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Four Mistakes and A Blue Chair

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“I cannot give thee less, to be call’d grateful: Thou thought’st to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death to those that wish him live…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, i)

The holiday of Thanksgiving holds some pretty significant memories and anniversaries for me.  Of course the day itself conjures up remembrances of huge family get-togethers in drafty west Texas garages when I was little, and then later, taste memories of my favorite foods that my Mom would cook each year as we grew up (her dressing could seriously win awards).  But it’s actually the day before Thanksgiving as well as the day after it that now both occupy the forefront of my mind when I think of this particular holiday.

Last year at this time I wrote a post about the rainy day I moved to Austin, which was the day before Thanksgiving, five years ago now.  (Read that post here if you missed it.)  It’s hard to believe I’ve been here five whole years now already.  The past year has actually been pretty steady and consistent, which has been a welcome change after the many tumultuous years prior to that.  I’m thankful to have a job that I like, and a business that I’m enjoying building piece by piece, a nice little roof over my head, and of course a family that is both near and dear.  I’ll always remember the day before Thanksgiving as the day I moved to where my family was waiting for me.

The day after Thanksgiving holds a different kind of memory for me, and in fact, part of it holds no memory at all.  It happened in a city with a crazy name – Ouagadougou, when I was about three-quarters of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African country of Burkina Faso from 1999-2001.  Most of us had traveled from our villages into Ouaga (the capital) at the invitation of the US Ambassador, who hosted an incredible Thanksgiving feast for us at his residence.  Our eyes popped out of our heads at the multiple tables heaving with actual American Thanksgiving food, and, after months of having eaten only tiresome rice and millet porridge, we gorged ourselves silly until we were literally sick (or at least I did).

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

The next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up and made plans for the day – first on my list was to head to the main post office in the middle of the city so that I could 1) pick up my monthly living allowance stipend and 2) mail my brother an African poster I’d gotten for him at a recent local art festival.  I felt good, the weather was great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at the American Embassy rec center.  I had no idea as my taxi dropped me off at the post office that I was about to experience one of the worst and most traumatic days of my life.

I waited patiently in the crowded customer area of the post office until it was finally my turn to withdraw my money from my account there, and then stuffed the poster into a cardboard tube and covered it with stamps to mail it.  I put most of my money into a small pouch that I wore hidden under my shirt.  Then I put just a few CFA (Burkina money), enough for a taxi, into a larger purse-type bag that I wore slung around one shoulder.  This bag was worn on the outside and was visible – Mistake #1.

I exited the post office onto a very busy roundabout traffic circle and waited several minutes for a taxi to stop at my signal, but none would.  I was trying to get to the Embassy, which was about a mile away from the post office.  It was 12:00 noon at this time & I was looking forward to a milkshake and maybe some pizza from the Rec Center cafe.  After several more minutes I got impatient of waiting for a taxi and decided to just walk to the Embassy – Mistake #2.  And, I was alone – Mistake #3.

The walk to the Embassy was almost a straight shot – mostly down a long, very busy boulevard, then turn left onto a side street, cross a bridge over a large and deep ravine, then take a right for about a block, and then another left, at which point you’d be there.  I’d walked it before with other Volunteers, so it was a familiar route.  It was broad daylight.  I’d been in the country for about a year and a half by this time, so I felt confident and reassured of doing things on my own.  I was an independent woman.

And then I wasn’t.

I’d just taken that first left turn and noticed several vendor stalls set back from the street on my left, merchants selling their wares.  I saw the bridge just ahead of me, with silver railings on each side and a narrow dirt walkway bordering the pavement.  It happened extremely fast.  I heard him before I saw him – running footsteps on the gravely dirt behind me and his rapid breathing, and then confusion and shock as he grabbed my bag that was slung around my shoulder and across my chest.  He jerked downwards, thinking it would just come off, but it didn’t – it had a thick strap, and I instinctively grabbed onto the bag and fought for it – Mistake #4.

He was Burkinabe, but other than that I don’t know what he looked like.  I do remember screaming – in English, not French, I guess I was too panicked – at the top of my lungs toward the nearby vendor stalls “help me help me help me help me!”  And then, everything just went black.  The next several minutes have been – I hope permanently – wiped from my memory.

I woke up at the bottom of the deep ravine under the bridge.  It was a sewage ditch with running water and raw waste that ran through the city, and I estimate that it was about a 16-foot fall.  I was lying on my back and face up in mud and water and waste and weeds, and the first thing I saw was my attacker’s face as he stood over me.  I would be told later from bystander witnesses that once the thief saw I wouldn’t give up my bag, he pushed me over the side of the ditch that was just before the protective railing, and then he ran to the opposite bank and sidestepped his way down to the bottom of the ravine where I was.  As I lay there stunned, he pulled my bag over my head, or maybe he cut it off, I don’t really remember, but I do remember turning my head to watch him then run with it down a huge round metal tunnel.  I remember several other men were yelling at him and had also jumped down into the ditch and ran after him to try to catch him.  They wouldn’t.

I tried to sit up, and fire ripped through my shoulder.  I remember being very worried for some reason about trying to find my flip-flops, which had fallen off.  I looked up toward the sky, I heard yelling – the vendors had rushed over to the side and were yelling at me to hurry up and climb up the dirt bank.  Their arms were outreached toward me, waving encouragement.  I was able to stand up, but when I tried to lift my left arm to reach toward them, I almost fainted from the pain and stumbled backwards.  I used my right arm and hand to grab handfuls of dirt to climb up the side of the ditch.  I finally was able to grab the hand of a man who pulled me the rest of the way up.  I yelled at him to not touch my other arm.

I asked my helpers to get a taxi to take me to the Embassy.  They frantically flagged one down and told the driver what had happened – he stared at me through the window, and what a sight I must have been.  He drove me the two minutes around the corner and I apologized profusely that I couldn’t pay him…”my money was just stolen, I’m so sorry”…I’d forgotten I had my other bag under my clothing.  He waved me out of the taxi and I stumbled up to the armed guard at the gate – I told him simply “I’ve been attacked, I’ve been attacked, please help me.”  It couldn’t have been later than 12:30 PM by this time – and everyone in the Peace Corps office was out to lunch.

The guard half-carried me inside and the only other person there was a cleaning lady, she was pushing a yellow mop bucket around.  He barked something at her and she ran to meet me with a rolling desk chair.  They eased me down into the chair and while they started making frantic phone calls to try to get the medical team back to the office, I sat there on that blue chair, waiting, shivering from shock, crying.  I remember that I slowly realized I was having trouble breathing – I was taking deep gasping breaths in, but feeling like I was suffocating.  I croaked to the mop bucket lady that I couldn’t breathe, please help me.  Hang on, hang on, she said, they’re on their way, just hang on a little longer.  She asked me if I wanted something to drink; I shook my head no.

The Peace Corps medical officer (MO) would tell me later that when she got word at the restaurant what had happened, that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been attacked and was seriously injured, she literally leapt up from the table and drove back to the Embassy faster than she’d ever driven in the city before.  I was still sitting in that blue chair when she and her assistant burst through the door and into action, asking me questions and taking my vitals and making more urgent phone calls.

I told her I couldn’t breathe, but the pulse oximeter they had on me showed I was getting adequate oxygen.  Eventually she told me she needed me to get up from the chair and into the exam room.  I tried, but I couldn’t get up – I cried out in pain as every muscle and ligament in my back felt like they had been ripped apart (they had).  I couldn’t stand up; she lifted me out of the chair, apologizing for the pain it was causing me, and they shuffled me to the exam room and up onto a table/bed.  It was only at this point that I noticed I was trailing blood from a mangled big toe. It didn’t even hurt, which I thought was weird.  (Adrenaline is an amazing thing.)

The MO told me an ambulance was on the way so they could take me to the hospital for x-rays; while we waited, she started cleaning up my toe and other skin abrasions that I didn’t even know I had.  She took the hair clip out of my hair and brushed it, smoothing it down…a very kind gesture that I only appreciated much later.  (She would tell me later that before she did that, I looked like one of those pencil troll dolls whose hair sticks straight up.)  I remember Ambassador Kolker came to see me while I was in that room waiting, he’d been informed of what happened and he rushed over to see if I was ok – and to tell me they’d do whatever they could to catch and prosecute my attacker.  I think I cried on his suit jacket when he gave me a hug.

Getting into that ambulance was probably the most physically painful experience of my life – every step was excruciating, and then having to climb up into the back of it and into a chair seat…I was sobbing out in pain and I didn’t even care who saw me or heard me.  A few minutes later we arrived at the back door of the x-ray facility, and then more pain as I was manipulated into unending different x-ray positions.  We were pretty sure at that point that my collar-bone was broken, and I know the MO was also worried about my back and my ankle (I had a pretty bad limp by this point).

The damage tally once it was all determined:  a shattered left clavicle (collar-bone), two broken ribs, a fractured ankle bone, a chipped tooth, the previously-mentioned mangled toe, and severe muscle and ligament damage in my back (which is what had been causing the labored breathing).  The ambulance brought me back to the Embassy, and a few hours later I was then transported to a private French medical clinic for three days of initial treatment.  The MO needed to consult with Peace Corps medical headquarters in Washington, show them the x-rays, etc…and they eventually decided to fly me back to Washington DC for surgery on my shoulder.

But I was to remain in Burkina for five days before my flight out.  Those three days in the clinic are a haze; I remember several Volunteers coming to visit me…one of them, Cristina (a certified RN and an angel), even helped me to use a bedpan on that first day because I couldn’t get out of the bed due to my back injuries – talk about going above and beyond.  I was so grateful for her help and her professionalism.  I remember the French nurses being mean and unfeeling the next day, telling me that if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I needed to get myself up and down to the bathroom without their help; I cried as I slowly inched my way out of the bed and wheeled my IV stand down the hall.  My Burkinabe colleagues came all the way from the village to visit me on my third day there, after I’d made an emotional phone call to them the day before to tell them what had happened.  They held back tears and clasped my hands, these people who had adopted me into their families and village, as we said goodbye – we all knew it might be the last time we ever saw each other if I wasn’t able to recuperate fully enough to come back and finish the last seven months of my service.

On the third day, I was discharged to spend my last night at the Peace Corps house and pack my things for my medical evacuation back to America.  On the ride from the clinic, the MO agreed to stop the van at the site of the incident – I gingerly climbed out of the van and walked over to where I’d gone over the edge.  The police had put up orange barrier tape after the incident report had been filed.  The van driver held my arm as I peered over the tape down into the ditch below; it took my breath away how far down it was.  The MO gazed down as well and then turned to me with a shocked look – she was thinking the same thing as me: I was lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured.  It was the closest thing to a miracle that I personally have ever been a part of.  The vendors from the street side stalls slowly approached us as we stood there – they recognized me and offered their well wishes.  One of them apologized, saying he wished he could’ve done more.  Another said that if the thief was seen again and caught, he’d likely be killed by those chasing him down. 

(They never did catch him, but they did find my bag later that day, emptied of its contents and discarded outside one of the well-known expensive French ex-pat hotels; he’d left my Peace Corps ID as the only remaining item inside.)

I was so grateful that Peace Corps approved and paid for Cristina to accompany me back on the flight, since I couldn’t carry my own bags and was still pretty doped up on pain meds.  The day before I left, I finally called my family from the MO office to let them know that I’d been hurt and was heading back to the States for treatment.  It’s a bit mind-boggling to me now that I waited that long to call them, and when I did, I didn’t tell them what had really happened; instead, I told them I’d been injured in a bike accident.  It’s a long story, but I legitimately feared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t let me (a grown 30-year-old woman) go back, and I wanted to go back if at all possible.  I told them the truth years later of what really happened as part of my ongoing therapy to deal with the PTSD issues.

Cristina and I started the long trek home, flying through Paris (in business class no less, so I would have more room for my injured shoulder) and arriving in a freezing cold and snowy DC on the evening of November 29th.  I remember the customs officer who searched our bags laughing at us in our tank tops and flip-flops, no coats, completely unprepared for the subfreezing weather – he correctly guessed we were Peace Corps Volunteers. We were then shuttled to the Peace Corps hotel where all the medical evacs stay – a surreal place of walking wounded, both physical and psychological.  We were thrilled to raid the Peace Corps headquarters travel closet to borrow appropriate winter gear the next day.

The next morning I made my way to the orthopedic surgeon’s office (who by the way was Wayne Gretsky’s surgeon also, he had several signed jerseys on his walls) for an evaluation; he took more x-rays and immediately bumped me to first on the surgery schedule for the following morning at George Washington hospital.  Up until then, my shoulder had just been taped to try to stabilize the bones and injury, but as you can imagine it was very uncomfortable.  On the morning of December 1 – one week after it happened – he opened up my shoulder and put back together the multiple pieces of my clavicle, wrapping them all up neatly with a stainless steel bow that I carry in there to this day (along with its 6-inch scar).  I spent one night in the hospital and was discharged the next day back to Hotel Sickie.  I had a bad reaction to the pain meds and that’s when I broke down and called my Dad to come help me – which he did, arriving that night in heroic Dad fashion to help nurse me back to health.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

When you’re medically evacuated in Peace Corps, you’re usually allowed a total of five weeks for treatment and recuperation.  If you’re not healed by that time and cleared for service, you don’t go back to country and your service is terminated.  I was determined not to let that happen; I wanted to get back to Burkina.  I did all of my exercises and followed doctor’s instructions exactly (and got plenty of physical activity exploring snowy Washington every day for several weeks), and on the very last day of those five weeks, I met my doctor in his office and stared him in the eyes to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was ready.  He stared back at me for a long time, finally looking down to sign the clearance forms on his desk.  A few days later I was back on a plane to Africa; my arm was in a sling and my startle reflex was on high alert, but I was back.  I finished my service, and it made me a stronger person to face what had happened and try to overcome it.

So…that’s my day-after-Thanksgiving story.  I’ve second-guessed myself hundreds of times around the whole thing: if only I’d stayed in my village and not traveled into Ouaga for the holiday; if only I’d been more patient to wait for a taxi at the post office; if only I’d been smarter and not worn my bag where it was visible; if only I’d not been by myself.  I know what happened wasn’t my fault, but I am also not blameless.  I also know how lucky I am that I did not die that day – I could have landed on my neck, or broken my back, or hit my head.  I don’t remember anything at all of the fall itself, and when I explored this issue during subsequent therapy, I was told I probably never will; certain brain chemistry happens during such a trauma in order to help the body physically survive, but in the process wipes out memory aspects.  And that’s ok by me.  And despite what happened, I also don’t regret my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – the good memories outweigh the bad, and in my book, that’s a success.

Just typing the account of this story, I was shaking all over again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever put it all down on paper.  I hardly ever think about that day now, 14 years later – except around this time of the year.  I may not remember the fall, but the vivid clarity with which I can remember everything else that followed that day is astounding to me.  I think that blue rolling office chair sticks in my mind more than anything else – for a time, I really believed I was going to die in that chair.  I was fixated on hanging onto the sides of it, as if I were literally hanging on for dear life.  As I waited there, alone, gasping for breath for what seemed like forever, I focused on the color of the chair, the threads in the cushion, the height of it that left my toes grazing the floor.  That chair is a part of me forever now.  I’m grateful for it, as I’m so very grateful for everyone that day that helped me in all those different ways – the man who pulled me out of the ditch, the taxi driver who got me to the Embassy, the guard that helped me inside, the medical team that took care of me, the friends and family who helped me through the aftermath.  And the mop bucket lady who gave me a chair to sit in. 

I have a lot to be thankful for every Thanksgiving when I think of them.  Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I do, I thank you.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Memories Light the Corners of My Mud Brick Hut

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“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, IV, iii)

Bowel habits, big bugs, and blistering heat…tales of long bus trips and cracked, dirty feet.  These are just a few of the favorite things that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers love to talk about.  Spend any real time around one and eventually the conversation will take a turn down a foreign road beginning with “This one time when I was in Peace Corps…”  Get a bunch of returned volunteers together in one room and the most commonly-heard story starter is “In my country…” (talking of the country where we served).

In order to save our friends and family members from that perpetual glassy-eyed haze that comes from listening to yet one more excerpt of Peace Corps nostalgia, we have our own memory outlet in the form of a weekly Twitter online chat group, called #RPCVchat.  It’s a one-hour discussion that’s been hosted by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) in Washington DC since June 2011, and it’s open to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and currently-serving PCVs around the world.  For a short time most Fridays, we tune in from states and countries near and far to remember, honor, laugh, commiserate, brainstorm, theorize and advocate.  A big thank you to NPCA for tirelessly hosting this weekly chat session for almost 3 years now already!

I’ve been participating in the chats on a pretty regular basis for over two years now, and I really look forward to these sessions each time they’re held.  Even though the actual “chat” is not verbal at all, but rather silent on my part as I read and respond from my computer or phone, I still feel part of a welcoming community of like-minded people, and that’s comforting.  Recently some of the topics of our more popular chats have been:

  • Peace Corps & Technology (so much to discuss it had to be a two-parter!)
  • Valentine’s Day Edition: Love & Romance in the Peace Corps
  • The Peace Corps Commemorative Act (three words: bronzed flip-flops)
  • Gift-Giving & Holiday Traditions during Peace Corps
  • Leadership & the Peace Corps
  • Day of the Girl & Gender Roles in the Peace Corps
  • Favorite Foods while in the Peace Corps
  • Toilets & Bathrooms in Peace Corps (brought about by “poopular” demand in honor of World Toilet Day back in November)

The most recent #RPCVchat focused on the issue of happiness during our service (as it did fall on International Day of Happiness).  (There truly is a “day” for every little thing now on the calendar, but why only one lonely day for happiness I wonder?  Shouldn’t it warrant a month, or a quarter at least?)  This being a blog dedicated to the idea and pursuit of being UNunhappy, I felt it warranted not only a mention but a brief expounding as well.

Our moderator started things off by asking “what was your happiest day in the Peace Corps, and what made it so happy?”  This is actually a pretty difficult question and made me really think.  I get this inquiry quite a lot actually although sometimes it comes in the form of “what was the best part of your whole Peace Corps service?”  (I get the opposite question just as much, asking me what the worst part was…which is even more difficult to answer diplomatically!)

Just like life here in America, life during Peace Corps in a foreign country has its ups and downs and my experience was no different.  I did have plenty of not-so-great days, whether it was because of personal or personnel issues where I lived and worked, or consistent gastrointestinal woes brought about by my puny resistance to street food pathogens.  I can’t ever forget the serious injuries I sustained during a security incident and the resulting long recovery road (both physical and mental).  But things were far from all bad; once I started thinking about all the good days during my service, the days that I remember as being truly happy and satisfying, it was easy to come up with many examples:

  • International Women’s Day during my second year, when we held the first-ever all-girls soccer match in front of the entire village, chief elders included.  It wasn’t even related to my primary job assignment, but this secondary project of pulling together girls’ soccer teams and helping to organize the match is one of my proudest accomplishments of my service.
  • The day I figured out I could use my rudimentary Dutch oven to bake an actual chocolate cake – which I then shared with neighbors who had never tasted such a thing, which made it all the sweeter.  This was only possible when I could find eggs, which for some reason was next to impossible where I lived.  Also related: when I could obtain fresh baguette bread, which wasn’t very often in my village, I would toast it in my Dutch oven and slather it with local fresh peanut butter for the perfect breakfast.  This would set my happiness quotient at a very high bar for the rest of the day.
  • Any day during mango season – I fondly remember many, many days when I would eat nothing but mangoes and freshly-roasted peanuts for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner.  The mangoes and peanuts were that good, that I never got tired of them.
  • About halfway through my service, our tiny two-room health clinic obtained a generator-powered refrigerator to be able to keep vaccines in cold storage.  But my clinic colleagues and I also would take the liberty from time to time of using any extra room and shelf space to store liquid libations that were MUCH better cold: for me, that usually meant either Kool-Aid or Gatorade…for my colleagues, it meant bottles of beer, Coke and Fanta.  Days with ice-cold Kool-Aid = extreme happiness for a Peace Corps Volunteer used to drinking only warm and hot water for months on end in a village with no electricity and equator-sizzling temps.
  • Days I received mail, and especially care packages, were always very happy ones for me.  The care packages usually contained chocolatey Clif Bars and other treats, which I hoarded and rationed out over weeks to make the happiness last as long as possible.  The words on the paper bringing news from home of family, friends, and my dog were just as treasured.
  • I remember being very happy to be included in the tea-making ritual that would take place amongst friends and coworkers in my village almost every afternoon.  It’s an elaborate, social activity culminating in teeny tiny portions of brewed tea in small shot glasses that pack a powerful caffeine punch despite their size.  The tea was good (especially with those roasted peanuts), but it was the social aspect of the discussion and friendship that was the happiest part of it for me.  A fellow Burkina PCV wrote an excellent blog post in 2013 about making tea in Burkina, which you can read here.
  • Straying from the food & drink theme (which if you haven’t figured out by now are forefront interests for all PCVs!), I also remember being extremely happy on the day I rode my bike to a neighboring village to pick out and adopt the (almost) cutest tiny little African puppy you’ve ever seen (second only to a little Foxy red poodle I once knew).  I strapped him into a cardboard box onto the back of my bike and all the way back along the red dirt road to my mud-brick hut, he kept poking his little head out to see what was going on.  Little Mulder quickly became Very Big Mulder as he was the best-fed dog in the village, and a very important part of my Peace Corps life.
  • Lying in my hammock in my courtyard during the cool rainy season while listening to BBC on my shortwave radio – those simplistic little experiences make for long-lasting happy memories.
hammock time

Hammock Time

puppymulder

Puppy Mulder

I’ve been looking through some of my letters I wrote to family & friends during Peace Corps, and thought I’d note here a few other examples of times I mentioned being or feeling happy:

  • “Health is good today except for alligator-dry skin; but the tradeoff is no acne so I’m pretty darn happy about that.”
  • “I feel part of something bigger & better than I have in a long time; I’m sure a lot of it is the elation of the day and the facts that I went swimming after the ceremony and found actual sour cream & onion potato chips to eat (!) – but nevertheless I feel sound at heart tonight and proud of myself.”  (Written on the day we were sworn in as PCVs at the Embassy after 3 months of training.)
  • “Today someone complimented me on my French…so that made me feel pretty good. I love the reactions I’m getting from the local women when I say hello to them in Djoula [their local native language] – they go from frowns to all grins and giggles. They say to each other ‘She understands Djoula!’ Which I don’t very well, but what they don’t know…”

I don’t want to sugar-coat my time in Burkina Faso: life there, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is hard.  Very hard.  (I loved and laughed at a fellow RPCV’s tweet the other day that said “Every time someone asks me what the Peace Corps was really like I think, ‘You can’t handle the truth!‘”)  Quite honestly, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of as a Peace Corps Volunteer having served there is simply that I survived and actually finished my two-year term.  Some members of my family didn’t think I would stay or finish because of the rough conditions…and there were times I almost didn’t.  But I’m glad and proud that I stuck it out, finished my projects, and hopefully made a positive impact in some way.  And I like remembering the positive and happy times like the ones mentioned above.  It doesn’t negate or erase the challenging times, but it feels good to think of what was good about my time there.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers share an unspoken bond, knowing that we’ve challenged ourselves to extreme limits by going to the far corners of the world in hopes of helping others, promoting world peace and friendship, and discovering more about our own selves in the process.  Through forums like #RPCVchat and involvement in our local returned volunteers associations where we live, we are free to tell as many latrine, bus and village stories as we want without fear of judgement or drowsiness.  It’s a nice group to be a part of.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Le Bel Age of 43

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Last week I attended a social function for the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group I belong to here in Austin.  There was a good showing of about 20 or so, people of all ages and backgrounds and ethnicities who have served in countries all over the world.  Some of them had literally just returned home from their service a few weeks earlier (with glazed eyes and reverse culture shock); some, like me, had been back for many years.  At one point, I sat down at a table next to another young woman and three young men to chat with them, and learned it was the young woman’s birthday.  After a few minutes, the man directly across the table from her asked her “so, how old are you today?”

You would think that the old-fashioned adage which dictates men should never ask a woman her age had gone the way of the eight-track tape long ago in this age of straightforwardness, but even this young millennial looked at the guy asking her this with more than a little surprise on her face.  She acquiesced though with a flirty laugh and said “Ok I’ll tell you guys how old I am, but it means everyone here also has to say how old they are.  I’m 28 today.”  

Now at this point I began to get a little uncomfortable.  I could tell that all four of them were significantly younger than me.  Was I really going to have to tell them my age?  I pictured the shocked looks that would appear on their faces and perhaps even receiving sad but comforting pats on my ancient hand as I revealed a number that surely their youthful group would consider prehistoric.

One of the guys across the table then said “Oh god, 28…it’s been the worst year of my life so far, I’m 28 too right now.”  And then his friend sitting next to him nodded knowingly in miserable affirmation and said he was 28 too.  Finally the third guy broke the curse and said he was…wait for it…29.  I think they all started talking about this horrible, miserable time in their lives but honestly I didn’t hear any of that…I was too busy thinking of what I was going to say in the next few seconds when it was my turn to answer.

And then suddenly I thought of a clever quip, a way out of having to tell them my age at all but at the same time acknowledging my um, advanced wisdom (yeah that’s it) in a humorous and self-deprecating kind of way.  “What a coincidence, I was 28 when I left to join the Peace Corps!” was on the tip of my tongue as I waited for it to be my turn to complete the round.

Except that moment never arrived.  Which was confusing, because it was my turn, with the briefest of pauses in the conversation, and I think a few eyes even glanced my way for a fleeting moment in fearful apprehension…but then the subject was changed and I was passed over.  Literally.  The subject turned to something else entirely.  I really don’t think they meant anything malicious or mean by it, and I guess I should have been grateful for the reprieve, but the feeling I actually got from the rest of the group was “don’t worry, we know you’re obviously way older than us, so no need to even answer the question.”

But should I have been grateful?  The more I thought about it, the more it gnawed at me.  I’ve never shied away from telling someone my age in the past, so why had I been intimidated at that moment?  Why shouldn’t I have felt at ease with telling them my age, and why shouldn’t they have felt at ease hearing it?  Why did I feel dismissed when I didn’t get the chance to answer the question?

I’m really not sure.  Maybe it was the way the rest of them were talking and laughing and flirting in their loosely-choreographed dance of young life, and I felt somehow excluded from that even though I was right next to them.  It was maybe the first time I’ve actually and tangibly felt what it’s like to be stranded by the proverbial generation gap – but from the older side this time, the one that’s just slightly over the other side of the hill. 

What I wish I’d had the chance to say, now that I’ve thought about it, is this:  I’m 43 years old – which doesn’t make me ancient, it just makes me experienced, and that’s a good thing.  Yes I like Pat Benatar,  Journey and The Go-Go’s, so sue me (I took their cassettes with me all the way to Africa by the way).  No we didn’t have cell phones and laptops and tablets when I did Peace Corps – we were truly unplugged before that was even a catchword, and were lucky to have one (landline) 10-minute phone call every 3 weeks with our families, which cost them a small fortune.  There was no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat…there were only long-awaited letters in plain white envelopes with red and blue borders, and they were our addiction.  When it got dark at night, we didn’t log on, we lit up – our lanterns, that is, so that we could read dog-eared paperbacks by lamp light and listen to BBC on the radio.

It’s been 15 years already since I left to join Peace Corps, so 28 was actually a very memorable and good year for me, because as I mentioned above, that’s how old I was when I left to go serve.  I’m glad I waited until I’d finished grad school and was older to serve – for me personally, it was just the right time in my life to go.  And I’m not sure why the 28th year now apparently has such a bad reputation amongst those presently living it, but all I can say to them is just wait until you’re 43, or 53, or 63, and you’ll appreciate 28 much more than you do now.   Just let it be good.  (Does that make me sound like a crotchety old woman?)

Actually years 28 and 43 have been amazingly similar in my life.  They were both years in which I made huge life-changing decisions and took leaps of faith to start new ventures.  Both were years in which I made (or will make) voyages to the other side of the globe to pursue adventure and change.  Both were years in which I contemplated new directions and committed myself to self-study on things important to me.  Both have been categorized by determination and resiliency.  Now that I think of it, the ages of 28 and 43 have been two of, if not the most, important years of my life so far.

So maybe those youngsters at that table did me a favor after all…they’ve helped me remember and reflect on times that were pivotal in my life.  I’m grateful for that.  Maybe as a thank you I should take them to a Pat Benatar concert.  Or at least give them one of her cassette tapes…

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À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Life Letters to My Nephews #3: Perseverance

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“I am able to endure much.” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI Part II, iv, ii)

Dear Nephews,

This letter is about a big word with a big meaning: perseverance.  It’s also a bit difficult to spell, but take the time to learn it – not just because it may pop up in a spelling bee one day, but because it’s a good character trait to have that will help you out in life as you get older.

Persevere

You see, perseverance means that you don’t give up, even when something is difficult or tough.  Perseverance is hard; it doesn’t always feel good at the time, but can often to lead to great things.  However, you have to be the one to decide when to persevere through hard times or through a challenging situation.  No one else can make up your mind for you, because you are your own person and you have your own thoughts and dreams and wishes.  Which means you get to make your own decisions (well, maybe not right now, but you will when you get older!).

When you are faced with hard times, or a tough job, or a situation that you don’t like or enjoy, you’re probably going to have a few different options.  One of those options will be to choose do something else instead.  And sometimes, that may very well be the best option, depending on the circumstances.  Another option however will be to endure the challenge and persevere through the difficulty – this too is sometimes the best option.  How could this be?  Why would you choose to do something that’s hard or not pleasant or doesn’t make you feel good?

choices

Well sometimes boys, you have to go through something bad to get to something good.   You’ll probably hear many people say as you get older that “nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.”  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do think it is true that you usually have to work hard and make some sacrifices to get what you want and where you want to be in this life.  And hard work is not usually very fun, but it is honest and earnest and a sign of good character.

But try to keep things in perspective while you’re persevering – don’t lose sight of what’s really important, and keep in mind the end goal of why you’re really doing something.  Seek advice of those who are important to you and listen to what they have to say.  Weigh the positives and negatives of what you’re doing and then make up your mind of whether or not to keep going down that same path, or to take a different road.  If the sacrifices become too great or start to cause harm, you might need to change course, and that’s ok sometimes.

Just yesterday I observed one of you get very frustrated that you couldn’t find a toy you were looking for; you were upset and angry and after only a few minutes, declared “Forget it, we’re never going to find it, it’s just gone and it’s no use searching.  Just never mind.”  It is pretty easy to give up sometimes, but you don’t usually get what you want.  And it doesn’t usually make you feel any better; in fact, most of the time you’ll feel worse when you give up on something important to you.  (And look at how nice it felt when your grandmother persevered and found your toy a few minutes later – she didn’t give up!)

I’ve been in a few pretty difficult situations in my life; sometimes I persevered, and sometimes I chose that other road.  When I lived in Africa during my time with Peace Corps, I thought about quitting from time to time; it was indescribably hot every minute of every day, the work was slow and frustrating, and the flies just about drove me out of my mind.  But those were just the bad parts – there were many good parts too, and in the end, I’m so glad I stayed and stuck it out.  I’m proud of my service there and I feel that I gained as much (if not more) than I gave.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that perseverance is about choice, and you’ll often be faced with what choices to make when you come face to face with things that are overwhelming, or challenging, or just plain hard.  I believe each of you to be strong and creative and capable – capable of doing great things in your lives and becoming amazing examples of character and originality.

And if you ever need help persevering through those tough times, I’m here for you.  Always.

dont-just-fly-soar

Love,

Ant Kristi

ant-with-flower

Falling Up For A Change

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“Be cheerful, wipe thine eyes – some falls are means the happier to arise.” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, IV ii)

You know how you feel sometimes when everything seems to be going TOO right – like it’s all a little too perfect, which then leads to a weird backfire process of thinking that something really bad’s about to happen?  Well that’s where I am right now.  I guess I was so used to feeling stress and negativity that it’s tough for me to feel “right” and accepting when positive things do happen.  It’s now making me nervous when things line up too perfectly, since I’m on a self-proclaimed mission to “de-perfectionize.”

I’m almost three weeks into my eight-week floral design internship and feel that I’m settling into the routine.  I hear we’re about to get crazy busy with the fall wedding season and as of (literally) a few hours ago, I’ve now been introduced to the “late night cleanup” segment of the business – when we go back after the reception is over to take down all the flowers, usually between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM.  Yes, it’s everyone’s least-favorite part of the industry but a necessary evil I guess (I’m told the floral designers are usually some of the first vendors to arrive at a wedding set-up and usually the last ones to leave).

Despite my dream-big mentality recently, I’ve always felt that I’m a realist at heart.  And one reality right now is that I needed to find additional work to help pay the real life bills.  A few posts ago, I discussed how I was willing to accept other non-floral employment to meet my responsibilities – BUT, I also made a focused decision as part of my UNunhappy journey that I still wanted to that job to have meaning and significance to me if at all possible. 

So I couldn’t believe it when I found out back in July that the local university Peace Corps recruiter position was opening up.  I served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1999-2001 in the remote and landlocked developing country of Burkina Faso in west Africa (some of you may remember when it used to be called Upper Volta before the country changed names in 1984).  I’m not sure I can encapsulate in just a few words a summary of my Peace Corps experience, but if I had to, I guess I’d choose: life-changing, perseverance, challenging, connections, change, strength, mangoes, peanuts, and growth.  Oh and HOT.  Very, very, always, inescapably, hot.

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This recruiting job would not just be a job; it would be a chance for me to guide and help others to find out if Peace Corps is the right choice for them.  It would be a chance for me to share my real-life experience and be back in a university atmosphere, where the undercurrents of possibilities and choices and learning all contribute to an attractive work setting.  It would mean the chance to meet lots of great new people and be part of something positive.

It was a part-time position, which was actually preferable for me so that I would still have time to pursue my floral design interests.  But being interested in a University of Texas job and getting hired for one are two completely different things; the hiring process is extremely competitive, even for part-time positions.  I’d actually applied for twenty UT jobs in the past four years, starting before I even moved to Austin; this was my 21st application.

I’ve never put more thought and honest introspection into a cover letter than I did for this one, and I was ready the moment the job was posted online.  I think I may quite possibly have been the first one to apply.  It also probably didn’t hurt that I’d interviewed for another job a few weeks earlier in the same International Office that was to house this one, and some of the staff was already familiar with me as a result. 

(By the way, I was so sure that I’d gotten that earlier UT job that I turned down another outside also-very-good job offer, but then didn’t get the job – read about the “oh crap” reaction here from a past post.  What’s that saying about things happening for a reason?)

I’ve always considered 13 to be my lucky number (!), but maybe now I should change it to 21…because I got the recruiter job!  After the interview, I wasn’t sure they’d want to hire someone who had been returned from their Peace Corps service for (gasp) twelve whole years now, but chalk one up for the “mature” voice-of-experience I guess.  And in a crazy coincidence, the previous campus recruiter also served in Burkina Faso – a country that most people in the world have never heard of, and yet now two of us in a row are serving in this role!

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Now I know there are a few people out there who know me, and who know what happened to me during and after my time in Burkina, who may be a little surprised that I wanted to do this job.  You see, I suffered a few falls through my involvement in Peace Corps: physical falls that resulted in severe injuries, and emotional falls that led to wounds of another kind.  The recovery process from both has been long and has left me with lasting scars both inside and out (not to mention some nice metal hardware that’s now literally fused into my bones).

But I think that maybe this new job is part of my continual healing process from the falls of the past.  Sometimes I feel like I’m still crawling my way up and out of the ditches of days gone by.  We all wish we could go back and change some decisions in our past, but once again the words of Shakespeare fit perfectly when I think of how my past has affected where I am right now:  “Some falls are means the happier to arise.” 

Most Peace Corps volunteers will tell you that it lives up to its historical slogan; the difficulty of surviving the service term justifies our pride and knowing smiles when we start to tell our stories.  I’ll never forget the tough times, and I know I’ll carry the consequences of some of my decisions for the rest of my days; but I want to also remember and focus on the positive parts of my Peace Corps experience.  Selective memory?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just a survival strategy which I hope will also help me to be a good advisor to the next generation of future possible volunteers.  I look at this job as a chance to give back. 

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Me during my water-pumping Peace Corps days.

So – I’m feeling kind of overwhelmed at the moment, but in a good way.  I almost feel that I’m falling UP instead of down – complete with the lurching butterfly feeling in the stomach, but without the resulting scraped skin. 

And fittingly, today, Labor Day, is the last work-free day I’ll have for a while.  Starting tomorrow, I’ll continue with my internship 5 days a week, and work at the new UT recruiter job on my two days off plus another afternoon.  It looks like I won’t have a day off for the next six weeks.  But it’s a good problem to have, I keep telling myself.  And six weeks goes by in the blink of an eye, right?  Once the internship is over, I’ll re-group on the flower front and hopefully line up some other part-time work with other designers in town to continue to gain experience.

It’s important to me to try and allow time and space in my life for my varied interests, be they floral design or Peace Corps, Shakespeare or cycling, family and friends.  If my life were represented in a Pinterest or mood board right now, I realize that it would appear pretty eclectic – but eclectic is good.  I’m still scared and unsure of what the next months will bring…and, I may even fall down again instead of up…but it’s ok, because I just discovered FLOWER POWER BAND AIDS!  

And all is right with the world…

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Start and Re-Start

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“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, III, i)

This is a time of starts and re-starts in my life, which is great! Next week I start a new internship with a high-end floral design studio that specializes mostly in weddings. I applied a few weeks ago and found out recently that I’m one of two interns they chose for their program. For two months, I’ll be learning the ins and outs of what it takes to design intricate floral creations for elaborate events and I can’t wait! It’s going to be hard work – this company does a lot of building and installation of many of the surrounding elements of design, such as lighting, sets, art treatments, and signage, so that means a lot of manual labor, but I’m good with that (she says now, naively). It will mean late nights as we set up and then take down the creations at the wedding and event sites, but it’s all part of a new learning experience for me and I welcome it.

I’m really looking forward to observing and learning how the floral designs come to life – from the time the flowers arrive at the studio, through the processing and handling stages to make sure they last as long as possible, and then into the actual creation of the floral pieces themselves. Bouquets, centerpieces, art pieces, headdresses, arches, urns, bowls, jars, runways…the list of possibilities goes on and on.

Beautiful "Message" & "Ilios" roses

Beautiful “Message” & “Ilios” roses

I’ve never been an intern; as long as I can remember, I just always jumped right into the jobs I was hired for. And when I moved to Austin and started my first job here, I actually supervised several different college interns over a few semesters. I created their schedules, assigned their workloads, supervised their projects – and found it very enjoyable. There was something about helping them learn and explore their interests, and guiding them without fully directing them, that I found very fulfilling. And now I’m on the other side of that coin! I’ll be the wide-eyed intern, learning and exploring and being guided. Funny how things really do go around that big circle sometimes.

On the re-start front and a completely different subject, I kicked myself in the pants (with a little help from my friend Sheila, thank you!) and finally got back on my bike. The poor neglected creature had sat abandoned and forlorn in the garage for the past many (MANY) months without nary a ride to speak of. It’s weird right, that I’m such a big cycling fan but haven’t been logging any miles myself? It felt strange to me too, so I’m glad to report I’ll be riding again.

Within the first few months of moving to Austin, I realized that this was a big bike city. Not just because you-know-who lives here and, according to many, put American cycling on the map in general – but Austin is a fitness-crazed conglomeration of runners, cyclists, and all other things health-related. We have the world headquarters of Whole Foods here; we have umpteen miles of running trails around the city; and we basically (and unfortunately IMO) have no winter to speak of, so outdoor activities get a lot of screen time.

So, even though “fit” was not a word anyone (including myself) would use to describe me at that time (or now), I caved to the pressure of the panting exercisers in the city and bought a bike. Nothing too serious mind you – just a mid-range hybrid Trek with not-too-skinny tires and flat handlebars that would let me sit a bit more upright than a traditional road bike. I love my bike actually – it’s a cool purple-y color and actually has a flower design on it (of course). And, it has the all-important “granny gear” that someone like me needs to hike themselves up the never-ending namesakes of Austin Hill Country.

My Bloomin' Bike

My Bloomin’ Bike

I started doing road rides by myself, first 10, then 20, then 30 miles or more. Then I started doing group rides each Saturday, carting my bike the 25 miles to downtown to meet at a bike shop and then ride 25 miles. The farthest I’ve ever ridden in one day was 45 miles for the Livestrong Challenge a few years ago. I’m pretty slow (except on the downslope, that extra weight comes in handy then), and I’m a turtle on the uphills, but I have the endurance for some reason to ride far, even though it may take me forever.

Before my longest ride of 45 miles.

Before my longest ride of 45 miles.

My previous job position had involved biking on a very regular basis, and it was great. We’d go out for rides with kids on the way to school, or we’d conduct bike safety rodeos and safety seminars – there was always something bike-related to look forward to. I even became certified as a League Certified Instructor (LCI) with the League of American Bicyclists to be able to teach bike safety to the kids and parents we were working with. Biking had become a consistent part of my life.

But when I was transferred into my last job position about a year ago, all of that stopped. The biking aspect was completely eliminated from our restructured jobs; our experience and qualifications sadly counted for nothing anymore. I got so depressed about it that I just pushed my poor bike aside, literally. First I stopped going on group rides; I was commuting so far downtown five days a week anyway, that driving down there again on the weekends was the last thing I wanted to do. Plus, I was so slow that I felt I held up the group and it was embarrassing. I still went on some solo rides around my neighborhood on the weekends, but eventually that stopped too. Add to that the constant ill health I seemed to be suffering, and I just couldn’t get into it anymore.

But I’ve actually always liked riding a bike, so I did miss it. I have wonderful memories of my Dad teaching me to ride my bike in the park for the first time when I was about 7 years old – a pink banana-seater called “The Strawberry Sizzler.” I rode that thing to pieces all over our neighborhood. When I was about 12, he revamped my mom’s old Schwinn, painted it red, put a new seat on it, and gave it to me for my birthday; I loved it. When I was 16, I bought a sleek black road bike with my own allowance money and the very first time I took it out, I did a 20-mile ride through the canyon outside the city limits; it was stolen out of our garage one weekend about a year later, unfortunately. My sole means of transportation during Peace Corps was a green Trek mountain bike; it became an extension of me, taking me down the unpaved red dusty roads to the market, neighboring villages, and to get life-sustaining water at the pump well.

Leaving at end of Peace Corps service, faithful Trek in the foreground.

Leaving at end of Peace Corps service, faithful Trek in the foreground.

So when my friend Sheila proposed last week that we go for a bike ride, it was the welcome impetus I needed to get back on the saddle. I gave my bike a good wash, a tune up and chain lube, aired up the tires, and hooked up the bike rack to the back of my car again. After an interesting time of squeezing back into my dusty bike shorts, we took our bikes down to the Veloway in south Austin and pedaled a couple of loops. It felt great! (Well, to be honest, my bottom was pretty sore the next day, but I didn’t even care.)

I guess the lesson is that it’s never too late to start or re-start something you’re interested in, especially if it makes you UNunhappy. Expect a few posts about the intricacies of the upcoming internship, and if anyone out there wants to go for a bike ride, I’m game. Let’s just stay away from the big hills please.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

I Miss the Smell of Popcorn Paws

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“Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.” ~ William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona II, iii)

This is a tough post for me to write, and warning: may be tough to read. There have been some walloping events in the past few years that each made up the individual cogs of my emotional tailspin machine from which I’m now slowly emerging. A painful separation and divorce started it all. Less than a year after that, I lost my rambunctious four year-old dog Teddy too soon. One month later I left the hometown I’d known all my life and moved everything to Austin.

But what really shook me to the core, the final straw, was losing my remaining dog Foxy. A miniature poodle with the official AKC fancy-pants name of “Kristi’s Foxy Sox,” she was my faithful companion for 15 long years. She had one white back foot (hence the Sox part of the name), a white chest, and soft curly light red hair – just like a little fox. She was one of three in her litter, the only female and the only redhead. I picked her out when she was only 3 weeks old, and brought her home two weeks after that, the day before Thanksgiving 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

I’d been divorced for less than a year from my first disastrous marriage when I brought Foxy home to an apartment with green carpet but no yard. I taught her to use a litter box instead, which was weird but effective. For the first few months, I drove home 25 minutes one-way from work each day at lunch to let her out of her crate and play with her for ten minutes before driving back. She became everything to me that I needed: a distraction, a friend, a companion, a shoulder to cry on sometimes…something to love, that loved me back.

And she was so smart! She knew each of her toys by name and could fetch them when called for. She aced her puppy obedience classes with flying colors. She traveled with me on the road when I was recruiting for the university, and knew to be quiet in her crate when I was giving talks to groups of students. I hung a bell from the front door knob and she learned to ring it with her nose when she wanted to go outside.

"I'm posing for you in my snazzy red sweater."

“I’m posing for you in my snazzy red sweater.”

When she was six months old, we moved into a house with (finally) a big yard space for her and a doggy door. She was my impetus for even buying a home in the first place, and I picked the house with her in mind. When, three years later, I left to go to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, leaving her behind was by far the most emotional part of the journey. I’ll always be grateful to my family members for keeping her and taking care of her while I was gone during that time. My Dad told me that in the first few days and weeks after I left, Foxy would sleep upstairs in “my” room on the sweatshirt I’d left for her, and during the day would wait watching at the front window and door for me to come home. (I cried like a baby when I read that in his letters he sent to me in Africa.)

Waiting patiently.

Waiting patiently.

I never had (human) children of my own. And yes, I was one of those pet-owners that doted on their dogs as if they were kids. Time passed, and when Foxy was ten, I decided to get her a companion; I’d read that adding a puppy to a household with an older dog could help prolong their lives. So we got Teddy, a chocolate-brown miniature poodle who was seriously obsessed with tennis balls and pretty much drove poor Foxy crazy with her frenetic energy.

Foxy & Teddy

Foxy & Teddy

But in a cruel twist of fate, Teddy was the first to go; unbeknownst to us, she’d been born with an auto-immune disease that led to eventual kidney failure. I had four great years with her, but much of that time was spent taking care of her illness and watching her go in and out of remission. She was the first dog I ever had to euthanize, and it was incredibly difficult. I found myself hoping that Foxy would just go peacefully one day in her old age, but that didn’t happen either.

Less than a year after moving to Austin, I noticed a weird brown growth in the corner of Foxy’s eye as I was grooming her one day. Her regular vet referred us to a canine ophthalmologist (yes those exist) and after a biopsy result, confirmed that it was a rare type of optic cancer, in the lining of the eye socket. Over the next eight months, she would have four eye surgeries to remove the tumor that kept growing back. She was a trooper through it all, taking it in stride and seeming content to just lay on my lap as much as possible and continue to be my little shadow.

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She was 15 now; she walked slower, ate less, slept more. She needed steps to get up on the bed that she once leapt on with ease, and started losing weight. She also went almost completely deaf. After the fourth surgery, the vet said there was no other option left other than to just take the eye completely out, and even that was not a guarantee that the cancer would not return. I waffled, knowing full well I was doing most of this for my selfish benefit; I didn’t want to let her go. At first I agreed to do the eye-removal surgery. Then feeling guilty, I cancelled it.

Two days after my birthday, and in the middle of the Tour de France while I was on a three-week vacation from work, I watched as Foxy no longer could go outside through her doggy door; it was too painful to her sutured and bruised eye to use her head to push the door open. She turned and looked at me with such a sad look on her face as if to say “I’m so sorry,” and it was then that I knew. My heart broke into a million pieces as I picked her up and carried her outside. While she stood there looking at me, I called her vet and somehow formed the words to ask if he’d meet us the next day at his practice. He said yes.

Foxy slept that night as she had for much of the past 15 years – curled up next to me on the bed, in the crook of my arm, under the blanket. She didn’t know it was her last night, but I did, and it was agony. I watched her for most of the night, remembering everything we’d been through over the past decade and a half. I cried an ocean of tears over those next twelve hours. I took a hundred pictures of her. I held her as we lounged on the swing outside, sitting in her favorite swath of sunshine.

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At the vet’s office, I apologized to her and thanked her, and held her tight on my lap as I told her how much I loved her. She looked at me with quiet eyes and leaned into me. Her soft ears were wet with my tears and our faces were touching as she went to sleep for the last time, just me and her together as we’d been for so long. I held my dog child in my arms as she died. It was peaceful for her, and her pain was gone. It was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life.

I slept on the couch for the next month. I dreamed of her, a lot, and she would appear to me so real that I’d reach out to touch her. A few times I woke up swearing I’d heard her collar tags jingling in the hallway. Her dog bowls and daytime sleeping bed remained in their places, empty, but comforting somehow. But how I ached. Physically, emotionally, I was just drained completely of everything. How can that be, one might ask – she was just a dog. She wasn’t human.

And yet it broke me. Losing her felt like losing the rest of everything.

Now, all of a sudden, it’s been two years. Last year on that day, I was in rainy England, and found myself sitting on a park bench outside the church where Shakespeare is buried. I sat under a weeping willow tree and gazed out at the rising river, and remembered Foxy. Leaving the riverbank, I wandered along the deserted wet roads and eventually found myself in a cluttered antique store. As I was looking through a case at a tray of silver charms all jumbled together, something caught my eye. Down in the right hand corner, looking up at me through the glass, sitting just above a heart-shaped charm: a little silver perfect poodle. Yes, of course I bought it. You don’t ignore a sign like that.

My view that day.

My view that day.

I wore that charm on a chain around my neck almost every day for the past year. Until today – when I looked down at my chain and the charm was gone. Inexplicably, sadly, just gone. The other charms are still there, but not that one. Another sign? It’s what prompted me to write this post today. I’d been thinking of writing it for cathartic reasons, but couldn’t bring myself to do it until now.

Many have asked why I haven’t gotten another dog yet. Sometimes I think I am ready, especially now that I have this extra time on my hands and am not away from the house ten or eleven hours at a time. I remember how fun it is to have a dog who loves you no matter what and is so happy to see you when you get home, no matter how long you’ve been gone. I remember the joy of having something to take care of and be responsible for, the comfort and the companionship. It’s definitely one of life’s UNunhappy experiences, when it’s good.

But it’s a lot of responsibility, having a dog. Vet bills, grooming, walks, training – it’s a commitment that takes a lot of work and for me, a lot of worry. And, the memory of the nearly-unbearable pain when you lose something that you love so much is still pretty fresh. Especially when we as owners have to make that choice to humanely take their pain away, it’s an indescribable heartache – and one I’m not sure I want to or can go through again. I don’t know what to do. Is Foxy is giving me a little nudge from wherever she is, saying it’s time for a new start…a new charm?

I just don’t know. I miss Foxy like crazy, including the little things like her prancy walk and the butter popcorn smell of the pads on her feet. She was such a good dog, and no other one could ever take her place. But – I’ll keep you updated if and when any wet noses and furry feet make their way into my life again. I’m starting to think it’s possible. And maybe I’ll look for another charm too, when the time is right.

Thanks for listening and reading. À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Extreme Foxy close-up

Wanted: A Prescription for Patience

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“Out, dog! out, cur! Thou drivest me past the bounds of maiden’s patience.” ~William Shakespeare (Midsummer Night’s Dream III, ii)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been a pretty impatient person. My Dad read this story at my first wedding: “Over the years, Kristi and I have remembered and recalled one small but very important event from her childhood. It was the time she wanted to learn to jump rope. It would seem that learning to jump rope would be simple, but Kristi, then as now, was impatient with herself and when she first tried it, she got tangled in the rope. She wanted to quit trying to learn how to jump that rope, but I encouraged her to try and try again, and in a short time she was the best rope jumping little girl on the block!”

What he didn’t say was that I think I threw a pretty big temper tantrum, throwing the rope on the ground, making a little fool out of myself with my little girl hysterics. The outcome however was a good memory for me and my Dad, and the moral of the story of course is to persist – to be patient, and with that patience will come success. So I guess I’m wondering though: why doesn’t it get any easier to be patient as we grow up? I still find myself getting impatient all the time – with people, with processes, with life in general. I wish someone could write me a prescription for patience (not that my new high-deductible health insurance would pay for it).

I guess it’s a part of who I am, and while I accept this, I don’t like it. My impatience is usually either accompanied by or results in stress, unhappiness, regret, and even rage (of the road variety). I wonder if impatience is a genetically inherited trait; I tend to think it is, but then maybe I’m just making excuses. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of my impatience-induced rudeness, I sincerely apologize. As someone who has said (and believed) in the past “Most people in the world are idiots,” patience with other humans is not my forté, and is definitely something I need to work on.

The one exception to the duration of this character flaw was when I lived in sub-Saharan Africa during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Over there, time stands still, literally. If you don’t slow down – both physically and mentally – to match the creeping crawl of life, your impatience will literally drive you insane or you’ll just keel over from stress-induced hysteria. I learned, and even appreciated eventually, how to become a more patient person while I was there. Hakuna matata is real, people.

Unfortunately, that acquired level of patience and “no worries” attitude seemed to shrivel up and die once I arrived back in America – land of the never-ending go-get-’em fast pace of life. Settle in, chase “the dream,” bypass vacations, battle the traffic, worry worry worry. And then before you know it, another decade has passed. Years full of wasted moments that you can never get back. And through all of it, being impatient for…something. Everything.

When I decided a few months ago to make changes and pursue meaning in my life again, I knew that impatience would continue to be a personal foe for me. I spoke to my therapist at the time about perceptions and reality, and giving myself TIME to adjust and pursue the new directions in my life. I expressed worries about how others would perceive me and my efforts – that they’d think I was a “slacker” for quitting my job without having another one lined up. People want to know what I’m doing with “all this time” on my hands. It’s not easy to explain, this transition phase.

I don’t blame others for wanting to know how I’m filling the hours in every day or what the next step of “the plan” is – but as I told someone the other day, sometimes there just isn’t that much to tell right now. It’s not that I mind the questioning so much, because I think that’s part of normal human nature to be curious, but I then start to feel guilty somehow that I don’t have a perfect outline to hand to them that will make them feel better about all this change (because from my end, I usually feel pretty fine about it). I’m learning to be comfortable with saying “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” It’s ok to not know how something is going to turn out!

Yes, it is very nice to not have to trudge back and forth from the miserable job I recently quit. I’m happier than I can say to not have to fight the long and stressful morning and afternoon commutes. But I do find myself getting impatient with the anticipation of “what’s next.” I’m impatient that I haven’t heard back yet about the internship I applied for a few weeks ago. I’m impatient that a part-time job I’ve been anxiously waiting for hasn’t been posted yet. I’m impatient for the 2014 Tour de France to get here, now that I’m in withdrawals from the Tour that just finished…

Each day I feel like I make a few more small strides towards an UNunhappy future, but I also don’t want to discount the here-and-now part of the journey. When I get too impatient with myself about where I or others think I should be at this stage, it inevitably leads to more stress and distress. I love to tick the “completed” boxes on my to-do lists, and those lists help guide me with goals and objectives, but letting my lists get too long and out-of-control is something I need to work on.

So instead, I’m trying to be patient with myself and my own expectations, which really are the ones that count the most after all. These new directions and desires I have for my life aren’t going to happen overnight, or in a few weeks, or even in a few months. Giving myself time is ok. The days fly by so quickly though don’t they? We get so caught up in the “down-the-road” goals that we sometimes gloss over what’s right in front of us, right now.

The favorite in-front part of my day today was a fromage sandwich on a fresh-baked baguette from a new-found French cafe and getting to know the owner, a nice lady from France. What was yours?

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

PS: The family klutz gene (which I know IS inherited) struck strong this past week, so I just wanted to pass along get-well wishes to my three ailing family members:

  • My Mom, for her hairline-fractured leg she was awarded after slipping on a watery sidewalk at an Oklahoma casino;
  • My nephew Truman for a river rock-induced gargantuan foot slice that took 9 stitches to close; and
  • My nephew Wyatt for a bad tongue laceration inflicted by a spectacular chin fall from the kitchen table.

At my brother’s prompting, the rest of us are considering rolling ourselves in bubble wrap just to be safe.

The Future is Blooming

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“…a bed of roses, with a thousand fragrant posies, a cap of flowers, and a kirtle embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.” ~ William Shakespeare (from ‘Passionate Pilgrim’)

Georgia O'Keeffe "Iris 7"

Georgia O’Keeffe
“Iris 7”

Georgia O’Keeffe was perhaps one of the most well-known residents and devotees of my native New Mexico. Her larger-than-life paintings of flowers are world-famous. When asked why she chose flowers as one of her art subjects, she replied:

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

Brilliant, no? Forced floral art appreciation.

Flowers have piqued my curiosity for a very long time now, and I’m not even sure I can explain exactly why. When I was about 16 years old, the very first real job that I applied for was at a flower shop around the corner from my house. It seemed like it would be a nice, relaxing place to work, surrounded by fresh floral smells and pretty flowers all the time. I didn’t get the job, and instead went to work for my uncle as a very glamorous property maintenance girl (read: picking cigarette butts out of rock beds and schlepping water hoses from building to building).

I didn’t think too much about flowers again for a while. As I grew older and finished college, I did what everyone else around me was doing: I got “real” jobs in the “real” professional workforce, and followed the traditional approach of doing whatever got the bills paid and securing the all-important medical/dental/vision. I strayed from that logical path when – to the shock of my family and friends – I joined the Peace Corps in 1999 for two years. I’d recently gone through a divorce, had finished grad school, and was looking for an experience that would shake up my life a little and provide some much-needed meaning and purpose (which it did).

When I returned to Albuquerque in 2001 – having been thoroughly shaken and stirred – I remember that one of the first places I applied for a workforce re-entry job was at another large flower shop in town. I’d seen their hiring ad in the paper and couldn’t resist for some reason. I didn’t get that flower shop job either. The job I did get was at a brand new Home Depot that opened up at that time just down the street from my neighborhood – working in the Garden Department, which I had requested.

I worked there for almost a year, learning valuable information about flowers, plants, and trees (and swimming pool chemicals). It wasn’t the same as working in a flower shop setting, but I still felt connected somehow, and I appreciated what I was learning. It was actually the only job from which I ever got fired – not because I killed the plants, but due to a work schedule mix-up and a misplaced sick leave excuse note. By that time however, I’d succumbed to the mounting pressures to go back to a “real-life” job, which I did when I was hired at a healthcare company that offered more legitimacy and paid more money.

flower shop painting

“Flower Shop” by Elaine Cory

I would stay at that professional-level cubicle job for the next 7+ years. Every once in a while, I’d daydream about escaping cube-land and go buy a “Flower Encyclopedia” or a floral design how-to book, poring over the photos and instructions. I took an evening course at the local garden center in beginning floral design, and I was good at it. One day as I was driving home from a friend’s house, I saw a cottage-y little flower shop with a “For Sale” sign out front, and entertained fantastical thoughts of buying it and running my own business. A family member told me – and accurately so at the time – “Kristi you don’t know the first thing about running a flower business. It’s not a good idea.”

I quit the job at the healthcare company when I moved to Austin, which just happened to be during the deepest point of the crippling recession in late 2009. It was the worst possible time in our country’s recent history to be hunting for a job. I felt intense pressure to get a “good” job, a “real” job, in the middle of those uncertain times – not a job that I necessarily wanted to do, but a job that would hire me based on all the education and experience I’d acquired. I sent 68 job applications out before I even got one single interview, which was the job I ended up taking – another professional corporate position, this time within City government.

It had taken me three months to get that job. In those three months, between “real” job hunting and applications, one of the things I did with my spare time was to research and find all of the flower shops within about a 15 mile radius of my neighborhood. I made a list and then visited every one. I didn’t inquire about a job at any of them; I would just go in and walk around as if I was a customer, studying their inventory and arrangements. I don’t even know really what I was looking for at the time. Comfort? Confirmation? Ideas?

Also during those first three months in Austin, I noticed that my brother’s business office was right next to a floral design business; through a mutual acquaintance, I made an appointment to sit down with the owner/designer to talk about a possible job or apprenticeship of some kind. It was the first time I’d expressed out loud to anyone that I was seriously interested in the industry. However, when she learned I had no real/past design experience, she ended the meeting pretty quickly. It was at that time that I learned I’d gotten the job with the City, and so once again, I back-burnered myself.

Fast-forward three more years and here we are: I quit my job after realizing it was zapping the life out of me. I’ve decided to try to do things that make me UNunhappy. I have the time and courage now to devote to those life choices that I feel are best for me. And one of those choices is: I’m finally going to give the field of floristry a fighting chance in my life!

It’s time.

I’ve already started taking steps toward this new reality, and I’ll elaborate more in following posts. Stay tuned to find out what happens next!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

BlueIrises

Oh Crap…and Is The Universe Really Talking to Me?

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“O God! that one might read the book of fate.” ~ William Shakespeare (King Henry IV, Part II)

I revealed in my last post that I recently quit my soul-sucking job.  A few weeks before I gave my notice, I applied for two high-level professional positions that fortune seemed to point in my direction.  One was with a local nonprofit group that does great things in the community, the other with the University of Texas.  I was extremely interested in both positions, and I’d been trying to get a job with UT ever since I moved to Austin over three years ago (the hiring process at UT is extremely competitive).

Both jobs paid significantly less than the salary I was making at the time, but I was so ready to get out of my toxic work situation that I didn’t even care.  I think I would have accepted being paid in chocolate coins if it meant less stress and more meaningful work.

The nonprofit group was the first to reach out, and called me in for an interview.  I ACED it.  I have to admit, I love the feeling you get from a well-oiled job interview!  (My secret tip that I don’t mind passing along to you:  sing “I Have Confidence” from the Sound of Music in your best Maria impersonation at the top of your lungs right before you go into the interview.  Preferably in the privacy of your car.  You’re welcome.)

SoMIHC

Click photo to hear “I Have Confidence” sung by the great Julie Andrews!

It was shortly after that interview that I gave my notice at my then-current job (a very UNunhappy moment by the way).  A day or two later, the UT office at which I’d applied called me to schedule a phone interview.  I was ecstatic!  It was the first UT job I’d applied for (of many) which had reached the interview stage.  And, the job seemed to be literally written just for me: they wanted someone who had lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa (thank you Peace Corps), spoke a foreign language (oui, moi), and had experience advising students (I used to work as an advisor at the University of NM).

Keep Calm and Speak French

The UT phone interview went great, and they then scheduled a second interview for a few days later, to be conducted via Skype.  Everything meshed and it went swimmingly well.  I made funny quips and asked well-researched questions.  I’d done my homework and I was prepared – as I have been my whole life.  Organized, detailed, prepared – that’s me.

I was feeling great!  I was in the running for two jobs in what seemed to be a perfect timing situation!  I’d finally quit my miserable job that was driving me into the ground, and I was headed for happier times!  I drove by the UT office near campus and it was in a beautiful setting; I was already imagining working there and figuring out where I’d park.

The day of the Skype interview with UT, the nonprofit group called me to offer me their job.  However, they told me that between the time of my interview and now, they’d decided to change the job title and some of the duties of the position I’d applied for; it was still a good job, but it was no longer what I thought it was going to be.  It now wasn’t as attractive to me as the UT job – which by this time I was 99% sure I was going to get.

Notice those words “perfect” and “sure” above?  Not-so-subtle foreshadowing.  By now you can probably guess what happened.

I declined the nonprofit job offer.  And then UT emailed me a few days later to say they decided to hire someone else.

What have I done!?

I think I stared at that email for about ten minutes in pure disbelief.  “Oh Crap” is a tame version of my reaction.  My perfect interviews and my perfect preparation and my perfect planning all crumbled away into nothingness as I sat there.  I started to feel the fear rise up from a pit deep inside me – what had I done?

In the following days, I searched for the bigger message in this ego-busting development.  I looked for the answer in many different forms of chocolate, but nothing materialized (except lots of calories).  I even blamed the huge Texas flag hanging on my wall that was visible in the background of my Skype interview camera view; I took that flag to the 2010 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong autographed it for me right in the middle of the white star…maybe they saw that and held it against me, another casualty of the cycling doping controversy?

This wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen.  Or was it?  Where was Shakespeare’s quoted book of fate when you needed it?  Of course I wanted to know why this detour had forced me to take another direction, but then I started to think that maybe what I needed to focus on was not the “why,” but the new direction in and of itself. 

You see, before I’d applied to either of those jobs or quit my current job, I’d been thinking of and toying with the idea of doing something completely different with my life.  Ditching the traditional 40-hour office landscape for a much different one that I’d been thinking of for many, many years.  One that is vastly more colorful and joyful and meaningful.  I applied for those two jobs out of interest, yes, but also out of fear.  Fear that my other visions and hopes and ideas weren’t good enough somehow. 

Bleeding Hearts

But now here I was at the literal crossroads of fear and fortitude.  Inextricably intertwined.  Giving into one could mean sacrificing the other.  And even though I would have been very good in either of those jobs that I applied for had I gotten them, I feel somehow that the universe was, just maybe (even though it’s pretty busy with all the supernovas and collapsing stars and whatnot) whispering in my ear,  “It’s not the right time for that.”   And so I decided to listen.  And I’m ok with the way things turned out.

As I finished the last few days at my job, I felt strangely calm – this, despite not having a perfect plan in place for my next steps.  Or maybe because of the lack of a perfect plan.  Or maybe it was just blissfully-ignorant shock, but it was nice.  And I felt a sense of freedom – not just from the weight of the job stress being lifted off my shoulders, but also from the blank slate being presented to me.  (But I hate the feeling of chalk on my hands, so I’m going to think of it as a blank whiteboard.)

Yes, I’ve had a few moments of self-doubt…I think it would be strange if I hadn’t.  I have to keep reminding myself that we get this one life, this one chance in a fleetingly short blip on the universal timeline of history to do what makes us feel alive and worthy and content – to do what makes us UNunhappy

Is the universe talking to you?  What is it saying?  And does it have an accent? Enquiring minds want to know.   

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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