Monday, July 16, 2018

The art of discussion

To discuss: talk or write about (a topic) in detail, taking into account different ideas and opinions.

Lately I have been engaging with some of the ideas of the intellectual dark web. Although I don't agree with all of what all the members are arguing, I do agree with one premise that seems to be the only thing the group has in common: it is of the absolute utmost importance (both personally and socially) to cultivate the skill to discuss with others. There a couple of components to this I'd like to get in writing, because they seem to be at the core of so many of the struggles I've seen in relationships and society lately.

The first is something I've mentioned before and then censored. I will put it more obscurely here: discussion, or ongoing talking, negotiating, compromising, empathizing, is absolutely essential for any healthy relationship (or any relationship that is more than the empty shell of superficiality). Erich Fromm (who wrote the best book ever written on love) describes a cultural phenomenon that I have experienced in droves lately:

One other frequent error must be mentioned here. The illusion, namely, that love means necessarily the absence of conflict...the 'conflicts' of most people are actually attempts to avoid the real conflicts. They are disagreements on minor or superficial matters which by their very nature do not lend themselves to clarification or solution. Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or project, but which are experienced at the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength.

Discussion is basically ongoing conflict. It is evolution. It is growth. If we accept as a premise that (according to the dictionary) discussion is talking about a topic in detail, taking into account different ideas and opinions, then discussion is, according to Fromm, a necessary part of any relationship. Two people are never exactly the same, even husband and wife or mother and child, and discussion is the negotiation of differences to find peaceful resolution using empathy, understanding, and putting aside one's ego.

In my personal experience lately, I have not been given the opportunity to discuss contentious issues in certain relationships. Grown adults have repeatedly refused to speak with me in person or on the phone, resorting to avoidance or only allowing text-based conversations. Being robbed of a voice, just simply not being invited to discuss, is akin to the death of that relationship. If there is no space for discussion, if it is either overtly or covertly banned (through social norms), or if one partner in a relationship is not invited to discuss, that relationship is an empty, superficial shell. Or worse, if people don't discuss they are robbed of the chance for empathy toward one another, and the relationship becomes entirely antagonistic. According to many members of in intellectual dark web, this basic fact is driving the tribalistic tendencies that is dividing our society into ever sharper and more brutal opposition to one another. This lack of discussion is dangerous, because it is the kind of behavior that leads to genocides (this is not hyperbole).

Now, what is happening in a few of my personal relationships is the worst case scenario when discussion is not valued. These relationships might be a lost cause, unless there were a total reversal in behavior. But, let's say, we have two people who do want to at least talk to one another, but are not practiced in the art of discussion. The second point I want to make is that discussion is an art and a skill. It is not something you just decide to do when you are feeling particularly magnanimous. It is something you must work on repeatedly to get good at it. And I want to be clear: I think discussion is essential not just for close, personal relationships, but for all relationships from spouse, children to co-workers to neighbors.

Some members of the intellectual dark web, like Jordan Peterson, make the claim that we have for the better part of a century been modeled a form of 'discussion' on media with low bandwidth, how to make points very quickly (the 30 second sound byte), and to 'win' the discussion as efficiently as possible.  This is more akin to a high school debate, or even more limited than one in the usual time each point is given (imagine panels on CNN with 15 contributors all trying to speak the loudest). What kind of lesson are we learning from this kind of 'discussion?' We are learning to speak as superficially as possible and to 'win' at all costs. We are learning how to get the best quip, earning the 'gotcha' moment or 'destroying' our opponent (as the titles of so many YouTube clips demonstrate).

In an ideal discussion there is no winner or loser, both parties win by becoming closer, growing in understanding, and feeling the efficacy of having overcome the very difficult problem of attempting to understand another human being, of connecting across differences. One thing that is a common social norm in my family of origin (my parents and siblings) is that my family attempts to see others' point of view to a fault. I often see my family (myself included) giving up some (often too much) ground when we have been wronged, just because we are attempting to see the humanity in others and show our humanity and our ultimate desire for resolution. This happens when only one side of the relationship is actually engaging in discussion and the other is engaging in debate and trying to win. One person walks away feeling like they've won, the other person (showing their humanity) has been taken advantage of. When both parties aren't engaged in true discussion, the truth is they both lose.

So, now let's take the ideal example of someone who is engaging you in what they think is a discussion. They are speaking with you in detail, and it is on differing opinions. I think it needs to go beyond this dictionary definition of an exchanging of points. It has to have two further components to be successful: 1. Each person has to actually listen to the other person's points and fully consider them as if they could be true and 2. Each person has to be able to make mistakes and stumble through their own ideas through the act of discussion, and they need to be allowed to evolve during the course of the conversation.

This is the kind of model of discussion I got in the college classroom at the University of Chicago. A topic was introduced and the instructor and the students simply talked about it. We all learned through talking, and we all gave one another the respect of considering if the other person's ideas/argument had something to teach us or could shed light on our own thoughts somehow.

So, what does this mean for me personally? A couple of things. First, I have been practicing the art of discussion in my daily life. In my relationship with Patrick it is something I've been inadvertently practicing for years, but am doing more explicitly now. I am also practicing it with my kids, friends and neighbors. I am learning to listen without just filling my mind with the next point I want to make.

I am learning that talking for a long time, all the time, is the only way for deep relationships to grow. The ideal discussion involves talking over the course of hours, not only giving a topic a few minutes of your time. I am learning to negotiate and compromise and to accept all points, intellectual alongside emotional and spiritual, as valid points from which to enter into a discussion. That is, if someone comes to me irrationally scared or mad or sad, it is ok that their emotion is the main consideration, even if it is irrational. It is ok to discuss emotions, not just debate intellectual points. And, I am attempting to simply lead by example by discussing more with others.

I am talking a lot (big surprise), and I know engaging people in discussion is annoying them to some extent because it is hard to work to engage in discussion and to be emotionally and intellectually present. I know many people would rather engage in superficial talk that is actually building antagonistic relationships. I know bringing up difficulties is a buzzkill for someone looking to relax, physically and intellectually. I know people would rather take the lazy route of repeating sound bytes they've heard instead of engaging one another. But I'll be damned if I give into that way of communication that is currently destroying our world and has the ability to do a lot more harm if left status quo (there is no space to detail this here, but if you start looking at podcasts with members of the intellectual dark web you'll see plenty of evidence from people across the political spectrum).

So, if you see me, get ready for a discussion.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I'm enough.

Very powerful message.

1. Have the courage to be imperfect
2. Embrace vulnerability

Lead to a strong sense of love and belonging.

"Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves."

Working on all of these pieces of advice today.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Vicious cycles and virtuous cycles

As I get older, I tend to think less and less in dualistic categories like good and bad, but on a spectrum from bad to good. I don't think as much in black and white, but in grey, embracing the complexity and paradox of life. I have also recently been thinking in terms of the movements of life as cycles. Sometimes I get this cascading effect of a vicious cycle wherein one bad thing contributes to another and another and things get worse and worse. Other times in my life, I feel like I am in a virtuous cycle wherein one good thing just leads to another and another. I feel so grateful that in the present moment, I am in a virtuous cycle.

Leaving North America put me in this virtuous cycle. I am not saying it is entirely because I left North America that I am in this positive space, but as I see personal, political, social, health, economic and many other relations falling apart into sociopathic chaos among family and friends living in North America, I have to wonder if where one lives can either make you happy and healthy or sad, depressed, unhealthy, and pathologically anxious and stressed?

I have studied sociology long enough to be aware of the effects of institutions on individuals. Take, for example, something that always surprises my students, that mental health disorders differ greatly by nation. Depression and anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, autism, eating disorders and others are much more rampant in highly industrialized countries, and the United States has the most mental health disorders on the planet. 1 out of 6 takes a mental health prescription. 7 out of 10 take some daily pharmaceutical! 20% of Americans take at least 5 drugs daily!

The moment Patrick and I made the decision to leave North America, we were facing some pretty serious personal and interpersonal challenges. Having a new baby and a toddler, taking on new jobs, writing a dissertation, struggling with communication with family members, feeling isolated, misunderstood, and hurt, we were struggling with all sorts of stress-related physical illness.  All of that, and to add in the complete and utter chaos of moving a family with two small children across the world with very little sympathy or help. It was the hardest time in my life, but the best decision I have ever made.

The moment we made that choice the vicious cycle started to turn virtuous. Patrick was offered an online job at a prestigious university, we found a place to stay, there was some local discussion about hiring us as English teachers in Uruguay (didn't end up happening). Once we arrived, I could feel the trauma start to dissipate, but it happened very slowly. We were still struggling with the trauma and the difficulty of living in this entirely new place, but as we began to let life unfold (and take daily walks on the beach), we made new friends almost immediately. These friends stopped in for a quick chat and some mate a couple of times weekly, and we began to connect with them.  This is something that was unimaginable for us in the U.S. Isa started school and easily made friends there. She began to get all sorts of invites to birthday parties and we met more parents and they embraced us fully. They were interested in us as immigrants, but did not exoticize us.

I made the decision to work through some of the trauma from my life in North America and address it in order to move past it. That was the hardest thing I have ever done (because of my intense fear of confrontation), but I am so glad I did it because there is no way I would have been able to let go of my resentment unless I came clean about it and addressed it. This added to the virtuous cycle. All of a sudden I felt more confident in my ability to handle difficult psychological and social interpersonal problems, something I was terrified of before.  I stood my ground and owned up to my hurt feelings, and I also learned a lot about other people's thoughts and expectations of me that I would never have learned unless I brought the issue up. And the virtuous cycle continues!

Then, having moved past all of this trauma, I was able to put myself in a mental space to complete my dissertation. In about 3 months I wrote almost an entire book. My creative energy was unleashed when my mind is not taken up by resentment or stress or anxiety! Then, my parenting started to improve. I could see my girls and just be present with them. Giving them my attention when they most need it is the best gift any parent can give their children. And I noticed a difference in the quality of attention I could give. Not a simple smile while I thought of something else or multitasked on my phone, but truly paying attention. Helping Isa build a crown out of cardboard or pushing Vivian on the swing and biting her toes as they reach my face each time, making her giggle endlessly.

Organizing our lives so that we are free from the daily trauma of life in North America, I began to explore other means of self-improvement. I found a diet that has made me not only lose weight, but I feel satiated and stronger and have more mental clarity and less pain. I started looking into different ways to wire my brain to be happier and more present, and I am practicing these new activities daily, and I see a huge difference. I am more present. I am able to enjoy life more. I feel less anxiety about unknown things or difficult things, but see them as something I can handle confidently.

When more issues arise with my family, I am not stressed or considering them anxiously. I do not let them roll around in my head, keeping me up at night. Instead, I notice them from a distance. I view them as a result of a sick society (on various medications). But I am also attempting to move past only this simple, dualistic judgment and see these people's feelings with empathy. I know they are victims themselves. I know they hurt from all sorts of traumas that have happened to them. I see their humanity. And, for most of them, that humanity makes me want to do the work of continuing a relationship. So, I attempt to reach out with my own vulnerability and humanity (instead of with lies or political machinations or gossip or judgments). I have become closer with several family members than I have in years, and for that I am so grateful. And the virtuous cycle continues.

The best part of all of this virtuous cycle we are experiencing is improved social relations, both here in Uruguay and with the people in North America that are worth our time and attention. Seeing others with empathy and letting go of resentment has allowed us to experience a new level of closeness with people in North America with whom we once felt alienated. We are building up our relationships slowly and carefully. Each contact a step in the direction of love.

Here in Uruguay social relations are even easier. We are invited to several social engagements weekly with other young families locally. And about monthly we get to see our expat friends. We have been lucky enough to fall into a social group of artists and artisans, yogis, authors, musicians, microbrewers. Overall our friends here are really lovely, interesting, creative people. And of course I feel anxiety about my (in)ability to speak Spanish and follow everything with our local friends. But each time I try I grow in skill and confidence. And our friends are incredibly helpful and kind in helping me to understand and to learn. The social gatherings are also really lovely and not stressful at all. The kids run around together, the parents all do their part to watch all the children, we share mate and check in with one another. Our kids are already old friends. And I feel we are growing into old friends with the adults too. The process is very organic, and as a sociologist I know the importance of social cohesion. New reports say loneliness is the leading cause of death in the U.S. So, as we build our little community, the virtuous cycle continues.

The social cohesion is something that is virtuous in our kids too. When Isa went for a short time for preschool in North America, she quickly learned that she was not allowed to touch anyone. Not other kids or the teacher. No touch (!!!!) at all. In Uruguay, she gives besitos to every child and teacher every morning when she arrives and every afternoon when she leaves. Touching well is something that is learned in school. She hugs and plays. She sits in the older kids' laps. They hold hands and skip. The older kids pick her up so she can reach. She is learning how to make friends. How to touch nicely. How to be a good community member. How to do her part.

The other day her school went to a retirement home and the kids sat and listened intently to an old woman tell stories about the local area. I am sure it was insanely boring. But they were taught how to respect this woman and her oral history. And the woman I am sure was happy to share. It is these little ways in which implicit lessons about respect, dignity and community seep into her little brain that make me so happy she's not in American classroom sitting still with her hands to herself (where she could one day be prescribed a drug forcing her to sit still). In Uruguay she runs in and out of the classroom as she likes. Until she's 6, she is free to spend her time at school as she wishes. Playing and creating and learning little lessons about how to be a good person. And Vivian has already embodied many of these lessons. When Uruguayans drink mate they drink one sip themselves and then offer it to everyone else. Vivian takes my mate and shares it around the room. She shares all of her food. She is already thinking of others in this very Uruguayan way.

As a result of all the goodness coming out of these virtuous cycles, things are going so well with my marriage. Patrick is exploring so much creatively. He is playing the guitar every day. He and Isa are writing songs together. He designed our house! He is reading so many books. He is transforming our property into a beautiful paradise. Cutting in some places, planting in others. We are both learning so much about all the ecological principles we came here to learn: like how to make food sustainably, how to be a good husband to both animals and the land, and how to handle waste, and how to preserve ecosystems in the process. We are learning together, and having fun, and can spend our days as we wish. We both have work to do for our jobs, but we can decide when to do it, and how to structure our days. What a gift!

I am so grateful to be in this period of virtuous cycles. I am not perfect. I still have moments of sadness or anxiety or frustration. I still feel lonely. I still get nervous about confrontation. I still question myself. I still eat crap sometimes. But, slowly, I am healing. I am growing into a better, healthier person. And I just hope I can keep the virtuous cycle moving in an upward direction, because I can't wait to see how good it can get, if it is already this great.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


A recent post has been removed for the sake of unity and reconciliation because someone told me it hurt their feelings. If this action, censoring my personal blog, is not enough to show you my humanity and good will I don't know what is.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Little (big) changes in a new place

I am feeling urged to write today about the small ways in which the culture here is changing me. I am thinking of a daily routine that in small doses doesn’t seem like much, but, added together, entirely changes who I am and what I thought I thought. Let me explain.

Each day when I take Isa to school and pick her up, I get out of the car and go in. I greet the other parents and children and teachers each with a kiss and a quick moment of catching up. They ask how I am doing and wait for a response. Usually everyone just says ‘fine, thanks and you,’ but it seems they are actually waiting for an answer and looking you in the eye while asking.

If you described this cultural norm to me before moving here (getting out of the car and greeting everyone every time I picked up or dropped off from school) I would likely be horrified. I am a skeptic, a loner, a misanthrope, and someone who generally hates superficial pleasantries and small talk.

In the U.S. I find small talk unbearable. Partly, I think, because when people ask you how you are doing there it is often so hollow that answering seems like a trap. Like, if I said happy they might say ‘good for you’ sarcastically (since they are likely struggling in some way or another), or if I said I was struggling myself in some way the American response would be thinly veiled schadenfreude combined with fake concern. And the sheer laziness of not getting out of the car to drop your kid off at school. The insane lengths teachers go to let the parents stay in their car. The long pickup lines with elaborate systems that identify which car belongs to which small child.

I used to think I liked the convenience of the car pickup at school. How nice to not have to get out of the car! How easy. And to not have to speak to any of the other parents. A dream! I don’t want their sarcasm or schadenfreude anyway.  I despise small talk. It is all political machinations, even amongst the preschool parents. Who speaks to whom? Who is organizing the next fundraiser with the celebrity chef and the microbrew food trucks? Will there be mason jar glasses for the beer? That’s such a cute idea, Jennifer! I wish I had your touch! Did you hear that Melissa isn’t going? I mean, she didn’t help organize, but she won’t even go to support her daughter’s school? Some people, I mean, are just so, well you know, I am preaching to the choir here.

But here, I am surprising myself by finding I actually want to get out of the car. In fact, I want to ride my damn bike to school. Of course I haven’t done it yet. But I dream of doing something active, which was the furthest thing from my mind up North. I like to see the other parents and the kids and greet them and ask them how they are. It is very subtle the way in which the culture is different. I think if an ethnographer from a third country came to both places and saw parents interact at school they wouldn’t see much difference besides the besito down here in Uruguay. But it’s something about the eyes, and the smiles, and the way in which people are inviting you in without judgment or as a premeditated way to trap you into a social faux pas.

As a result, I am actually changing who I am. What I think. I don’t look at groups of people with disdain and frustration. I look hopefully and I find myself opening myself to them. I want to get involved. I want to invite people over. I want to go to their events. I am much less lazy or entitled in thinking it is a huge inconvenience to get out of the damn car. It is a privilege to get to be a part of this community. To see them and to be seen. To have the time to chit chat for a few moments, and not feel hurried or stressed by it. My schedule is not so jam packed that I have small margins for error. That is a luxury.

Just another small moment in the life of an immigrant, and in the exploration of the ways in which places and social structures can actually change individuals. That is, change is not only in one’s mind, it is also very often due to external forces. I am happy about who I am becoming. I used to be proud of my loner status. But, guess what?, it made me lonely. I am less lonely now, and becoming less lonely by the day. What a gift. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Happy birthday mama

Today is my mother's birthday. There's this movie Lady Bird that just came out, and it (in a revelatory way) shows the ways in which mothers organize their lives around their children, while trying to maintain a sense of self, and of dignity. When reading about Lady Bird, and in the process of becoming a mother myself, I am growing more and more appreciative of my own mother.

One of the most important insights I've had lately is about the ways in which I didn't experience my mom doing things for me that helped me, or nourished me, or silently supported me. Like, the bagged lunch. It was just made. I never saw her doing it. She never congratulated herself for it. But there it was, in my bag for school, every single day. And as a child, I had the freedom from thinking about that one part of my life. 

There are so many ways in which my mother shaped me, invisibly. How she noticed things I thought I was hiding. Young adult thoughts and emotions that I might have been hiding even from myself. And, like Lady Bird, I pushed her away cruelly. I wanted autonomy, privacy, as teenagers and young adults do. But now, as a young mother, I see it all anew. 

I see what it took for my mom, with very little outside help (her parents didn't live near and my father's parents were not primary caregivers in our lives), to raise three kids. My dad was away from the home one out of every three days (on a firefighter schedule), and on those days she was a single mother. I know on days with only my two kids how much I struggle without Patrick home. When I am putting one child to sleep and I hear a noise outside and I am fearful without another adult to help manage one or more ongoing situations. But she did it. And I remember my early childhood fondly. I felt so secure. She made me feel that way, invisibly.

I was so cared for, and that took so much more work than I knew. I always had dry and clean clothes, something to eat, she was always, always patient. She made us intelligent by paying attention to us, and speaking to us, and engaging with us, always. She was stable and responsible and someone I always knew I could go to when other adults or children let me down. She was reliable. And that added a rosy tint to my childhood. Being so lucky to have a reliable mother means taking her for granted. Because she was always there, you came to expect it. 

When I was back in Chicago I watched my mother spend the better part of a day steaming my sister's bridesmaid gown for a wedding. And I realized in that moment, all the time she has spent doing something for us unnoticed. And all the time I now do the same. And how hard it is to be unnoticed, just to care for your kids. But the reward is worth it.

Just yesterday she sent me this message:

"Cleanse your life and fill it with genuine, interesting people that have your best interest at heart. It is just that simple. If that makes me ridiculous, I'll wear that like a badge of honor. Loving relationships are not a power play. And for goodness sake don't shed a tear or lose any sleep over small minded people, not deserving of a moment of your pain."

There she is again. Reading my emotions before I knew myself what I felt. And taking the time to articulate, and guide me when I most need it.

So, I want to take a day to notice her. To take notice. And for all of you reading to take notice of my mom, and your mom, and yourself as a mom. And all the little ways in which we can choose to build each other up without fanfare or recognition, and how my mom has spent her lifetime doing just that for me and my siblings.

I love you mamas. Happy birthday.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Via Chicago

Our time in Chicago is coming to an end. We have accomplished a lot in a short time here:

- Time with family and friends. We have exhausted ourselves seeing and partying and chatting with everyone we know and most love here in Chicago. Isa and Viv have forged connections with their family and friends that are deep and lasting. We are so happy to have had these experiences.

- I have completed an entire draft of my dissertation in a mere 3 month period. Thanks to the incredible help of Charley, Mary Ellen, Anna, my mom and dad, Lindsey, Colin and Coco babysitting, I was able to write a 130-page document and even revised several chapters. It looks like it will only be revisions between now and my planned defense Fall 2018 - which is exactly what my goal was. Wahooooo! I am so incredibly grateful for the help with the girls. I was able to accomplish a major life goal in a short time, and they got to spend lovely time with the people they adore the most in the world. Win-win!

- Patrick worked his butt off and not only paid for our trip here (and the expensive $1k mistake that held us up at migrations in Uruguay), but put a little away into our savings. He also began working at Johns Hopkins here in Chicago, and will keep that job as we return.

- We bought stuff. One of our goals was to buy a bunch of stuff on Amazon for our house in Uruguay, and we did that. Curtains and sheets and storage bins and light fixtures and tools. You name it, and Amazon is probably advertising it to us right now.

- We got light! One of our goals was to be in Chicago long enough for Uruguay to connect our electricity in our home, making it a livable place (with plumbing!). Well, we bothered enough people while here that the plan is to install it Nov 3 *fingers crossed*!

We will miss everyone dearly here. But we will be back soon, I am sure!

Travel and belonging

It is hard to explain experiences to people. It is hard to explain what it is like living in other places, and the subtle ways it changes you. It is hard to describe feelings, sensations, psychological shifts. I say, "Uruguay is like people's imagined projections of 1950's culture in the U.S.: kids ride their bikes to school, there is little crime and violence, life is simple." But what does that feel like? It is so hard to say. 

What does it do to me, psychologically, to have friends who just show up for a quick visit? To chat with other parents as we drop off the kids at school and pick them up? To ride a scooter in the fresh air all year long? To listen to the sounds of birds at different parts of the day, and to see the minute differences in the land as the seasons change? How do I explain how that changes me?

I got hooked on travel and the experiences of it as soon as I got my first taste going to Rome in 2005. It's not just the experience of consuming new cultures, food, sights, sounds. It is who it makes me. I came back from Rome a different person than who went. Slightly more aware of difference in culture, more sure of what kind of life I wanted to pursue, excited about new and different foods and music and lifestyles. 

But travel and any new experiences can also serve to isolate. Who can relate to living on a different continent? Immigrants, of course, but we have so many other divergent experiences we cannot wholly share it all. Something happens, where your own experiences make you un-relatable. You don't really belong anywhere. You can't explain Uruguay to Chicagoans, and you can't explain Chicago to Uruguayans. You can generally get along and feel competent in many languages and cultures, but you are not deeply embedded in any one place.

I'm too far gone, too much changed now to go back to belonging in any one place. So, the only way forward is to embrace the cosmopolitan. To be able to fluidly navigate many worlds, and to make human connections everywhere. One of the insights of my travel (that is shared by many people who have taken journeys) is how much humanity has in common, despite our perceived differences. We all want peace, time in nature, love from others, companionship, to meet our needs, to not feel alienated or isolated or at war. We all like good food and a back scratch and laughter and cold water to drink on a hot day. 

Mark Twain put it best: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Why I love Patrick

I was lying in bed last night unable to sleep and began to think of all the significant things I love about my husband, and the list went on and on.

Often, around birthdays or anniversaries, people post something on social media about how their spouse is the best, most important, or their best friend. But what are the details behind those statements?

I don't think I have ever loved Patrick as much as I love him now, and it continues to grow. I hope that the love grows infinitely, but as I feel it so strongly in the moment, I want to write down what makes me so grateful to have him in my life.

He is an utterly devoted husband and father. Devoted. What does that look like? Changing diapers, feeding, clipping fingernails, putting the girls to sleep, running errands for me, doing things for all of us whose sole purpose is to make our lives easier and better. It is a sad fact that many husbands are not active in childcare. It is not just sad, it's pitiful. Both the fathers and children are missing out on something so important, the chance to at once build relationship and display equality in action. Patrick does this, without needing to be recognized for it, every day of his life. He and I do not show affection through gifts, but mostly through time and attention. When he sits with me and listens to me and gives me gentle direction when I feel I am at an impasse, he is giving me the gift of love, and he does this often. He always makes me feel pretty, even when I feel I look my worst. He has never once said something disparaging about my physical appearance, even at his most angry. That has done wonders for my self esteem. Paradoxically, the confidence from feeling beautiful makes me want to be healthier, and continue a virtuous cycle.

Patrick is in a state of constant improvement. He is a renaissance man, and I am forever interested by him and the new parts of life he is exploring. He taught himself languages, guitar, singing, golf, basketball, baseball, soccer, film making, and, most recently, magic. He is expert level at: teaching and running a classroom, Spanish, guitar, singing, Spanish language literature and art, golf, basketball and film critique. He can become at expert at anything he wants. He has projects on the horizon to learn more Portuguese, French and Russian, so he can read the classics in these original languages. He wants to make movies and has several scripts in his head already. He is mastering storyboarding, script writing, shooting, and editing films as well. He has been writing jokes for stand up as long as I remember. He sings and plays guitar for our family, and he fills our lives with jokes and music and stories. He does great accents! If you can get him to open up, he will spend hours displaying his accents from Northern Ireland to Spain to Australia to Chile to Jamaican. He loves to speak Spanish in an Australian accent. He does impersonations of everyone from people we know personally to public figures no one has ever heard of like Billy Ocasio, a Puerto Rican Alderman on Chicago's North Side. One of my favorite impersonations he does is Colin's impression of Scooby Doo.

Patrick is not only incredibly smart, talented, and motivated, he is good to look at. He has the most beautiful hair and beard and eyes. He is a very handsome man. People say he is a cross between Ryan Gosling and Edward Norton. He is a babe.

It's not only these things I can list that make me love him so much, it's the subtle, unnameable things. It's the way he thinks about things. His confidence in himself. His desire to live truly and fully. His ability to stay calm when I feel unease. The way he loves seeing the girls after a few hours away, and how he scoops them up and truly embraces them. In that moment, he is totally present in the way other people wish they could be. How honest he is with me, without ever being unnecessarily harsh. How he responds with strength to adversity, but somehow keeps his softness, and his ability to take in the world fully. His sensitivity to everything, and how I want to bring him to a place that will help him blossom further, because I can't imagine how great he could possibly be in a place that suits him and doesn't drag him down.

People don't talk too openly about their spouses, I've noticed. But I want to talk here about mine, while I feel it all.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

big world changes

I came across a book recently by prominent sociologist Ulrich Beck:

"We live in a world that is increasingly difficult to understand. It is not just changing: it is metamorphosing. Change implies that some things change but other things remain the same capitalism changes, but some aspects of capitalism remain as they always were. Metamorphosis implies a much more radical transformation in which the old certainties of modern society are falling away and something quite new is emerging. To grasp this metamorphosis of the world it is necessary to explore the new beginnings, to focus on what is emerging from the old and seek to grasp future structures and norms in the turmoil of the present."

I am shocked by the events/catastrophes/metamorphosis I am seeing that barely anyone is discussing as part of the same process:

Catalan secession
Harvey and Irma and the disproportionate rebuilding in Texas and Puerto Rico
Wildfires in Pacific NW
Earthquakes in Mexico

These events are part of a process of metamorphosis. A transition to a civilization that looks nothing like the world of a few decades ago. One of ruin and collapse and crisis and rebirth and reconceptions and reimaginings. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Uruguay life July 2017 update - interdependence

We have accomplished so much in our 7 months here in Uruguay and the only way we were able to accomplish any of this is due to the kindness of others. People who helped us for no other reason than because they wanted us to succeed. The older I get the more I recognize the importance of solid relationships, a network of people for whom you cheer lead, and who cheer lead for you. We have only had success from interdependence.

Our house is ready to move in. We have been slowly moving things in, and getting the place livable for our return in November. If it wasn't for our lovely and helpful foreigner friends Magnus from Sweden and Patrick from Ireland, we wouldn't have had the success with the house that we did. Magnus let us learn from his experiences with container homes and steered us away from them, and Patrick suggested an isopanel house for speed of construction and ready-made insulation. Without them, we would never have such a nice livable house already ready and at a relatively low cost.

We have all sorts of home goods and things from the US due to the kindness of our visitors who brought big bags of stuff for us across the world. Two people stand out. The kindness and hard work of Colin (who packed 4 giant bags of stuff we shipped to the house for us) and Uncle Bill Seifert who bought us tons of tools here in Uruguay and sent an entire bag of tools he bought for us in the United States is really unrivaled. I am so grateful for their love and support. They get what we're doing, and they went above and beyond in helping our journey to get there. I think of Bill often, every time I need some tool for something and find that he already bought it for us. He has saved us so much trouble, as it is often difficult to find tools here, and if you do find them they are poor quality AND expensive. What a great gift he gave to us - that of his decades of experience in tinkering - in getting us needed things that will help us to help ourselves in this new place.

Our daughters are doing beautifully here. Thanks to the lovely and patient teachers and Uruguayan friends who take their time in helping all of us learn Uruguayan Spanish. I am thinking of Ambar's parents Gabi and Santi, our brew friends Matias and Andrea, and Matias' mom Selva who has been so patient with my terrible Spanish, and has offered me resources whenever we get stuck. And we all also feel the love from back in North America, especially thanks to the lovely monthly packages of treats from our Northern home from Gram and Poppy, the gifts from cousin Jamie, and all the messages on Whatsapp especially from Jamie, Lindsey, and Gram, who talk to Isa at least weekly and show their love remotely. The girls know about their far away family, and are connected to them, and that helps them to adjust to life here.

Our professional lives have developed quite a bit as well. I am in the end stages of contract signing with University of Idaho, which would be the first students to come to Rizoma Field School (thanks to a connection set up by my lovely former grad colleague Lauren Scott)! We have made all sorts of local contacts in organic agriculture, and have discovered that this is a hub for that sort of activity in the entire country. Patrick got a temporary job at Providence Catholic High School in Chicago as well as two other jobs: one teaching English to Chinese kids remotely, and one with Johns Hopkins University teaching Spanish to American kids, both very part time. I am also still teaching sociology online (only one class at the moment), and of course slowly but surely writing my dissertation. I have been published writing articles about Rizoma Field School on a couple of important networks of environmental scientists and activists, and I just recently had my first book chapter published!

We have set up quite a bit of infrastructure on our land, and have all our paperwork in for permanent residency and have finally gotten our national ID cards. All along the way our Irish neighbor Patrick has been integral in guiding us on the sometimes bewildering bureaucracy and advising us on home and farm decision-making. We would really be totally lost without him as a resource.

Finally, and most strangely, we are the beneficiaries of the human-centered policies of this lovely country of Uruguay. We have gotten taken care of for free by national doctors, including multiple midnight emergency visits for the girls with bad coughs. We enjoy lovely garbage pickup thrice weekly, well-cared for infrastructure, electricity being brought to our land via a national initiative, free school for Isa 4 hours daily at 3 years old, and a reasonable residency process that (although somewhat arduous in paperwork) is one of the easiest and most humane immigration processes in the world.

Looking back over our first foray into permanent life here, I can't help but attribute any and all success to others. With this realization comes immense gratitude and love.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

resilience: or, embracing the struggle

I have been thinking recently about the passing of Patrick's friend and former co-worker, Jim Horan. Jim was one of those people I am always attracted to. He took long walks in the wilderness only to plop down on a break to read Virgil. He played guitar and wrote letters. He sang and laughed and spouted wisdom every day. His daughter recounted an anecdote: One day in class an athlete was gooofing off. He stopped class, "scholar athlete or dumb jock? Choose now. It will effect the rest of your life." This is the kind of person Jim was. Making everyone better, but by their own choosing. Scores of students recounted stories in the wake of his passing, with a theme emerging: he always implored students to 'embrace the struggle.'

These words have been ringing in my ears for weeks. Here we are, in a foreign country, knowing nothing of the culture and customs, attempting to start a new life. It sucks sometimes. We can't communicate at times, even though we know the language. Everything here is different. People here live with the doors open and bugs fly in. Everything is jimmy-rigged. It's a DIY kind of country. But, in Jim's words, I am embracing the struggle.

Why? Why do this? Why not just go back to a place I know that's comfortable and clean and nice? Well, because I value resilience. And if you saw my post recently about this topic, you'd know that these little annoyances are likely necessary steps in embracing resilience.

Well, what is resilience really? The ability to bounce back? To deal? To just roll over and allow bad things to happen? I try to model my conception of resilience off the idea of ecological resilience: " the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly."

The disturbance is this new country. But not just that, it's bugs and weather and new things. It's the struggle. And resilience is resisting damage in the face of struggle and recovering from it. It is embracing the struggle. Not being a victim of circumstance but a survivor of it. Empowered by it even. I know this intuitively from learning Spanish. Each time I feel uncomfortable, I get better. I grow in ability, simply by putting myself out there and failing a little, I become stronger, more capable, more resilient in language use.

So, I do it. I wake up and I deal. I survive. I grow. I embrace the struggle and I become resilient. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Immigrating to Uruguay update March 2017

People have been asking. What is going on with our progress? How is our land? Our home building? How are the kids adjusting? What's up with my study abroad idea? What else is new? I am going to attempt to give some basic updates here so I can share widely for those burning to know! :)

The land/house:
 Land: Since we got here we have planted on the land: a winter squash patch, a raspberry bush, lavender bush, rosemary bush, and a grape on the property. We have marked out where we want to place our home based on the movement of the summer sun. We have installed a swing. We have harvested all the pears from our pear tree and made: jam, canned whole pears, alcoholic pear cider, and made some friends with it (gave them away), besides eating the fresh pears as well. We attempted twice to make sun dried pear leather, but failed due to rainy days! We have harvested and are continuing to harvest walnuts. We eat these like candy, and feel very luxurious as we know how expensive shelled walnuts are. We have also made a little patio in a small grove of trees near our palm tree, for catching some shade during working hours. (of course all of this was done with the help of our visitors).

At our rental we planted some tomatoes and basil and other herbs and it's been nice to go out the door and grab some fresh greens. We just planted some fall crops: lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsnips, turnips, kale, chard, that kind of thing, in containers. We are going to re-plant soon and maybe build some cold frames while we are at it.

We've also been going to these local auctions called remates and have been slowly acquiring necessary tools and furniture. We just bought a lovely hardwood desk for $12! We got a cider/wine press, tools, a small desk for Isa, a lovely hardwood china cabinet for under $20. So, working on getting things we need for cheap has been another task. Pat's uncle Bill has also been incredibly generous and not only bought us a mountain of tools while here, he also sent a suitcase full of tools with Colin! We have also been lucky to meet some Americans right at an opportune time when they were moving and have acquired from them: toys, a lovely large rug, a hardwood toy chest, a girls bike, and lavender stained glass ceiling shade and picture frames. Score!

House: We have decided to build a house out of this material called isopanel which is basically styrofoam between two sheets of thin-ish steel. We did this because we have heard bad things about the shipping container houses here, and because it is cheap and fast and automatically insulated. As of today, we are waiting on the builder to start. He is moving forward slowly because we are all waiting on the electrical company (state run) to bring our electricity from the state highway down our shared driveway road to the corner of our property. He needs electricial for building, especially for this electric welding equipment he has. The house will be 72 square meters with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a large open-concept kitchen and living area, and a walk-in pantry. It will be on a pier foundation. The piers will be concrete and the frame will be welded steel.

As of last week, the electrical company said it will be done within the month (riiiiight). So, we are looking into buying a generator and have been in contact with our builder to see what he thinks would be best. We are very anxious to get started on the house, as each month that passes is another ~$600 in rent and bills we are spending in our beach house. I'd rather put that money toward a generator that we can own and stop throwing our savings at a rental (even though it is lovely being at the beach).

Study abroad/work:
I (Ashley) am losing (or not being re-hired) for my online teaching gig at Washington State starting May, so at that point we will likely just be living on savings. That is fine, we planned for it, but it starts a ticking clock for us to get other streams of income going. I had a person I met at WSU that was very, very interested in partnering with us, and she prepared a big US State Department grant to develop a study abroad program, but at the last minute couldn't submit it due to technical issues and couldn't find any tech support through these government website that sent her in loops. Since then, she's gotten busy with the semester and things have stalled a bit.

After that stalled I worked on making the website look really nice and bought a domain name (go check it out!). Then I started shopping it around a bit.

I got in contact with a group called Gustolab International - a joint partnership between the University of Illinois and it's own entity in Rome. Their focus is on sustainability, food, and study abroad experiences - very similar to our mission! I had a conference call with them and the upshot is that they are looking to expand their program outside of Rome. They have two pilot programs in Vietnam and Japan and if those go well they are keen to make a partnership with us. They advised me to start visiting field sites and taking photos to deepen the website to give students an idea of what possibilities exist here in Uruguay.

Finally, a colleague of mine at WSU put me in touch with a friend of hers at the University of Idaho that is in charge of alternative spring and winter break programs where students go on their breaks and volunteer somewhere. She and I are moving forward with a potential Winter Break 2017-2018 plan for two weeks. There was a big flood here a few months back and plenty of families that lost everything in it. So, we could partner with a local church to get a list of families and maybe do some painting and restoration work. There is also a local organic ag organization here that works with low-income small scale farmers keeping them in business, which we could do some organic ag work with them. So, that is in development and would be cemented likely by June 2017 if it's going to happen.

Since so many of these things have very long timelines of development, we don't know when the actual paycheck will come for any of this work. But I am thinking this is the gamble of an entrepreneurial life! Stay tuned!

The (beautiful) girls:
First, let me say it has been an absolute joy to be with my girls here, with Patrick around as well. Our family is re-adjusting to a new life here where we all basically get to be together and get to spend our hours as we wish. What a dream! Of course, that doesn't mean we don't get stressed and don't have work to do, but we do get to plan our own days and prioritize caring for our children together, which is all I had ever dreamed of.

Isa as, as I type this, going to her first day of school in the town, Valdense. The short of it is: I really want her to go to the rural school (not the Valdense town school) because the rural school is set up like all the educational policy says is the best learning environment for kids (especially small ones). The rural school is a one-room schoolhouse with 15 kids between the ages of 4-11 and two teachers! The kids mostly play and work in groups (3,4,5/7,8,9/10,11). The teacher says it is basically like a family more than a school. What a dream! But the migration office requires that we enroll her in school and the rural school can't take her until she's 4 (July 2017 - not too far off). The Valdense town school has 3 classrooms of 3 year olds. It is well-run but it's crowded and it considers itself 'rigorous,' which to me means too many rules for a 3 year old. Patrick is going to stay with her and translate as needed for the first couple weeks as 'volunteer.' So we shall see how it all pans out. More than anything, I want her to have a smooth transition into speaking Spanish, something she is a bit anxious about at the moment.

Vivian is awesome. She is crawling and pulling up and we just got a rug from a lovely American missionary who didn't need it anymore, so she is protected from the hard tile!

What about friends?
Finally, the community. I think of a sign in the basement of the Fitz house, "it takes a long time to grow old friends.' Well, we have gotten a jump start on that! It seemed difficult for us to make deep connections with friends in the US. We've made a few along the way, but most were superficial and/or we never made time to see one another. The complete opposite is true here.

We instantly made friends with the local microbrewery guys who have been to our house and we've been to theirs at least a dozen times in the 2 months we've known each other. It is so easy and casual, and they just stop by or we stop in without making a date and I love it! We have also met/know that live in our area: an Irish/English retiree expat couple, a South African couple, their neighbors with two small girls, our neighbors a constructor and a lawyer with two small kids that live in the land next to ours, a German guy living on a boat/in a Chevy Astro, an American man/ Mexican woman couple that live within walking distance, one of the brew guys and his pregnant girlfriend who live within walking distance, a young Uruguayan hippy couple that have a 7 month old girl and drive a 1970's Renault, an Argentinean/Swedish couple that live about 90 mins away that have two small kids that live here year round, and an American couple that runs missionary trips that come here at least twice a year that have two girls 3 years old and 7 months!

On top of that, this weekend we met a whole group of young American families that live mostly in Montevideo, but I asked if they'd be interested in coming to our land for a Fall camping trip and they all seemed quite excited. So, just adding to the possibilities of friends. Maybe our Fall camping trip will be like the Chalet week or South Haven where we all get together the same time every year. It's a dream!

We certainly have ample opportunities for community here, and we are building it quickly and easily. In just a few years I can imagine many of these friends feeling like old friends. :)

We are also looking into travelling back to Chicago in this Summer/late Fall, but are anxious about spending money on tickets. I have a one-way ticket back to Chicago for July, but the one-way ticket back is exactly the same cost as the two way, so that doesn't do me much good. We also found out when flying here that lap infants aren't free, they cost something like 20% of a ticket, so that adds to the cost. So, going back to Chicago looks like it would cost somewhere between $4000 and $4500. We want badly to keep the connection alive with family and friends (Isa talks daily about Amelia, Molly, Craig, Mary Kate, Abby, the Daly kids and all her close relatives), but we can't justify spending $4500 of our savings on a trip when we have no set income on the horizon. So, Pat is applying to maternity leave Spanish teaching positions for Fall 2017 in Chicago and is also looking to work as a soccer ref in the Fall. He could likely work enough to cover his own ticket, but not enough for the rest of us. So, that is another moving piece.

Overall, immigration has been frustrating in some ways (learning the ins and outs of every institution), but rewarding and surprising in others (weather, people). We did find out recently that health care in the public system is entirely free. Just free. We just had to bring our income documents, our passports, and proof of residency, and voila we have health care. Vaccinations are covered by the state and they are on the exact same vax schedule as the US (no stress there). Doctors are nice and offices are clean and I feel well cared for in that department.

After reading through this, it feels like we've accomplished a lot. Some days I feel we get nothing done except keeping the kids alive and hanging out with our guests. But this is something, right? Now, we are without guests and we need to fall into a routine that includes me ever getting my dissertation done, on top of the 1000 other projects we are starting. But it's all good and lovely overall. It is what we were dreaming of. And each day we adjust more and it looks more and more like the dream we had. Just seeing our canned pears and pear cider and walnuts on the shelf and the pots with food growing outside. It is lovely to transition to the way of life I've been dreaming of for maybe a decade. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Feminism: or the right to be cleaned up after

Having seen some footage of signs and speeches (Ashley Judd!) from the women's marches around the world two days ago on January 21, I have some thoughts about feminism. I have had a long, ongoing relationship with the concept of feminism. I have interacted with many versions of it, and think I have finally come to what I think is feminism's most important message for me: it means the right to be cleaned up after.

I know this sounds lazy, but I assure you that to me is it profound. There are many iterations of feminism from the (very small minority) man-hating to the (very first wave) protecting women's basic rights to everything in between. While I do support the very public act of supporting women's issues, especially in the eyes of formal institutions like laws or economic privileges, the kind of feminism I am passionate about enacting takes place in the most private spaces: the home, within relationships, and in culture.

To illustrate my point, I am posting here a little story I read to my sociology 101 students when we get to the chapter on gender:

Conversation between a husband (H) and a psychologist (P):
Q: what do you do for a living Mr. Rogers?
H: I work as an accountant in a bank.
P: Your wife?
H: She doesn't work. She's a housewife.
Q: Who makes breakfast for your family?
H: My wife, because she doesn't work
Q: What time does your wife wake?
H: She wakes up early because it has to be organised. She organizes the lunch for the children, ensures that they are well-dressed and combed, if they had breakfast, if they brush their teeth and take all their school supplies. She wakes with the baby and changes diapers and clothes. Breastfeeds and makes snacks as well.
Q: How do your children get to school?
H: My wife takes them to school, because she doesn't work.
P: After taking their children to school, what does she do?
H: Usually takes a while to figure something out that she can do while she is out, so she doesn't have to pack and unpack the carseat too many times, like drop off bills or to make a stop at the supermarket. Sometimes she forgets something and has to make the trip all over again, baby in tow. Once back home, she has to feed the baby lunch and breastfeed again, get the baby's diaper changed and ready for a nap, sort the kitchen and then will take care of laundry and cleaning of the house. You know, because she doesn't work.
P: In the evening, after returning home from the office, what are you doing?
H: Rest, of course. Well, I'm tired after working all day in the bank.
Q: What does your wife do at night?
H: She makes dinner, serves my children and I, washes the dishes, orders once more the house, makes sure the dog is put away as well as any left over dinner. After helping children with HW she gets them prepared to sleep in pajamas and the baby is in fresh diapers, gives warm milk, verifies they brush their teeth. Once in bed she wakes frequently to continue to breastfeed and possibly change a diaper if needed while we rest. Because she doesn't have to get up for work.

Somebody asked her...
You are a woman who works or is it just "housewife"??
She replied:
I work as a wife of the home, 24 hours a day..
I am a mother,
I am a woman,
I am a daughter,
I'm the alarm clock,
I'm the cook,
I'm the maid,
I am the master,
I'm the bartender,
I'm the babysitter,
I'm a nurse,
I am a manual worker,
I'm a security officer,
I'm the advisor,
I am the comforter,
I don't have a vacation,
I don't have a licence for disease.
I don't have a day off
I work day and night,
I'm on duty all the time,
I do not receive salary and...
Even so, I often hear the phrase:
" but what do you do all day?"

So, feminism for me starts at this basic level of human interaction. It is the right to say 'I'm tired' and to be cleaned up after. To be taken care of, rather than taking care. It is the work that needs to be done to start equal rights, in my humble opinion. How do these leaders grow up and get the idea that women are worth less? It starts in their home. When they see their mama doing all of the above while the papa sits and relaxes. We all have a right to relax, to leave dishes dirty, to have a mind free from the invisible workload of keeping everything organized in the household. 

What does enacting this kind of feminism look like? It looks like a bunch of micro-interactions about dishes, childcare, laundry. It looks like leaving things dirty until they're cleaned up. It means not being the one who packs the diaper bag every time. It is doing these things free of guilt or anxiety (something I am working on constantly -- the guilt or anxiety has been placed there over years of socialization that this is a woman's duty). It is akin to the work in the previous post about tolerating discomfort (in being closer to nature). And it's hard to do. To re-make culture is a necessary and complicated way to revolutionize our world, to prepare for a future in which sexes are equal and we all live closer to the earth.