of being together have outweighed the cost of getting there. Learning about someone else can happen so much faster and more thoroughly when two people are together.

While Dawn and her daughter Mollie are on vacation for 10 days, I am using the time to process all that has happened and make sense of where I am going in relation to where I have been. The past few months have been quite a ride. How wonderful it feels to be able to experience it!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

“Have fun with your choices.”

My friend Mark has spoken some wise words at key moments in my life over the course of the past year. The statement above is no exception. If anything is abundant in my present life, it is choice. In the wake of Dad’s death and the completion of my doctoral studies, I feel as if a door has opened to a broader world than the one I have known thus far. I have never felt so free.

Freedom is a funny thing. I am finding that the more I befriend myself and take the time to figure out what I want and where I want to be that I have an easier time cutting the fat from my life. When unexpected opportunities present themselves, I am finding that I feel ready to act. I am reminded of living in Nepal, where because of the political situation there I was ready to evacuate any of my three homes at a moment’s notice. When you never know whether you will be able to stay, you force yourself to embrace only the essentials. In the past year, I have found that the essentials in my life are ‘my’ people -- my family and friends – and my passions.

Several months ago, I asked the question in one of my blog entries, what happens when the fantasy becomes reality? A fantasy I held on to for 18 months has not only turned into reality, but has ended up being better than anything imaginable. In mid-January on the day of a new moon, a woman I have been interested in dating since I met her in August 2003 wrote to let me know she is no longer in the relationship she returned to shortly after we met. I responded and created some space in my life to give the two of us an opportunity to know each other. At the moment, we are 350 miles apart.

A few weeks ago, I received a job announcement from a friend that addresses a field of study about which I feel passionate and have been exploring during my free time, but has very little to do with the field in which I am presently working. The decision to apply for the job has triggered an evaluation of my career aspirations. Where do I want to be 10 years from now? How can I best use my training to serve the people of the world? How can I make the biggest difference? If I leap into a different field, which doors will close behind me? At this point nothing is irrevocable.

Having choices is wonderful. I am working on embracing the fun-factor.

Thursday, January 27, 2005
For the past few months, I have been pondering death. I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about cadavers. Many people would find this morbid; however, for me it has been extremely cathartic. In addition to working through my dad’s death, I have been processing a horrific traffic accident I witnessed near my home in rural Nepal several months before I moved from the country. It took me a few weeks to be able to remove the sight from my mind. I did my best to bury it; however, as is often the case when we ignore troubling events, they continue to bubble to the surface when we least expect.

The first time I recognized I needed help was a few months after the incident, in May 2003 within a week of my return to the United States. I was watching a movie with my brother and sister at a theater in New York City. The movie opened with a man carrying a woman who had clearly been in an accident and then proceeded to replay the events for the benefit of the viewer. I had a panic attack. I wanted to exit the theater, but did not feel capable of crawling over the back of my seat. Instead, I remained next to my sister with my hands over my eyes and used the most soothing inner voice I could muster to calm myself. Only after talking with my brother and sister was I able to identify the traffic accident instead of the violent scene as being the trigger for the attack.

In July I drove to Connecticut to visit my godmother, her partner, and her kids. The drive took me 6 hours. As I was lying on their guest waterbed ready to sleep, my mind played a reel of the images of the road-kill I had seen next to the highway earlier that day. Somehow I had managed to register every limp animal carcass I passed.

In March 2004 as I was returning from a visit to Ithaca, NY, I encountered thick fog that did not allow me to see more than 15 feet in front of my car. I inched along the Pennsylvania highway until I was forced to stop. Cars were backed up for miles. Across the median on the other side of the highway, emergency vehicles were just arriving to assist the twenty plus cars that were involved in a huge accident that sprawled across the three lanes and into the median. I observed the carnage and remarked to my sister, with whom I was talking on the phone, that I felt calm. It was difficult to tell how serious the injuries were. I inched along through the fog for another two hours and kept thinking: “Wow, I must have worked through my post-traumatic stress!” The fog cleared and my emotional state simultaneously deteriorated. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt so angry I wanted to scream. I wondered what to do with myself. Eventually, I settled down. The radio and time remaining in my journey helped me to feel calm.

When I was in Peru in November my brother and I arrived in a vehicle shortly after a child under the age of five years had been hit and killed along the side of a busy two-lane rural road. We did not see the body. I did not need to see that body. I saw enough young Nepali children’s bodies during the 2.5 years that I spent traveling between Kathmandu and our field site in Sarlahi District. In fact, when my friend Luke asked me about my trip to Peru, the first thing I told him was about this accident. I thought he would be able to relate. One cannot travel consistently in Nepal without viewing death.

Luke wasn’t in the vehicle when we, all 18 of us, drove through the Lalbundi main bazaar, but he was in the office when I arrived afterwards with my ashen face and sat with me in our favorite eating places on our way back to Kathmandu that evening when I could not eat anything. I wanted to protect everyone from the details, so I chose not to talk about the incident. I am ready now. It is time for me to release the memory. I have held on to it long enough.

It was Friday shortly after 1 PM. Work ended early to give our project vehicle time to return to Kathmandu. We --the fieldworkers devoted to assisting me with the data collection required for my research, my cook, and I --piled into the Toyota Land Cruiser and drove from our remote office in the field to the project headquarters 12 miles (40 minutes) away. We were animatedly talking from our squished positions on the inward-facing bench seats when we passed through the Lalbundi bizarre. There were several police in the road and a truck parked on the side, common sites in this busy area of the Terai. Blood was everywhere – blood and flesh. It looked like the remains of an animal. There was a man in the middle of the street cleaning up the mess, the mess that we later discovered was his mother. Our faces registered disbelief when we saw the mangled leg resting in the middle of the road and realized we were looking at human road kill. A hand and foot were closer to our vehicle. I opened the window and thought I was going to vomit. I didn’t. None of us did. Instead we rode in silence. There was a little discussion about the scene after we returned to work on Monday, but that was it. What else could be said?

What happened? Apparently, a low caste woman in her 50s used her paycheck that Friday morning to buy alcohol. By mid-morning she was drunk, drunk and weaving along the side of the highway when the truck driver hit her and her sari snagged on the mechanical parts under the truck. She was dragged for more than 100 feet. There was still evidence of blood a week later when I rode my bike along that stretch of road.

I did not wake up this morning feeling ready to tell this story; however, I have been working on a blog entry about death for weeks. It was time. Recently, there have been so many new chapters beginning in my life that I believe it is time I set some of my old baggage free.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Last week as I was walking to the bus on my way to work, I paused outside a house where two middle-aged women were crouched low. They were facing the house. One after the other, they reached their right hands forward and deliberately touched a place on the floor of the wooden porch on which they were standing. They then stood and proceeded to return to work. Were they Buddhist? They didn’t look Hindu. Could they be practicing puja, worshiping at a homemade shrine here in Ithaca? No, they were smokers enjoying a before-work smoke. It is funny how a familiar motion can belong to such a different gesture in a foreign location.
Thursday, January 06, 2005

It is late, but I can’t sleep. It is rare for me to lie awake thinking, but tonight I have too many thoughts racing around in my head to rest immediately. Outside the snow is falling softly. I paused for a minute by the window to watch it dance under the illuminated street light before I retrieved my laptop and returned to my bed. With my shoulders and head propped by my pillows I observe the snow accumulate on the pointed roof next door. A block away I hear a snow plow clearing the street in preparation for the morning traffic. At some point during the night, it will clear my street as well. People laugh at the way southern cities are incapacitated by a 1-inch snow fall, but they neglect to mention the equipment available to northern cities. I smile at the tactics Ithacans use to battle winter. Here snow removal is a science.

This wintry landscape feels very far removed from the beaches of South and South-East Asia; however, both images are fused together in my mind. I suppose that is how thoughts work. Even the seemingly unrelated ones mingle. The snow plow brings me to the present and reminds me to breathe. I am remembering the time that I spent with Robin and his family on the Mt. Everest Base Camp trek, his voice on the satellite phone he lent Steve after returning to Kathmandu, the evening that my friend Krishna and I ran into them in one of our favorite post-Hash (Saturday afternoon Hash House Harrier run) restaurants, and the other encounters that we had during the two plus years I spent in Nepal. Robin, his wife Lucy, and 4 kids were friends of friends. They were multi-year members of the expatriate community in Nepal. As such, they chose to spend their vacation on the beaches of Thailand where so many expatriates flock. I understand Robin was not the only one to die from the tsunami. Others will be named, but I do not believe I am as familiar with their faces as I was with Robin’s. I wonder though. How many people died whose paths crossed mine at one point in time?

The news reports that 1 in 4 Swedes was touched by the tsunami disaster. This is amazing considering how far Sweden is from the Indian Ocean. What about the survivors who lived near the epicenter? What about the Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians, Thais, and other Asians who were killed by the tsunami or died afterwards? The destruction is unfathomable. The possessions will be replaced; however, there is no replacement for the people.

How can we most effectively unite to support the ones most in need? Although my training is in international public health, I continue to walk to my university research job and do nothing. What is the appropriate response? Is sending money enough? How can I use what is happening now to shape my future enough to put myself in a position to offer more substantial assistance in the future, to these survivors or survivors from a future disaster?

I am reminded of a day last summer in Baltimore when it was warm, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. At the time, I wondered how Dad could be so sick on such a beautiful day. Tonight I wonder how the world outside my window can appear so peaceful when there is so much chaos happening in Asia.

"Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge." Kahlil Gilbran (The Prophet, p. 54)

Making Sense of Nepal

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