It's been an awfully long time since I've posted here. I've been very busy working out how to live back in New Zealand. I've been back five months now and in that time I have kept myself surprisingly busy with full-time study, part-time work and various charitable projects.
In the past few months I've:
- walked 100km to raise money for Oxfam (harder than we expected and much more successful as well, we aimed to raise $2500 and instead raised more than $7250)
- been on a two day silent meditation retreat with a Shambala teacher (mid-way through the first morning I was miserable and wanted to leave, but I decided to stay until lunch and in the end stayed the whole time and experienced something really worthwhile - the perspective that comes with sitting still for longer than is comfortable)
- worked on the mid-term review of a five year plan for human rights in New Zealand (the plan that I was responsible for developing before I went to Afghanistan - it has been very satisfying to see how much progress has been made while I've been away)
- organised an exhibition of my photographs from Ghor, which will go up in a few weeks in my favorite cafe Deluxe.
- worked for two weeks on the set of James Cameron's new film Avatar (and decided that film set work was NOT for me)
- written essays on "feminist post-structuralist approaches to psychological research" and on "what a community psychology approach would mean for responses to youth suicide in New Zealand" for my Psychology of Women and Community Psychology papers
- learned how to calculate statistics (big achievement for me, since i couldn't even figure out how to turn the scientific calculator on when i first bought it) for my "Introduction to Psychology Research" paper
- spent a week touring the East Cape of New Zealand on behalf of an organisation that promotes reading and gives books to children in the schools with the lowest socio-economic ratings in the country (see the photo above - it was a deeply satisfying and fun week)
- interviewed 14 members of Parliament as part of a wee research project I'm doing to earn some money while I study
- become a regular member of the local yoga studio and of the library
- become a regular at my local cafe (this is something I dreamed about when I was in Afghanistan, walking out the door and down the road to get a coffee, mmmm)
- been able to attend birthday parties and dinner parties to celebrate key moments in the lives of friends and family
I've tried to find a balance between all these wonderful projects and activities and still find time to be still and quiet and remember the key question for me this year which is:
"How can we each find ways each day to practice peace in the midst of a conflict-ridden world?"
Some of the simple truths I've been reminded of are:
- That I have to chose every day to practice the peace I want to see in the world; whether with my boyfriend, my workmates, my housemate or people I come across in the street.
- That I have to make the space for peace in my heart by taking time to be quiet every day, and that sometimes being quiet can stir up lots of scary noise. In those times I have keep sitting still until the noise also passes.
- That I have to be gentle with myself if I want to be gentle with the rest of the world.
More soon - assuming this post signals a return to inspiration!
I was in a second-hand bookstore yesterday looking for teeny little treasures to send in care packages to Afghanistan and I found this.
Three important things to know about this book.
1. It was compiled by a man (William H. Grosner)
2. It was given to 'Dora' on 10 January 1918
3. It was "prepared with the view of supplying you with some materials for thought as you travel along the highway of life"
I'm quite taken with it and plan to share bits and pieces with you here. I will start where the editor started. With the morning.
Every day which is born into this world comes like a burst of music, and sings itself all day through. And thou shalt make of it a dance, a dirge, or a life march, as thou wilt. - T. Carlyle
Today I found the tune early and made a dance of my day. It doesn't happen every day and I was certainly helped along the way by the generosity of my friends and family.
I was helped along by their willingness to give up a little of what they have to help people who need it more.
I was helped along by seeing the love pour in from all corners of the globe for a friend in need.
I was helped along, no doubt, by a yoga class focused on inversions. There is nothing like getting upside-down for changing my perspective on the tune.
One way and another it was a dance of a day today. I'm grateful for that.
I've written here before about the two years when I lived in the Gaza Strip, working at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. So it won't be a suprise to anyone who knows me that the killing of so many Palestinians this past weekend has filled me with grief, anger and despair.
If (not suprisingly) your local or national media hasn't been covering the massacre in Gaza in much detail then read Laila's post about it here
Read Heba's post here
Read a joint blog by a Palestinian and Israeli man (Peace man and Hope man) here
Read what Jews sans Frontieres have to say over here
Or read Tara's post here
Or just look around the internet for some independent news sources (if your news is anything like ours here in New Zealand you won't find much of the story by reading the papers or watching the television).
I can't ever get used to the way that the world allows this kind of killing to carry on in Gaza without raising our combined voices against it. Today I feel that cloud of guilt hovering in the corner of my sky.
After living and working there for two years I left Gaza. I left my friends and colleagues to carry on the fight. I came home to New Zealand to devote four years of my life to strengthening my ties with family and friends and to developing the "New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights".
Because we all know how much New Zealanders need my passionate defense of their rights, right? Or maybe not. Sigh.
Actually I do believe that working for the better promotion and protection of human rights in my own country is an important part of my life work. There are too many people here in New Zealand who are denied access to their rights. Children live in poverty in New Zealand. Maori land rights (indigenous rights) continue to be violated. Disabled New Zealanders face daily discrimination, as do trans-gender and inter-sex New Zealanders. Refugees and migrants face racism as they try to find work and accomodation. There was work for me here, but it was hard to leave Gaza.
It was just as hard as it has been to leave Afghanistan. Maybe even harder. I was younger.
For the first few years after I left Gaza I tried to remain politically active on Palestinian rights. But the barrage of emotional attacks I sustained from people who misunderstood my passion for the lives and basic rights of Palestinians took a toll. I couldn't summon up the energy to argue with people who had already formed their firm opinions on the basis of news headlines.
I looked for ways to support my Palestinian friends and colleagues without having to have pointless and emotionally exhausting arguments with people who have never stepped a foot in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ultimately I think I have failed to find the right path for me and during my two years in Afghanistan I wrapped all my passion for Palestine up in a ball and tucked it away in the back of my mind.
I let Afghanistan consume me and comforted myself with the thought that whilst I might be failing my Palestinian friends I was doing the best I could in Afghanistan. Hey - how much can one girl do?
But coming home and letting Afghanistan's grip on my heart ease just a little has allowed room for my love for Gaza to come flooding back in and along with it this desire to find a way to do more.
So here I am again. Knowing full well that my guilt won't help anyone and that I can make a difference here, in some small way today I'll find a way to show my support for the right of people in Gaza to live in peace, security and freedom. Maybe writing this post was the first step.
The monarch butterfly emerged from her chrysalis yesterday. My apology for fuzzy focus, I was a little awe struck by her beauty and mystery
If I had to identify one key theme of my life in the past two years it would be this: it is harder to let go than to hold on, even when what we are clinging to is obviously doing us no damn good.
When I learned about Mr. B's abduction I was overwhelmed not only by fear and concern for him but also by a terrible wave of guilt. The guilt washed in like a heavy rain cloud stealing the sunny moments from my day. As I walked home from the coast along the ridge of Wellington's stunning "green belt" - surrounded on all sides by vistas of harbour, hills and native bush - I would be about to lose myself in a moment of pure bliss when a voice in my head would berate me.
"How can you be so happy when we are still suffering?"
"What about us?"
"Don't you care about us at all?"
"Have you forgotten about us?"
And beneath it all this insidious message:
"If you let yourself go fully and enjoy this moment then you will forget about us"
Quietly, quietly this week I have come to recognise that I was hanging onto the guilt for fear that if I let it go I would also let go of them. I was afraid of becoming like so many other people, so wrapped up in my own world, my own happiness and comfort (or lack thereof), that I would stop caring about them.
All the people I've met in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Palestine whose lives continue to be insecure, poor and relentlessly harsh. All the people I worked with who are still there, working through the cold, dark winter to bring a little relief, to provide a little security. All the people I have never met but whose conflict and natural disaster afflicted worlds are more real to me some days than this fantasy land we live in here in New Zealand.
I'm terrified of forgetting them. But how could I ever forget them? Seriously. It's impossible, right? But I've been so afraid of it that I've been clinging to my guilt as a kind of reminder. Every time I get too close to relaxing into joy, pleasure and fun my guilt kicks in like one of those electric shocks that scientists give to rats in aversion response research.
"Oh - look at that amazing sunrise over the south coast. Feel the sun on my skin. Feel the amazing freedom of walking: alone and safe. Revel in the pleasure of the moment. This is perfection. This is bliss."
ZAP - guilt
"Ouch. Oh, no. I was forgetting them. I was forgetting how terrible the world is for a moment. Thank goodness for guilt. This way I'll never forget."
I'm a little bit crazy like that. I guess we all are. Hanging onto guilt, fear, pain just because we are afraid of what might happen if we let it go.
Realising that I was choosing to hold onto the guilt because of this fear of forgetting, together with realising that it is impossible for me to ever forget, has helped me begin to let it go. Little by little I've been letting go of the guilt. Letting myself relax into the joyful moments. The joy of walking free and safe along the hill behind my own house. Those are the freedoms for which I would fight for any other person. So I guess I can let myself enjoy them without guilt.
PS: No confirmed news of Mr. B but thanks to HiK for her report that he may still be alive and being held. I'm holding onto that hope.
I've done plenty of crying in the past few days. But there have been moments of joy and goodness too. Here are five things that have made me smile.
1. Taking blogger Katie and her friend Sandra on a tour of my favorite cafes of Wellington on Tuesday. We started out at Deluxe for a late breakfast (above) and then after I showed them Wellington's wild south coast beaches we stopped at the Maranui Cafe in Lyall Bay for coffee and cake. Maranui Cafe is housed in the old Maranui Surf Lifesaving club building and has an amazing view over Lyall Bay beach where there is always some brave soul out surfing, wind surfing or kite surfing. I love the surf club inspired decor, the vegan cupcakes (see below) and the outlook onto the coast.
2. This vegan chocolate raspberry cupcake at Maranui. No animals were harmed in the making of this treat. How can it be anything but good?
3. Hanging out with my little friend Tom on Monday. We went to the beach, messed about in the sand and made friends at the playground. Knowing that his mum was enjoying her time alone as much as I was enjoying my time with Tom made me smile even more.
4. A monarch butterfly chrysalis sitting on my desk. It was a gift from a lovely friend who last year returned to New Zealand after surviving the bombing of Lebanon with her two little boys while her husband was working for UNFIL. She understands better than most people the emotional rollercoaster I'm riding these days and chose this thoughtful, magical gift. She assures me that the a butterfly will emerge safely even under my inexperienced care.
And last but very definitely not least...
5. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. On Saturday after I'd had a good long cry about Mr B and a quiet, introspective afternoon my fabulous ukulele-playing housemate swung in from out of town and so I put on my high heels and lipstick and headed out to see the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra play again. By golly can they cheer a girl up.
Now, stop whatever you are doing and watch this. I guarantee a smile.
After the gig Gemma had the band back to our place so I spent Saturday night sitting on my couch with a glass of red wine listening to them play and sing their way through their songbooks into the wee hours. It was therapy for the soul.
These things are making me smile.
This morning I got an email from a friend in Ghor. It hit me like a blast of raw emotion.
"Life in Ghor, I had to get DM involved in a female detainee case.... the case stinks!! The girl was engaged and ran away with another engaged policeman and they were caught in Kabul by 2 or 3 other police men... She has been in prison for at least a month. The defense lawyer is having problems getting to see her. The prosecutor went to the Governor for help with keeping "visitors" from entering the prison.... a lot of village elders and religious leaders want her dead, but denying the lawyer access to the prison..... I also have some very sad news: Mr. B was kidnapped by the Talibans on the southern ring road and the rumours are that they killed him... so human rights wise we are not too well of in Ghor at the moment."
The email goes on - describing situations in which I was until recently deeply involved and people with whom I worked for 18 months. Mr. B - in particular - was a very close colleague. We talked, met and worked together most days during my time in Ghor. I am still reeling from the shock of learning that he has been kidnapped and probably killed. I keep catching myself thinking about how scared he must have been and it just causes me so much pain that I know I have to stop.
How can it be possible to reconcile life here in Wellington, with my ukulele playing friends, with life in Ghor?
The challenge of finding a way to live in New Zealand again after being changed in profound ways by my work in Gaza, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan some days seems like an impossible ask. An impossible task.
This week Jose Ramos-Horta was shot (and seriously wounded) and then the rebel leader in Timor-Leste was killed in a clash between rebel fighters and the Prime Minister's security police following the assasination attempt. This happened the day before I met an old friend for dinner. I had helped her get a job working with Ramos-Horta four years ago when I was still involved in Timor-Leste. She went on to work with him for two years and is still in Dili working on human rights and good governance issues.
All through dinner I was aware of the impact the shooting must have had on her, and yet I was unable to stop talking about myself - about the experiences I had in Afghanistan and how I was trying to adjust to life in New Zealand. I was embarrased at how I dominated the conversation but could also see how badly I needed to talk to someone who could understand a little what I was going through.
Every day I go to the yoga studio and take my place on the mat. It is - at the moment - the only place where I really feel at peace. As I practice I am able to quiet the commentary running in my brain and simply be. Most days the teacher invites us to set our intention for the practice or to dedicate our practice. I realise this may seem strange or self-indulgent to some people but today it was comforting to me to dedicate my practice to Mr. B's family.
I'm trying to learn.
I think that I can live here again, but I haven't quite worked out how yet. I'm pretty sure that if I am patient and gentle and not too demanding the wisdom will come in its own time. I'm also pretty sure that concentrating on yoga, meditation, writing and photography is the right approach for now.
I took on a job this week. It took me onto a film set where Jame's Cameron's new movie Avatar is being filmed. I had a simple role that demanded very little of me intellectually or physically. But it involved long hours on the set. Today after reading the email from Ghor I called the production coordinator and quit.
I felt this morning as though I had betrayed the people I left behind. They respected my decision to leave because they agreed that I should spend time with my family and friends, they agreed that I should take some time to rest and they supported my plans to pursue my own creative dreams and my plan to study psychology. What would they think of me coming home to work on a film set? It was only ever a short job - 8 days. But after I read about Mr. B even 8 days suddenly felt like too much time to be spending doing anything other than what I believe in. So I'm back on track.
Deep down I believe that I can make changes in the world by deepening my own compassion, by learning how to more consistently practice loving kindness in the world and by learning the power of being fully present in every moment. But the feelings come in powerful waves - feelings of guilt, sadness and anger. I'm learning to ride the waves, not to resist them, and I'm trusting in this process.
Some beautiful things are coming together, I plan to share more about that in the coming days. For today, I'm just holding my seat. If you pray will you please pray for Mr. B (in case he is still alive) and his family. Thank you.
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra in action, Deluxe Cafe, Wellington. February 2008.
Life in Wellington is so different to life in Ghor that it seems ludicrous to continue writing about the former in a space originally created for my stories from the latter. But I know that some of you are interested (thank you) and also I know that this is just as much a part of my story.
Last week I got my camera out for the first time in weeks. It was the fabulous Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra that finally motivated me to get behind the lense and photograph something that isn't Afghanistan.
Up until then I had taken a few photos of my family and some wonderfully life affirming photos at a music festival where my friend Gemma had been playing her ukulele and singing and her boyfriend and some other playful souls had dressed up as skeletons and rode a multi-bike around town blasting salsa music.
But otherwise I have found it difficult to see the subject right in front of me. I guess was still in the process of accepting that I had moved on from the subject which I had been photographing for the past two years, the people of Afghanistan. So these photographs, of my friends and their bandmates playing joyful music on a sunny day in peaceful New Zealand, are a kind of milestone for me. They are a wee symbol of my own progress in embracing the goodness of being home and letting go of the guilt and sadness I've been feeling about leaving Ghor.
It is hard to resist the joy of 12 good people playing ukuleles and singing their hearts out. Of course I love this photo of my dear friend Gemma,
this one of beautiful Megan rocking out on her uke,
this one of the multi-talented Age Pryor,
and this one of Francis - an old friend of a dear friend of mine and another multi-talented Kiwi wonder,
I love the summery goodness of this photo of my friend Nigel - yet another of those supremely talented kiwi boys (classically trained opera singer, virtuoso player of multiple instruments, playwrite, actor, comedian)
I love all those photos. But I know that you all only came here to see this one of Bret, more famous in the USA for being half of the deliriously funny Flight of the Conchords than for his role in the Ukulele Orchestra, but a much-valued band member all the same.
In other news, I have approached a few venues here about exhibiting my photographs from Ghor and received really positive responses. I described this to my counsellor as a way for me to share a little bit of the world I knew in Afghanistan with people here in New Zealand without being required to actually talk about it. It's a way of bridging the gap for me, I suppose. More on that exhibition soon.
I'm home. I'm writing, thinking, walking. I'm having dinner with old friends and babysitting new friends. I'm refilling the well, you could say. This video makes me think of us. All of us. We'll need to rethink a few things, he says. No kidding. Like community.