Thursday, August 3, 2017

Not my president - but still my country.

If you have ever wondered why anyone would choose to live in a country with Trump as president, you have likely never experienced the reality of homesickness. And I'm not just talking about missing mom's cookies - I mean the all-consuming, debilitating yearning for a place where you feel safe, comfortable, and happy. Let me tell you what it feels like for me.

It has been 3 years, 11 months and 20 days since I moved to Germany. I speak German rather well, would consider myself fairly assimilated, and have the privilege of not being visibly foreign. So why does this country not feel like home?

What is home? If home is where my hat is, home could be the Frankfurt airport where I left my favorite hat over five years ago. If home is where my heart is, home could be my favorite bed on my favorite ship on the Baltic Sea. If home is where my friends are, home could be in Iceland, where a meeting of European AFS volunteers is about to take place. If home is where my family is, home could be in Thailand, where my sister lives. But I believe in something more abstract: "Home" is a feeling, not a place. (See more musings on this topic: Home, Sweet Home.) And right now, my home feels like Alaska.

There were times where Germany was my home. My family in Hoyerswerda, my favorite flatmate in Leipzig, the exchange students in Saxony... They (and others) made me feel at home. But, over the years, there as been a little rock in my shoe, reminding me that I am different. A feeling that I do not belong. And, as long as I feel like a foreigner, I will not want to stay.*

Being a foreigner. One can always argue that being different is choice - something you can choose to not identify with. But how can I move past being "different" when I have to explain the story of why I moved to Germany on a weekly basis?** How can I move past being "different" when my desk at work has a pile of dictionaries and grammar books, without which I could not write a professional email? How can I move past being "different" when every time I see salmon on the menu, I wonder what species it is? The ability to move past these differences and accept who you are, can, in my opinion, only be done when you feel accepted. As long as you are judged for your differences, (even if it isn't meant negatively!) you cannot begin to ignore them.

So here's the real kicker. When my life in Germany was just starting, people remarked at my 'bravery' and 'strength' for being so far away from home for so long. They expected me to move home. Yet, as I have begun to tell people that I plan to move home, I find myself stuttering to find a response to the big question: Why would you move back to that country, where Trump is the reigning president?? (Let me add that I have yet to meet a European Trump supporter here. So you can safely assume that the people posing this question are somewhere on the scale between annoyed indifference and making jokes about plotting an assasination.) Feel free to insert a bewildered face and distant jokes about the administration here - all while the speaker never considers what it means to not have a European passport.

Is my sense of home affected by who my president is? Is yours? How about who your local representative is? Or the principal of your school? Or your neighbor's dog? Sure, these people can have an impact on your life (and yes, Trump's policies are impacting my life for the worse) but isn't home the place you would fight to protect and only abandon if there were no other options?

The anniversary of my move is coming up and, like every year, it is bringing a wave of homesickness with it. Why did I move? Was it the right decision? Where would I rather live? Life is full of existential questions - most of which bring me more stress than inspiration. My yearning to return to the country where my passport is identification enough comes from a place of frustration, love and, most importantly, an understanding of my personal development over the last few years. I just feel like it is time to take the next step - and to start that next step from my home base.

Please, dear friends, remember that biased, generalizied views of a country can be far from the feelings of one's heart. I may not support the president of the country I call home. But that country will remain my home - at least for a little while longer. Despite the risks and the rights I am losing within this administration, I am priviliged enough to have a safe home to go back to.

Only time will tell when and where to I will move, but I can feel it coming. Germany has hosted me for so long now, and I will never regret that decision. But there is still so much of the world to see. And there will always be politicians that remind us of why we fight.

* There are, of course, people who thrive on being different, on being a foreigner. I am not one of them. I prefer to assimilate, to understand the culture, and to integrate myself into it.
** Seriously. Weekly. There are weeks (like weeks spent on the boat or attending AFS events) where I answer hundreds of questions about my origins, language skills, country choice..... And I swear, I am not exaggerating.
P.S. I'll be in Germany a little while longer, but the next step is somewhere else. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

I named my back pain Herbert.

As an athlete (and perhaps also as an Alaskan?), pain has always been a part of my life. Usually, pain was a sign of a great workout or of a muscle that needed attention. Every once in a while, the pain was a sign that I needed to focus on taking care of my body again and help something heal. The advantage to knowing pain is being able to determine something basic: is this a good pain? Do I need to worry?

So when pain took root in my lower back, I started off easy: Ibuprofen to lessen it and to reduce inflammation; heat packs to loosen tight muscles; focused yoga to try and work out the kinks my body apparently had. The pain would ebb and then return and I grew to believe that I had injured something during my move to a new city. We did haul quite a lot of heavy shit up and down stairs... (and I have never been one to let the others do the heavy lifting when I can show off a little.)

My frustration seemed to grow in connection to my pain - definitely a correlation. So, in an attempt to work on the psychological side of my pain as well as the physical side, I have named my back pain Herbert. He is a small littler bugger who likes to poke me and has tentacles that spread from my lower back all the way down to my right knee. So, this blog post is about the story of Herbert, the little dude stopping me from enjoying my life.

Herbert persisted. He had started to build his own little home and refused to move out. Within a few weeks of the initial pain, I was having trouble putting my shoes on and couldn't sit still. So, like any well-insured German, I went to the doctor. Unfortunately, this doctor didn't come with a TARDIS and helpful sonic. Instead, she did the least helpful thing imaginable: she prescribed Ibuprofen. As if my Costco supply could EVER run out. 

Over the few weeks after that, my Ibuprofen intake increased and I started leaning on the advice of friends:
"How regularly are you taking Ibuprofen? You should definitely take something to protect your stomach lining." "Have you tried a foam roller?" "How about a pain-relieving cream?" "It will probably go away if you just work out more." "You need to go see an orthopedics doctor because they will know more about how to help." I feel like I've heard it and done it all at this point. Believe me, I'm trying!

Because Herbert seemed so insistent on attention, I gave it to him. We picked out an orthopedics doc (who prescribed Ibuprofen, argh!) and, with some cajoling, got a prescription for physical therapy. The physical therapist was nice and the kind who actually gets to know you. He is from Poland and we talk about the German language and how he wants to start his own practice. We bitch about well-regulated healthcare - believe me, it has its downsides, too. But... another month past and things were just not improving. At this point, I was seeing the orthopedics doc every 3 weeks, the physical therapist twice a week, and had racked up at least a week of sick days due to my back. 

Herbert and I decided to take matters into my own hands (financially) and visit someone my insurance wouldn't cover. She is a massage therapist from the US and has taught me more about muscles than I ever learned in high school. In our first session, I told stories of old high school swimming injuries (and that bike crash senior year) and we compared favorite yoga poses. It helped and I could actually touch my toes after our session. But the relief was short-lived.

So now here I am. I have turned my kitchen table into a standing desk; I might move my pillows and sheets to the floor any day now, and my yoga mat has taken up permanent residence on the floor. The list of things I am trying keeps growing and the biggest problem seems to be that no one knows what is really going on. The other physical therapist I saw even claimed that Herbert didn't live in my back but that he had actually found his home in my neck and jaw (despite there being no pain there).

Now what on earth is the point of this blog post? If you have read this far, you have got to be more interested in my life than the average stalker of mine - my ramblings aren't interesting to everyone. But, wuite often, I come to you wonderful readers with some epiphany of my life. So let's have one:
Pain is a sign of life. It is a light in the darkness, a reminder that you can feel. It may be frustrating, incapacitating, annoying. But remember: anyone can feel pain, but not everyone must suffer. Life isn't always going to be easy and you can't expect things to roll smoothly once you've conquered your existing struggles (moving to Berlin, starting a new job...). Something is always going to pop up and knock you on your ass again. So it's your choice. Are you going to stay down there, on your ass, or are you going to get up and do something about it? God knows the pain won't go away if you don't address it. So dammit, Herbert, find someone else to bother!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A year of learning.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve talked, dear friends. I suppose there are always reasons and excuses for my blog silence. But in the end, I have to make sure you all know that I strive to not stress myself out because of a need to conform to expectations of my audience. I am so grateful to know that you are out there, reading this, whoever you may be. But my blog is a safe space for me to express the things that I suppose could also land in a diary – but in a much more structured and articulate way.

What has been going on in my life lately? Well. What a question. The last year has been one of the most developmental parts of my (semi-) adult life. I have learned, grown, changed and finally feel like I have found a place where I am happy. (I’m not talking about a physical place, more of a temporal one.) Before we get into the long story of my journey to this place, let me catch you up on where I currently am and what has inspired me to write this post.

Currently, I’m in a train (omg what a surprise) returning home from a long, successful AFS weekend. It was the Constanze – the national training event for volunteers. For me, however, it was the third of three seminars in the AFS Leadership Fellows course that I participated in. We had spent the past year learning about the possibilities within leadership as well as the ways that we as individuals prefer to lead. It was a group of incredibly inspirational people from whom there was so much to learn! The weekend was full of intense yet educational discussion and friendly snuggles – of course.

It is after weekends like this that I sit and reflect on what I have learned, who I am and what I strive for. And a few of those things are exactly what I want to share with you now. I have had so many experiences to reflect on in the last year.

A new semester:
As usual, the winter semester was in full swing by the middle of October. I was feeling strong and motivated. I was inspired by my friends and enjoyed going to class. There was so much energy in me and so much excitement to be one step closer to my degree. But as the weeks drew on, the fog around me began to grow. I felt like things were going downhill but I couldn’t identify why. I don’t think it was ever caused by one individual factor. By the time the New Year rolled around, I was exhausted from school. I was frustrated, resentful and unhappy – all of which led to a pretty darn miserable time. I had much less time for the boat and was very focused on achieving my academic goals with flying colors – not realistic when combined with all the other influencing factors.
Every semester ends in a stressful and strained few weeks of exams. And this semester was no different. I did not achieve my goals and pass all the exams I wanted to. Instead, I felt like I was surviving and struggling to do the bare minimum.

Although February always tended to be my favorite month (good skiing snow, birthdays of so many friends, spring on the horizon), it was tainted by illness. One stomach bug after cold after period kept me tied to my bed. Even now, I can feel my body struggling because of this phase of pure weakness – by which I mean that I spent so much time recovering that my body grew weaker. The end of the month brought with it the biggest change in the last three years: I moved to Berlin.
There are cities around the world with these incredible reputations of culture and vibrancy. Which is good for those of us who thrive on the bustle of the city. But I do not. I still struggle with the sheer masses of population around me. Both the variety and the commonalities overwhelm me simply because there is no escape. The power of this city is always present. But I began my time in this new subletting the room of a roommate of a friend. I had never seen the place and didn’t know the rest of the people I was living with before the day I moved in. Tired, stressed and vulnerable I started a new life.

My safe space:
As time moved on, I began to carve out my hole in the city. My little world surrounded by the energy of so many dreamers. Mid March I moved into my very own apartment: one room, bath, balcony and built-in kitchen. It takes me 15 minutes to get to work and I feel safe at home. Both emotionally and physically. The first days in my own apartment were a relief but it wasn’t until this last week that I have really begun to thrive. My apartment gives me the space to be alone and be my best me. But my work is the space where my mind can thrive and work in collaboration. I have fallen in love with my job and although there is so much to learn, I finally feel at home. I am challenged and supported; I am learning and teaching; I am creating something exciting that I am not doing out of a sense of responsibility but out of a pure desire to do so.

And what have I learned? I have learned that I am myself and no one else. And the most important part of that is that I am the only one who has any say on if I ever change who I am. There will always be people around you who judge or critique you. But do you? There will be people who want you to change. But do you want to? You are the only one who can live your life and are the only one who needs to be happy with the way that you live it. We are not on this world to hurt others but also not necessarily to support others. I believe that by being our best selves we can come together to create the best world for each of us.

If there is one thing I hope I never forget, it is that I am so thankful for the experience I have with the billions of people with whom I share this earth. But in the end, my own mind is the one that I fall asleep next to. And we must get along.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Word Choice

A thought just fluttered through my mind. It was profound. At least to me.

There are a few areas of life that I have always drawn back from: the artistic ones. Things like music, painting, creating, even cooking. I spent time playing cello, making jewelry and doing a few doodles, but to be honest, creativity scared me. Now that I am an adult (or something) I can confidently say that I was scared of being judged on the results of my creativity. Art class never seemed like a place to explore and be free. It was a competition. At least, that was the message I somehow received. And so, as the years went on, I stopped being creative. I stopped doodling on my notebooks and I stopped trying to join the choir and I stopped playing cello in groups. Why? Because I was scared. Of not being good enough.

Now the basic fear of judgement is one that every person experiences and learns to handle eventually. I, too, have worked to decrease its impact on my life. And I'm pretty happy with my progress. But maybe there is a way to make this easier for the young people in our lives.

My, how talented you are! Wow, you have such a gift. You are so lucky to be so good at this.

This is what we tell people. This is what we tell people who are creative. Our words, although meant as compliments, portray a kind of uncontrollable power that has given this person: their ability to be creative. We are pushing the idea that you are born being able to sing, paint, or play. You either are good at being creative or... you didn't receive that gift at birth.

What this means to me and my mind is that the hard work that creative people put into their creations is seen as meaningless. Or rather, it is forgotten. We assume that painting is a skill you either have or do not, not one that you train for. We don't congratulate people on the hard work and the endless hours that they have given. We congratulate people on having been lucky enough to receive a gift from fate. And how disrespectful is that? I know, it's not on purpose. We don't always mean what we say. But an opera singer should be praised for the work that they do to get to where they are just as much as an doctor.

I admit, I believe that some skills come easier to some people. That's just the way things are. But need that shape our perception of their hard work? No creator has gotten to where they are without hard work, for which every person deserves praise.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Homesickness: Top Ten

The top ten things that make me homesick to think about (in no particular order):

1. Food. Most specifically, the favorite restaurants that my friends, family, and I regularly visit in Anchorage. The Spenard Roadhouse, Middle Way, Kaladis... I miss a delicious burger, medium-rare, with exciting combinations (like bacon blue cheese) that you just don't find here. Mmm, bacon jam! The pizzas on the menu at Moose's Tooth have ingredients that make my mouth water and that show a level of culinary creativity that I am just plain missing here. What is not to like about 20+ syrups to choose from to make a latte or Italian soda more interesting? OH. And frozen yoghurt at the airport. 

2. Swimming laps in the West High pool. After so many years of swim practice, the West pool has a special place in my heart and remains the most meditative place. I miss the 5am bike ride through the snow to empty parking lot and the morning greetings between the other lap swim regulars. Admittedly, I prefer to drive to the pool these days, but the feeling of counting strokes, breaths, and flip turns is positively delightful.

3. Driving down Minnesota Drive late a night with the local radio on. Wherever I may be headed, I love to enjoy the feeling of my car under me while the few cars on the road dance with each other between the lanes. And after a week I know every song by heart and can sing along, with no one around to hear it. 

4. Geographical formations. One year, a friend was visiting me in Alaska and when we turned from our neighborhood onto Northern Lights going East she gasped. The mountains feel like protective giants watching over the city. I miss rolling my bike out the door an pushing up and down the hills of the coastal trail. I miss seeing the boundary where the city slipped into the ocean in the '64 earthquake and feeling the intense power of the earth. I miss looking out across massive glaciers and admiring their everlasting patience.

5. Quilts. My mom is a quilter. Have you ever seen one of those beautiful, colorful quilts that makes you think of curling up in a little cabin in the woods? Well I was lucky enough to have a mama who made me one when I was just a little kiddo. And then she made me like 3 more. And then there were the ones for the living room, ones for the TV room, ones for the guests, ones for my parents' bedroom, ones for friends, ones for teachers, ones for the cabin. I have no clue how many quilts we have or how many have been made in our house (we sometimes had quilting parties). That feeling of curling up under a warm blanket on a cool winter evening is so much more wonderful when you are curling up under a blanket of love and care. And it's pretty.

6. Orienteering. My second-favorite sport involves maps, compasses, mud, and bug spray. Every Wednesday of the summer season the Arctic Orienteering Club holds orienteering meets. They hangs flags in obscure corners of the forest just so that you can sprint through the underbrush and wade through wetlands in a race with 30 people you may never see during the event to try and find those hidden flags. Navigation has always excited me, and although it's pretty cool to plot courses for our ship, I really miss trying to interpret which 3-yard hill could be that one green patch on the map while running through nature.

7. Solitude. Anchorage is a city, but Alaska is a vast wilderness. There is something fascinating about traveling for miles and not seeing another soul. I love planning where you will get gas because eventually you will be two far from a gas station to think twice. I love walking over tundra in the foothills of Denali and seeing no man-made trails around. I love the internal quiet that comes over you when you realize the sheer expanse of nature around you.

8. Coffee. When I watch someone make a shot of espresso I try to gauge how many pounds of pressure they are using to press down the grounds. I watch the shot glass filling and try to see the three layers of important stuff. I love how Alaska is home to so many little drive-through coffee shacks that I can make pro/con lists and collect punch cards from my favorites. And although I really like my plain-old coffee or simple latte, I love seeing the seasonal creations and crazy names. Besides, coffee is yummy. AND there's something about coffee in Germany that is... just different. And don't you dare say something about how 'well that's because coffee much stronger in Germany' or whatever. Cuz no. Coffee is more complicated than that. And deserves more respect than that.

9. Fashion. Well, Alaskan fashion. Alaskans are not know for good fashion sense. Rather... the opposite. However, we have a few things down: colorful skirt/tights/clogs combinations; winter skirts (yeeeah!); hand-made, local jewelry; winter sandals (as long as there's no fresh snow, why not?); mukluks, kuspuks, Alaska Grown, State-Fair-products and everything Alaskan.

10. Winter. Yeah, this one makes sense, right? sheesh. Alaskans. Did you know that when the first snow comes I tend to run outside and dance around? I have run out of class, AFS events and peaceful evenings in my apartment to do this. Snow makes me feel cozy inside. The crisp winter air is a fresh reminder of how beauty hides everywhere we look. Have you ever looked outside your window in the dark of winter and seen the brightness that snow shares with the world despite the darkness around it. Have you ever seen the vast white wilderness around you sparkle before your eyes? Ugh. I love squeaky snow under my boots, I love frost on my eyelashes, I love the sight of undisturbed fresh show on the street. And I really miss putting on my skis, V2ing across the stadium and feeling like I am flying...