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What is grief?

It is five stages. Or seven. Or I found an article that said it was twelve. I didn’t read the article.

It is a journey. No, a slinky. It’s something that time heals. Or was it healed by the plastic slinky? I think that is what the woman told me who gave me the slinky.

They do say time heals all wounds – though perhaps as much as the slinky does. Time is only time. It puts distance between you and the dreaded event. Time does not cause an arm to grow back after it has been cut off. The wound festers, or scars, depending on the care that it is given. But the arm is always gone, and no amount of seconds, minutes, hours, days, or metaphors can change that.

After the “arm” was cut off, I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe. He seemed to understand sadness, and be okay with not being cheered up. When you have lost something, you really don’t want to be told that eventually you will be happy again without it. It seems irreverent, disrespectful even, to what is no more.

At least you can fall back on grief. It’s all part of the process. The stages. The slinky. But perhaps there is something to be learned.

“The Uses Of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”

-Mary Oliver

~Pause~

The quiet passing of someone I barely knew
Yet leaves an impression upon me.
We lose so easily what we love so much,
All the while, the world carries on.

Heavy thoughts, great loss is being dealt tonight;
I ache for hearts I’ve never met
Know that grief, once felt, never lets go.
It is. It is a horrible weight.

So pause
for a moment,
and remember
to love deeply
those who matter,
because each moment
is a gift.

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A Long Breath

I admit it, I have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or for the glass to break and wake me up. It’s strange how life goes on normally. The outward wound heals and leaves the scar barely visible. But it remains. The vague idea I’ve had all my life that we were untouchable is forever gone, leaving me with my breath held and only gingerly taking steps forward. We are so very breakable.

It’s like going home, but finding you don’t live there anymore. In the night, your boxes and photos and cluttered space were moved across the street. Everything that was yours has a new place in a different spot, like it’s always been before, though you have no memory of the change. Every one accepts it. It’s normal. It’s always been the case. But your heart screams that it’s wrong. You’re living along at someone else’s address. Surely they’ll claim this as their home soon, and force you to move. For everything you give you can’t make things the same, go back to what they should. So you live with your new face, knowing it’s wrong, knowing it shouldn’t be, but knowing you’re the only one out of place in the strange new normal.

I am not an outspoken person. My journey is my own, which is why I have been so silent. This year has been. It’s been a year. It’s been a year full of regret and of grief. Pain and new things. Hope and so much sadness. Too much to speak of, though I can never find the words. For those who wonder, I am okay (though I do sometimes confuse myself on what that means). I am full of hope, though it’s a hope I’ve never had before because it is also a heavy weight. I suppose, what I’m really trying to say is, I miss my Dad a lot today. I just wanted to send that thought out into the world.

But autumn arrives, and a new season begins.

“It’s probably the change in the weather.”

That was my driver’s opinion, as he drove me home early from work, on the most likely reason I’ve been sick this week. It has been rainy and gray all day. Though it is a nice change from the hot and humid weather to which I am still not growing accustomed. I have been told the rainy season will start soon…in April…or May…or June…. I keep hearing a variety of reports. The one fact that remains constant is that it will get here at some point, and it will probably last about two months. At which point, the road by my apartment will supposedly turn into a river–or some other small, semi-impassible body of water. 

It would have been a very smart idea to have bought an umbrella the last time I was in the States. 

In the mean time, I’m trying to not lose my voice for the second time since I’ve started working at the Consulate. A rather large part of my job involves explaining the fingerprint process to visa applicants–and they already can barely understand me. Losing my voice makes the task nearly impossible; I’m not exactly a loud person as it is (I know, shocking, right?). 

This–and the excessive amount of time I’ve had sitting at home doing nothing for the last two days–has led me to spend some time considering what exactly it means to be heard. Most people don’t have a hard time with that one. If you want to be heard, just talk a little louder, make a little more commotion. However, there is a rather vast difference between being heard and being understood. Probably an obvious conclusion to come to, but still a thought that has been on my mind. For one thing, how exactly do you make yourself understood when you’re already talking as loudly as you possibly can? 

I sometimes think that before the visa applicants even arrive in front of my window at work they are already confused. Okay, I don’t just think it, I know it happens. I call out the ticket number for the next applicant to come to my window and can point out from across the room the look of bewilderment etched on the face of the person in question as he or she searches for the mysterious window number 7–seemingly all but impossible to find.  

Thus, the misunderstanding begins. Upon arrival at my window, I say something along the lines of, “Good morning. Mr Johnson?” To which I receive a vigorous, “Yes, sir!”

Clearly, I am not a “sir.” But no matter, I don’t take it offensively. 

I continue with a simple “hello,” and the automatic response seems to be “I’m fine.” Again, not exactly the response I was anticipating. But never mind. 

 I then begin the painstakingly slow process of describing what I mean when I say “the four fingers of your left hand.” No manner of gestures, miming, or rephrasing can quite get the point across. All I want to convey is that I want the ends of four digits of the left-most hand to be placed against the glowing white screen directly in front the person at my window. I don’t want ticket stubs, or job resumes, or old passports, or letters of recommendations. I don’t want the palm of the hand, or the wrist, or the back of the hand, or each finger separately in rapid fire motion. Just the left hand. LEFT. HAND.  

Each time I rephrase my request I say it a little louder, gesturing a little more emphatically in an attempt to demonstrate the process. This doesn’t help my cause in the least–I fear that all that comes across is that there’s a crazy American shouting something about hands and waving her arms around dramatically. 

You see, the main problem is not that I’m unheard, it’s that I am not understood. We are both–in theory–speaking English. It’s not the language that is separating us, it’s a difference in culture and background. There is so much about the people I see everyday that I don’t understand, and in the two minutes I spend talking to them repeating the words “left hand, your left hand!” I don’t have time to get to know them or their way of thinking any more. In the same way, they don’t understand my way of speaking, or even my accent. Although at times people are just deaf…or stubborn. But that’s a completely different matter for another post someday. (Ironically, only the little kids ever seem to notice the pictures and signs fully explaining the process).

So, I try my best to take this all as a lesson in cross-cultural communication–and patience.

(My commute home) Image

 

Acronyms

Where to begin?

I have now been working at the Consulate for five weeks and am starting to feel that I actually know something about the things happening in my section. If nothing else, I am at least starting to learn the acronyms, which is a feat in itself. If you have ever spent any time in the Department of State, or any time around anyone who works for DOS, you already know they love their acronyms. One of the first things I did upon arriving at my corner of the cubicle was to Google “State Department Foreign Service List of Acronyms.” I haven’t quite memorized the 16 page document, but I can at least say things like “I’m an MOH, not an EFM, working closely with the LES in CON, even though I’m not an FSO or even here on TDY.” with some confidence in the fact that I know what I’m talking about–just don’t ask me to tell you what the letters stand for.

As with any new job, my first few days I was extra-eager to make a good impression at work, to present myself confidently and professionally. So, with that in mind, I spent a little extra time in the morning making sure I had exactly the right outfit picked out for the day. (What can I say? I really like cute clothes…) I am slowly subscribing to the belief that a good pair of shoes can–at least at times–make all the difference in the course of a day. I came to this conclusion my fourth day at work. I was standing in the middle of the office talking to one of the officers and making a mental note on how to file a CRBA for an AMCIT in ACS (while also trying to decide what any of those meant) when I had the strange sensation that my toes were falling out the side of my heels. Sure that I was mistaken, I glanced down at my feet only to find that my toes, and nearly the whole front of my foot, were in fact starting to slide out the sides of my shoes. Whoops. I finished my conversation and carefully slid over to the nearest chair, rummaging through the vacant cubicle desk where I took refuge until I found a scotch tape dispenser. Somewhere about a third of the way through the roll I realized the entire soles of the shoes had completely disintegrated and the small roll of tape was going to be of absolutely no help in holding the pieces together. I instantly had a barrage of images run through my mind of myself walking barefoot through the U.S. Consulate General the rest of the day. That would set a great impression, I’m sure. But what do you do when your shoes break in Nigeria? You can’t exactly run by the store…

Fortunately for me though, I wasn’t doomed to roam the halls shoe-less-ly (One of the perks of having family working in the same building). I trekked through the rest of the afternoon in a good, solid pair of flip-flops–carrying my shoes around as evidence that I didn’t intend to spend the day in a pair of $2 sandals.

Unwilling to blame the heels, I am thoroughly convinced there is something in the air here that is eating away at my shoes.  (I hate to think of what is happening to my lungs in this city of 20 million people.  I’m fairly sure my neighbors across the street are currently burning plastic in their backyard).  I have now had three pair of shoes end up as casualties–though neither of the either two experiences were quite as dramatic as the one above.

But I chalk it all up to the experience of living in Lagos…you never know what to expect from one day to the next. There will always be something. Some days it’s my shoes falling apart at work, other days it’s the man having a seizure in the visa application waiting room, or the women confusing my request for the fingerprints from her “other hand” as a request for her to give me her hair, or the time I saw a horse just chilling in the middle of the road–and nobody was concerned. There’s no place quite like Lagos.

Unfortunately, Sir…

Your visa application has been denied.

Those are not words any of the applicants excitedly waiting outside the US Consulate hope to hear. No, they begin lining up sometime well before 6AM with the expectation of gaining a visa to the United States. They arrive early each morning, walk past the throng of vendors selling everything from water bottles to fake stories that are “sure” to help convince the Consular officers that they have a legitimate reason to receive a visa, and start lining up beside a pavilion. Thus starts a long process of queuing and waiting. And queuing. And waiting.

Somewhere along this process, the applicants end up standing in front of my station inside the Consular section at the Consulate.

Believe it or not, I started work last Monday! Just when I had given up thinking I would ever officially be hired, all my paper work came through. I am now a Consular Assistant and I work primarily helping collect biometric data from the applicants before they can proceed to their interview–meaning I spend a lot of time fingerprinting people every day. Though the work does not vary much from day to day, there is no end to the entertainment that presents itself. One would think the simple process of collecting fingerprints–left hand four fingers, right hand four fingers, both thumbs simultaneously–was fairly simple and easy to explain. But no. Apparently there is a great amount of confusion in the difference between the tips of the fingers and the palms of the hands. Also, it is not immediately apparent to everyone that the backside of the hand is not an ideal place from which to capture prints. Go figure.

The biometric collection device–or simply put, the fingerprint machine–is electronic and connected to a computer that runs the appropriate program on a semi-glitch free system. All the applicants have to do is place their fingers against the green glass located directly in front of them. For the life of me, I could not get one of the ladies who came through last week to understand that simply hovering her hand over the class was not sufficient. She decided she didn’t want to touch the (probably germ-infested) glass and would only let her hand come within an inch of the device. She either spoke no English, or was simply pretending that she didn’t. This, of course, is another challenge. Though English is the official language here, the difference between American and Nigerian English is so great that often things get lost in translation. Or something like that. At times I wish I could reach across the counter, take hold of the applicant’s hand, and press his or her fingers down on the screen appropriately. But, unfortunately, a rather thick window divider comes between, so all I can do is smile and say patiently, “No ma’am, not your tongue. I need to fingerprint your thumbs.”

And tomorrow is another day.

(This is where the lines start)

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The hazy sky

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