They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.
[Keri Hulme in her novel, The Bone People]
These words are taken entirely out of context. But when I read them, my heart caught in my throat and the faces of so many men and women I have the great honor of working with each day flooded my thoughts. Indeed, we are nothing more than people, by ourselves – so thank goodness we are not alone.
A while back, I wrote about “my list” – a list of places I wanted to go, adventures I wanted to have, goals I wanted to achieve, and things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime.
Since then, my husband and I have taken to discussing this nearly every time we open a bottle of wine together (so much so that we’ve started calling it “the wine list”). It is fun to share our individual dreams with each other (he, after all, will be my companion and encouragement as I chase mine, and vice-versa) and to come up with new ones together. Already, there are items I’ve been able to add that I never would have thought of, and items I’ve been able to check off that would have never been possible, without his influence.
As we near the completion of our third decade of life, we’ve honed our respective lists – and since a lifetime is a long time, we’ve settled on 30 items to complete by our 30th birthdays. So this January, instead of settling on resolutions for the New Year, I’m looking at my wine list and deciding what to check off next.
Jenna’s Wine List – 30 Before 30 (Deadline: August 16, 2014):
- Go skydiving *Completed*
- Complete a marathon *Completed*
- Become fluent in Spanish *Completed*
- Live in a Spanish-speaking location for at least a year *Completed*
- Go snorkeling *Completed*
- Learn to SCUBA dive *Completed*
- Shoot a buck (or other big game) and prepare a meal with it *Completed*
- Catch a trout on a fly rod *Completed*
- Hike in Alaska *Completed*
- Own a dog *Completed*
- Go to South America *Completed*
- Get an advanced degree *Completed*
- Learn to ski *Completed*
- Go lobster diving & eat the tail for dinner *Completed*
- Obtain a full-time job in global health *Completed*
- Attend Miami pro sporting events: Marlins (baseball), Dolphins (football), and Heat (basketball) games
- Attend the Calle 8 Festival in Miami
- Go sailing (to count, must spend the night on the sailboat!)
- Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
- “Read the world” – complete a book by an author from or about every country in the world
- Learn to play guitar
- Complete a triathlon
- Publish an academic article in a peer-reviewed journal *Completed – in press for February 2013*
- Swim with manatees
- Home brew our own beer
- Return to Glacier National Park
- Explore the Everglades National Park via airboat and/or kayak
- Ski in Patagonia (during North America’s summer!)
- Sip a Malbec in Argentinian wine country
- Watch Notre Dame play in the National Championship *This just got bumped up from the long term list! To be completed: Miami FL January 2013*
Jenna’s Wine List – Longer term:
- Summit a serious mountain
- Complete the “camino francés” of the Camino de Santiago
- Visit all 50 states (left: VT, AR, MS, AL, OK, NM, HI)
- Road trip from coast to coast
- Learn a third language
- Visit Greece
- Become a mother
- Earn a Doctoral degree (?)
- Qualify for the Boston marathon
- Work in sub-Saharan Africa (not necessarily long-term)
- Own a chicken coop (and chickens!)
- Visit Scandanavia
- Visit southeast Asia
- Live in the Pacific Northwest
- Attend all four BCS bowl games (completed: Orange & Sugar, left: Fiesta & Rose)
- Buy and renovate an old house
Note – the new “Wine List” tab at the top is where this list will permanently live – and be updated over time. In the mean time, tell me – what’s missing? what’s on your list?
I didn’t know it was possible to feel this empty, and yet this full, all at once.
In the 10 days that I recently spent in Guatemala, I was like a thirsty traveler, bending to drink at a fountain and finding instead a fire hydrant – eager to learn, but nearly unable to take in the flood of information, images, and realities that rushed at my face at breakneck speed.
In those 10 days…
I was humbled.
My heart was broken.
I felt overwhelmed and excited and weak and sad and joyful and emptied of so much but full, full, full to the brim with hope.
I’m home in Miami now – the reports and meetings and other mundane follow-up are piled up on my desk, and before tackling them, I’m allowing myself a final moment to reflect on the ways this first real step into my new professional life has affected me. I’ve been bemused to note that what I saw last week weighs more heavily on me now than it did when I was in-country. But I think I’m beginning to understand why.
I work in women’s health. In addition to being an issue I am passionate about, it has also become an obsession for the pundits and the politicians, hotly debated on the campaign trail and in the caucuses. I’ve never really been one for politics, so it should come as no surprise that I find these discussions pedantic and intangible. But after returning to the pre-election barrage after my recent trip south, it is almost to much for me to bear. For me, these few weeks have been an earth-shattering reminder that there is an incredible distance between:
the lofty discourse that is being thrown at us…
…and the gritty places in our communities, nation, and world where the rubber meets the road.
That chasm has never felt greater than after spending a week with the women who suffer in those gritty places, and coming home to the mounting political discourse of the men who hope to lead the most powerful nation on earth.
For example, it feels inhumane to be discussing the definition of rape after holding the hand of a woman who was recently sexually assaulted.
It feels insulting to decide which families matter after meeting children who don’t have one.
It feels misguided to argue over what “side” cares more about the sanctity of life while real, live women are needlessly dying without access to comprehensive reproductive health services…
…especially when the “side” that claims the moral high ground would limit that access even further.
It feels narrow-minded reduce the complexity of womanhood to one small slice of it – reproduction – and to reduce the complexity of that even further by legislating it.
In the gritty places, it has been with grace, humility, and compassion that traditional midwives, feminist nuns, meticulous lawyers, and proud peasant mothers of 10 have taught me the following about what they are, and what I am, too:
I am more than my right to choose.
I am more than a political talking point.
I am a daughter.
I am a future mother (because I want to be, and it will be beautiful.)
I am a woman.
I am a person.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14)
Sitting here in my hotel room overlooking Mexico City, I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness at having the opportunity not only to be paid to do work I’m passionate about…but also to be able to travel in the process. As a Program Officer for an international NGO, I’ll be traveling throughout Latin America working on women’s health issues. Pinch me, please, somebody.
I have updated my google travel map (see below) and will be keeping track of upcoming and recent trips on the Travel tab on my blog.
Somehow as I look at this map, all I can think of is…there is so much more of the world I’m dying to see.
As they say in Honduras…Andale, pues!
But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.
[Gustavo Gutierrez, Peruvian theologian, priest, and social activist]
With these words, Padre Gutierrez challenged an oppressive social order, calling for a liberation theology and preferential option for the poor, but it appears social inequalities are only rising in Latin America – the region Gutierrez is from and where I work. These days, these words ring in my ears.
We have a lot of work to do.
I grew up in the vast, open expanse that is the American West. In my childhood homes in Montana and Idaho, there was a lot of space, punctuated by craggy mountains or rolling hills that reached skyward from their firm grounding in the earth. These landmarks served as my compass – I could almost always see them, and could thereby discern where I was. In western Montana, the sun sank every evening behind the Bitterroots, and so I knew that if I placed the mountains to my left, I’d be facing north. The mountains were comforting, orienting, grounding.
I was 12 years old the first time I flew in a plane. It took me to Los Angeles, and never having left the Northwest, it was an exhilarating experience at first. The exotic places on the departures board had never before seemed real to me, and I found it amazing to be able to board a plane, watch the ground fall out beneath me, and to touch down just hours later in a a completely different place. I was instantly hooked.
However, shortly after our arrival, my excitement vanished. I felt swallowed up in the endless freeways, the tall buildings, and the sunless, smoggy sky. Though I’d always had an acute sense of direction, I looked every which way and could find no point of reference. I turned in desperate circles and couldn’t find north, and I suddenly felt very small.
In my quiet panic, I closed my eyes and asked myself, “If I was in Montana, where would the mountains be?” I took a few deep breaths and suddenly – there – I could feel them. I slowly turned so the imaginary mountains would be on my left. I felt my father’s hand on my back and heard his voice ask me, “Jenna, what is wrong?” I opened my eyes and asked, “Dad, is that north?” He nodded. It was. My panic vanished and I was okay. I was oriented. Grounded.
That was a long time ago. Years later, I’d board a second plane that would take me to college. I’d go on to live in the midwest, New England, the Caribbean, and Europe. I’d travel even further afield, developing a boundless wanderlust that has me constantly planning the next journey and adventure. When I travel, I still feel all the exhilaration with none of the panic. I think I can do this because I still carry those childhood landmarks in my back pocket.
I’m typing this post below the trees of Bryant Park and the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan. The city vibrates around me, and I’m feeling alive in a way I only do when I find myself in a different place than the one I woke up in. But on my way here, I did have a moment when I lost my bearing as I emerged from a subway station below the city.
I found myself closing my eyes and instinctively asking myself – “”Where would the mountains be?”
And as they always do in these moments, there they appeared. I could feel them – I could feel west, and I could find north. And even in New York City, because of my mountains, I’m oriented.
2010: We got married on a special hill outside a special town.
2011: We ate the remnants of our year-old wedding cake in broad daylight at midnight on a mountain…then stood beside our brother and new sister-in-law as they began their life together.
2012: We’re celebrating two years of adventure (and many to come) on the coast of southern California. Tonight we dined at a restaurant where Nick’s grandfather courted his grandmother in 1946. Tomorrow, we will road trip north to witness the marriage of two of our dearest friends.
To me, there is no better way to celebrate the decision we made on June 26, 2010, than to:
- travel somewhere beautiful,
- laugh, cry, dance, and delight at a wedding that celebrates two people we love,
- have an adventure
So….someone better go ahead and book their wedding for the last week in June in 2013 so that we can carry on this tradition!
And in the meantime,
Happy 2nd anniversary to the one who has my yes.
i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Let me start out by saying…I don’t believe in fate. I never have.
A year ago, when I realized I would be leaving everything I knew and moving to a strange city, I lacked the sense of adventure I usually feel before trying something new. I will admit it: dropping everything to chase after someone else’s dream – without a sense of purpose of my own – does not come naturally to me.
But I did it – with the help of my partner who lent me his unyielding optimism, and my friends who promised to visit, and colleagues who advocated for me among their networks. Last month, as we made the 13-hour drive to south Florida, not knowing what awaited us there, I found a tremendous sense of peace. Things were going to work out.
And I was right. Less than a week into my life as a Florida resident, I received a much anticipated phone call, and the voice on the other end of the line offered me my dream job.
So come August, around the time Nick starts his second year of medical school, I will start my first career job at an international women’s health organization, whose Latin America office happens to be right here in Miami. While he immerses himself in the systems of the body and prepares for boards, I will be on the front lines of women’s health and rights in a region of the world where women are dying needlessly in childbirth, of preventable cancers, of domestic violence, and suffering unspeakable injustices. The privilege of getting to do something about that is not something I take lightly – in fact, it scares me to death – but I am honored, humbled, and excited to roll up my sleeves.
In the meantime, we have a few trips to make, weddings to attend, and a new home to make our own….just this week, we signed a lease on a charming, 1920’s apartment in Miami Beach, just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean.
Things have worked out so beautifully that people keep saying “well, it sounds like it was just meant to be!” I don’t believe that. It wasn’t meant to be…we made it be. We worked really hard. We waited. And when there was no more for us to do, we had faith. Yes, this is a story about faith, not fate. And now here we are – blessed beyond belief, and now, we get to live this part of our dream…just 0.2 miles away from the beach! We’re going to embrace this time of living in a unique place we never would have picked on our own, and see what Miami has to teach us.
So come visit us!
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence,
as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
Words can’t express how bittersweet this weekend has been – simultaneous feelings of leaving and of coming home as I reunite with my husband for our next adventure, and as we prepare to leave this last, beautiful chapter of our life in North Carolina behind. With the help of friends who have become family, we spent the weekend watching baseball, catching fireflies, swinging in the hammock, camping in the backyard, dancing in the living room, and oh yes – packing…so that tomorrow we can tearfully and hopefully leave our home of three years.
It is bitter, but it is sweet. There are a lot of unknowns but our hearts are full. We are lucky and we are loved.
This March, I had an unexpected opportunity to go back to Honduras – this time for my job in the UNC Office of Global Health.
The trip involved visiting a local NGO and providing technical assistance for their childhood malnutrition projects. We visited field sites in the rural areas around the capital city (Tegucigalpa) to observe a program that consisted of mothers and other caretakers bringing their 0-2 year old children in each month to participate in growth monitoring and growth promotion activities:
Growth monitoring consists of weighing the baby during each visit, and tracking their growth by weight over time. Monitors compare the baby’s weight and growth to standard charts that help them determine whether the child is growing adequately.
Growth promotion consists of providing counseling to the mothers of children who aren’t growing adequately. The counseling helps them identify the causes of inadequate growth (illness, not eating enough, not eating the right things, etc.) and how to remedy those problems so that the child’s growth can get back on track.
In Honduras, children don’t typically suffer of acute, severe malnutrition. A child may look relatively healthy, but be suffering from chronic malnutrition that causes their growth to stagnate. Without monitoring their growth regularly – and intervening when necessary – their growth is stunted, and they don’t develop properly.
And so it is with us, I think.
With all that talk about growth all week, it got me thinking about my own growth as a person. How often do I measure my growth, and compare it to where I ought to be? How often do I make a plan regarding how to get back on track?
That trip to Honduras served as such an opportunity to monitor my growth. There were multiple occasions throughout the week when I took pause and stepped back mentally, as if watching myself through a window, and marveled at how much I have learned. How much I have changed. How much I have grown.
I’ve spent the past two years in a rigorous graduate program that many of us describe as a sprint to the finish. The pace and volume of work has been incredible, and the juggling act has captured so much of my attention that I’ve taken little time to reflect on and notice how much I’ve been learning.
But the beauty of growth is that it happens while we aren’t watching. Small, incremental changes aren’t really noticeable hour by hour, or day by day. We face our daily struggles and triumphs, we solve problems, and we learn – not really noticing as we go along that we have actually grown. The danger is that our stagnation can also escape our notice – just as we can grow, we can also stall or even regress in subtle ways that we aren’t aware of.
Being in Honduras this time around felt like pushing “pause” for 10 days and stepping out of my normal life. What I discovered was that my story from the past couple of years is one of immense growth. I felt a degree of confidence I didn’t know I had. Things that were difficult for me a year ago came naturally. Questions I once didn’t know to ask slipped off my tongue easily. Ideas and problems that I’ve discussed and debated in classrooms became real before my eyes – and though I still didn’t know how to solve them, I could talk about them and struggle with them alongside some very, very smart people. And it made me think to myself – by jove, I know things!
Having such an experience 2 months before graduation was such a gift. It made me realize that the challenges are indeed worth it. It is easy to lose sight of that when grad school means being up at 2am formatting references on the 18th draft of a research paper, or scheduling long days filled with back-to-back group meetings. But to take that pause and see how much what I’m learning matters – and to see that I am indeed growing and still have so much more to learn – was motivating and inspiring. I came back with renewed strength and vigor, and I was able to sprint to the finish as hard as I could with a renewed spirit and my head held high with hope.
Alongside some of the most incredible, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, I will graduate tomorrow. We’ll celebrate (oh yes, we will!) all that we have learned and accomplished together.
Of course – growth is iterative (!), and our stories aren’t yet over.
But we’ll close this chapter knowing we are better than we were when we started, and knowing that yes –
We have grown.