I like to think that life is like walking through the world’s most limitless library. Living in New York, I’m often overcome by the sheer volume of people that crowd these city streets. As I shuffle through the subway I try to make eye contact with as many people as I can- I crave those moments of connection with my fellow travelers. More than that, I’m simply curious. For every person I pass I feel the weight of their untold stories, bound into a beautiful body of a book.
What if we had the chance to read even a page from the stories of all the people with whom we share this wacky, wonderful world? How would that change the way we relate to each other? The way we hold conversations, the way we connect, the way we debate, the way we love? I feel strongly that we all sit on a trove of untapped empathy- if we could only get a glimpse of what life is really like for the people around us we could see how universal our experiences truly are.
This is why I was so excited to learn of The ListServe. What is the ListServe, you ask? Created by a group of NYU grad students as a final assignment in 2012, The ListServe asks its subscribers one powerful question: “If you had the chance to speak to one million people, what would you say?” Every day, one person subscribed to The ListServe is drawn at random and given their chance to answer this for themselves, and their email is delivered to everyone on the list. You can talk about literally anything, get as personal as you want, encourage others to reach out to you, or remain anonymous if you so choose- you’re free to share whatever is in your heart and on your mind in the moment you win the lottery.
In the year or so I’ve been subscribed to The ListServe, I’ve had the privilege of reading hundreds of personal accounts from people around the world ranging from a former drug addict to a priest. It’s fascinating to witness that, regardless of who the person is or where they come from, they almost always mention how difficult it is to choose what to discuss with the world. With just one page to share from your story, what can you offer to brighten someone’s day, teach a valuable lesson, share your perspective, or even just get something off your chest? I wonder often what I would share in the event I won The ListServe, but I don’t want to wait- that’s why I started a blog!
All of The ListServe entries have been archived HERE , and I highly recommend reading through them sometime. More than ever, I think reading The ListServe could be for many an effective exercise in empathy- while there is no substitute to a deep and meaningful conversation with a stranger, these entries still inspire me to look at life differently. Yesterday’s email came from a fellow who identified himself as “G” from Norway, and he offered a simple reminder: “Christmas is coming up. As well as being kind to your near and dear, make sure to also do something for other strangers. It means more than you think.” With their opportunity to address the world, they chose a message of acceptance and goodwill- I hope all those reading take note.
What would you say if you could tell the world just one thing? Join The ListServe. Create. Or maybe message me sometime. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to know someday.
TODAY’S #SCRAMBLEDSUNDAYS SONG: These days I’m listening to a ton of Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan ‘s music. Her sweet and soaring song “I Don’t Know” beautifully bottles the bliss of discovering (and in this case, dating) someone new. To learn another person’s quirks, talents, fears, and dreams for the future is to read the story of their lifetime. (Thank you for being here and taking the time to read some of mine!)
“Their interests section isn’t important- don’t include it. Thanks.”
Swallowing a sigh, I deleted the offending line from the resume.
Recently, I have been freelancing and temping. A lot of that temp work has involved receptionist and office admin duties including the task of editing and reformatting client resumes for internal review at an executive level headhunting agency. After reviewing the resume of one prospect who felt compelled to relay his love of rock climbing right next to his real estate experience, I felt a sense of solidarity with this stranger.
As someone currently on the job market herself I have frequently found myself frustrated by the feeling of being reduced to the lines on my resume (which can be viewed HERE, in case you are curious). Don’t get me wrong- I’m proud of all the skills I’ve cultivated through my training in college and my first jobs. However, as I stared again at the plastic white lilies across the room from my receptionist desk I wondered how we can possibly attain jobs in alignment with our authentic selves when the lines on our resumes portray only part of who we are.
Part of me fears that this thinking came from falling prey to the infamous millennial sense of entitlement to job satisfaction that our society loves to hate. Simon Sinek’s famous rant about millennials in the workforce does a fair job of addressing the issue without demonizing us millennials outright. He attests that the challenges we face when seeking job satisfaction include coping with learned impatience from the instant gratification of our “swipe right” culture and the belief that we are all “special” and could become “anything we wanted” that we were taught growing up. While I don’t think this is untrue, I do think that it disproportionately applies to those coming from a more privileged background. It also overlooks what in my mind is a critical distinction:
The problem is not that we were told that “you can be anything”- it’s that by and large we have misinterpreted this to mean “you can be everything”.
In talking with my peers, many of whom I would consider extremely smart and hard working, I’ve felt that what’s lacking when it comes to our careers is not drive, it’sdecision making. Decisions, when backed with a strong personal “why”, naturally call upon our capacity fordedication and discipline. I can’t tell you how many twenty-somethings I’ve encountered (myself included) whose time and attention has been splintered between a number of passions and possibilities for their future without any concrete goals. They bounce from wanting to become a teacher one day, to an actress the next, then toy with the idea of becoming a travel agent, and…you get the picture. How can you pursue what you want when you won’t decide what it is? Clinical psychologist Meg Jay describes this quarter life crisis well in her book The Defining Decade.
Perhaps as we fight the feeling that our work reduces us to our resumes, we fail to embrace that not every one of our passions is a viable full-time profession for us. This is not a terrible thing! The world more likely than not won’t afford us a job that captures everything we want to be in life- this applies even if we create our own business. It’s up to us to choose to not to tie ourselves too much to our titles. In theory, we could start side hustles for any number of our interests- but for every passion we pursue, we further divide our resources of time, money, and attention. That’s a fact.
Don’t hear me wrong- there is a reason why on my own portfolio my headline contains all of my main “slashes”. I believe 1000% that our passions and idiosyncrasies add tremendous value to our work. This is true of all people – and especially of giants in their respective fields.
Two of the books I have read in the past year have touched on this topic. In Originals: How Non Conformists Move The World , Adam Grant observes how some of the most innovative scientists, leaders, and artists alike have made stunning breakthroughs despite coming from professional backgrounds in wildly different arenas. Martin Luther King jr. aspired to become the president of a university until he was called upon by his community to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Grammy-winning guitarist and songwriter Brian May left behind a doctorate program in astrophysics to go all in with Queen. In Enchantment, The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, Guy Kawasaki attests that the most enchanting people always have eclectic interests, from actress Geena Davis’s talent in archery to Tim Ferris’s for breakdancing. Even Einstein, who we know as history’s most famous theoretical physicist, was also an amateur violinist.
What all these wildly successful individuals have in common is that, despite having many passions, they made their mark by deciding what was ultimately worth the majority of their energy. As Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, the Disciplined Pursuit of Less ,“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” This is why I’m beginning to believe that the message that we all ought to “follow our passion” is deeply flawed- very few of us have just one! We must be willing to commit to at least one big goal for our future to gain clarity of the most essential actions to propel us forward. Those big goals tend to come from a place far more precious than passion.
Fred Rogers is one of my personal heroes as well as one of the clearest examples of an essentialist that I can offer. While famous for his work as the cheerful and compassionate host of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, one of the most influential children’s television shows of all time, he was also a jazz pianist and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He decided to create children’s television because when he first saw what kind of children’s content was being broadcast when he was a young adult in the 1950’s he “hated it so”. He resolved then and there that his purpose was to produce meaningful media for children that focused on building their emotional intelligence. His purpose was so powerful that he would go on to to testify in front of congress in its name.
Fred Rogers’s story illustrates how pinpointing our purpose puts passion into perspective. While neither were the primary focus of his programming, both his love for music and his faith had a huge impact on his work. Utilizing his background as a pianist he became a messenger of music by composing several original songs for the show, teaching short music lessons throughout the series, and making a point of introducing his viewers to visiting musicians and the band that recorded live on set. While he never spoke to his audience specifically about religion, the deep love and caring that stemmed from his faith defined how he chose to communicate with his young viewers.
By putting his purpose first, he forever changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children simply by being their friend. I strongly believe that his message, that each one of us can be liked “just the way we are” is needed more than ever in an increasingly impersonal world.
As I sit at my receptionist desk taking in my first taste of corporate America (it tastes like crappy Earth-killing kcup coffee), I reflect on the decisions, and the decisions I failed to make, that brought me here. While I worried for years that I made the wrong decision by not pursuing my passion for music, those feelings came to a head in my last position, which was in children’s media but otherwise not aligned with my work values. I began to see music as an escape, and entertained the idea of completely shifting gears to pursue it as a new career. Without making a clear decision, however, I spent countless hours scrolling job openings with no sense of direction. By spinning my wheels, I burned myself out.
While I don’t aspire to be the next Mister Rogers (there is no such thing), I know that I too can have a greater impact if I decide to draw more from my purpose than from the pleasure I get from my passions. I don’t pretend to have this all figured out yet- but I recognize that in pursuing a life beyond the lines, passion and purpose are not the same. By choosing to live from a place of purpose, we don’t abandon our passions- we just come to understand how they make us bold.
In short, I leave you with this powerful quote from the man, the myth, the neighbor himself:
As I aim to share knowledge and make room for more titles in my personal bookshelf I’m gifting my gently worn/ doodled in copies of Essentialism, Originals, and Enchantment to three lucky readers- comment below on this post to claim one of them for yourself!
I look forward to seeing you here for another #ScrambledSunday next week!
Born from our inherent instinct of survival, fear can keep us and others safe. It informs us when to run from a sketchy situation, danger, or withhold a comment that might hurt us or another person. Fear can even promote productive behaviors. For instance, my fear of disease, carrying excess fat, and losing mobility as I age is my motivation for healthy(ish) eating and regular exercise.
However, in many instances the older we get the more fear begins to hold us back in ways that are not only unnecessary but actually detrimental to our growth. Fear is a force so strong that when it strikes it actually feels petrifying, like a physical threat. In contemplating fear I remembered a viral YouTube video I watched some time back by Prince Ea where he describes the richest place in the world- the graveyard.
Haunted by the souls of the stifled,”In the graveyard, you will find inventions never invented. Businesses never erected. Songs never sung, books never written. Ideas never nurtured, people never realized because they were scared… to take a risk. Scared like you.” This concept is also ardently expressed by Sara Bareilles in her song “Chasing the Sun” in which she comes to understand the value of life from spending time exploring a cemetery in Queens. Oof! This idea hits so close to home for me, as someone who has long battled her fear of failure.
Fear is what I allowed to hold me back from pursuing music as a major in college- which, until very recently (like, within the past month recently) I felt was the greatest mistake of my young life. Fear is what I allowed to keep me up at night while I stared at the blinking cursor on my empty Word documents many a night in college, paralyzed by procrastination. Fear is what I allowed to convince me that the children’s book I have been wanting to publish is not ready. Fear is what I allowed to convince me that I would never be “enough” until I looked a certain way, did all the “right” things and was liked by everyone.
The dastardly little boggarts of the Harry Potter series is in my mind the most perfect representation of fear and how it shifts to scare the individual. My fear is not your fear- at least not in the same form. At its core, my fear of failure is one in the same with my fear of not being “perfect” or “enough”- and recently, I decided that I was through with letting my fear hold me back. This song that I wrote during my senior year of college captures the kind of thinking that got me stuck:
In pushing myself past my perfectionism and reaching for what resonates with me, I’ve given myself permission to delve more deeply into music and performing, where I’ve faced a fair share of failure in the past few months: I applied to study with the legendary BMI Musical Theatre Workshop where some songwriting giants like lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen, In Transit) got their start. I didn’t get in. I auditioned for an awesome children’s theatre troupe in NYC. I didn’t get in. I applied and interviewed for a job as an educational media production specialist at one of the most prestigious performing arts institutions in the world. I didn’t get it.
And so on and so forth. While these “boos” stung quite a bit in the moment I genuinely don’t feel disempowered by them. When you’re in pursuit of your dreams, it’s easier to see rejections as part of rather than the end of your journey. As Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist, “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
One of my other passions that I’ve recently rediscovered is drawing/ doodling- something that I loved when I was little but slowly abandoned once my little brother displayed a real aptitude for art. Both of my siblings are talented artists, but as a student at CalArts he is actively pursuing a career as a character animator and illustrator. For several years, I felt great shame when I thought about drawing again; similarly to how I felt with my music studies, I feared that without the training I thought I “should” have, I was no longer allowed to create art.
In the face of my own boggart I can now say that’s “riddikulus”! Sure, maybe I won’t become a career artist at this point, but I am no more or less qualified to pick up a pencil and doodle to my heart’s delight than you. Here’s my latest drawing- I whipped it up to celebrate my favorite holiday:
Through my lens of my perfectionism I’m looking at this and “booing” it. Now that I’ve posted it, you also have every right to critique or criticize my work if you so choose. But you know what? Given that I had the idea to create this image for over a year but was too scared to act on it last Halloween, sharing this piece is an accomplishment for me in itself. For every time I push past my own “boos” to sing, to write, to draw, and to otherwise expose myself to the potential “boos” of those around me, I face my fears head on. Creating something new always puts us in a place of vulnerability- the trick is embracing that this is a natural and necessary part of the process. Through facing our fears we can only build our capacity for courage and creativity- therein lies the treat!
Regardless of the outcome of any one action, there is power in putting yourself out there to be seen and heard as what you want to become. For me at this time, that means a storyteller in the broadest sense of the word (I find myself torn between my love of children’s media and music on a daily basis). I haven’t yet mastered any medium with which to channel my creativity, though I have proven myself competent in many. One of my greatest fears has been that I am and forever will be a “Jane of all trades” doomed to bounce between several artistic arenas but never truly shine in any of them. In facing my fears I’ve chosen to believe instead that investing in my diverse portfolio of skills and hobbies is how I will find my fortune.
What’s scarier- facing what are ultimately small fears, frustrations, and failures along the way or waking up one day when you’re past your prime, only to wonder “what if”?
Happy Halloween, readers! I hope you too learn to break through your “BOO”.
P.S.- Just for fun, here’s one of my favorite spooky songs to get you into the Halloween spirit!
If you are reading this, I trust you with my story. I don’t and can’t claim to know much of anything at this stage of my life, but what I do know I’m eager to share with you. If you haven’t visited my blog before, welcome! Perhaps you’re one of the several wonderful people I’ve met within the past year. If you have followed my blog you may already know that this is the first time I’ve posted here in a long while. It seems every day my life has been changing with dizzying rapidity. I’ve often found it intimidating to write in the midst of all this upheaval, but I feel compelled to revisit this platform in spite of that.
I believe that the truest thing of value each and every one of us has to offer the world is our story. Getting back to blogging is part of my effort to become more present to the power of my own personal narrative. God knows how I’ve been changed by simply listening to my peers discuss the trials and triumphs of their lives- both the big and the seemingly small. My hope is that by sharing my story, even the parts I don’t love, I can help empower others to share theirs as well.
In the past year, I’ve made several big choices. In pursuing a career in educational children’s media and my dream to create and work within a dedicated arts community I chose to make New York City my new home. In an effort to save money I chose to live in a **relatively** inexpensive all female dormitory right in the heart of Manhattan, where every day I feel in full force the hustle and bustle of this incredible city. I chose to work my butt off as a video editor at a small children’s media company. I finally, finally found the strength in me to choose to let go of the boy I loved for seven years. I chose to try to connect with someone new again, and for better or worse, I also chose to let that relationship go after a time. After months of feeling burnt out in my job, I chose to leave. All of these choices have contributed to what I feel is the greatest (mis)adventure of my young adult life: learning to let go and love life in the moment.
Perhaps the greatest changes I’ve experienced have come from choosing to explore a creative outlet I didn’t even know existed before this year. The first few months I lived in New York revolved exclusively around my job- until I was able to advocate for support for my role I worked until around 10pm almost every night. While I met one of my closest friends and mentors through work, my crushing schedule made it difficult to enjoy much of anything New York had to offer outside my office walls.
When I finally found some freedom in late February, I consulted meetup.com to find some outlets to pursue one of my greatest passions: music (and more specifically, songwriting). It’s no surprise that I got involved with the New York Songwriter’s Collective, but curiously, I also stumbled into Circle Singing- something I had tried only in messing around with my college a cappella groups.Within Circle Singing I discovered the wonderful world of vocal improvisation for myself.
For the purposes of this post (I expect I will delve into vocal improv more fully in a future post), Circle Singing involves the spontaneous creation of vibrant choral music from a group of open and curious singers. Engaging in improv has been humbling in so many ways. For one, improvisation reduces all participating singers to our most raw and vulnerable selves. Whatever basic musical pattern an individual produces in any given moment is embraced and immediately built upon by another singer, who very well may be a complete stranger. It feels astonishingly intimate and familiar all at once to share songs and give way to the music moving through us in these spaces (special thanks to groups such as SoundingNYC for creating these spaces).
Rhiannon, one of a handful of prominent teachers of vocal improvisation, writes in her book Vocal River ,”Improvisation is a gift, a necessity, a skill, a dance with the unknown. It is the practice of approaching the unknown, not with fear but with curiosity and with trust that the path will be revealed. It is about staying awake, really awake, all senses vibrant, as you learn to be available to it all, including the fear and the endless possibilities of each new moment.”
When you really get down to it, all of life is one long improvisation, each passing moment filled with possibility and power. As I learned this year through taking my first courses in improvisation at the Magnet Theater in New York, the first rule of improv is to “Yes, and” your scene partners and the possibilities they present. In truly letting go and saying YES there is no room for the self pity, perfectionism, or pride that I’ve allowed to plague me in the past.
Making a regular practice of improvisation and mindfulness has given me greater confidence in my ability to trust my instincts and connect with others to create the life I long for, moment by moment. The song “Getting There” from In Transit (Broadway’s first a cappella musical) captures this feeling far more beautifully than I can hope to with this scrambled post. One of the greatest accomplishments of that song, and the musical as a whole, is the utilization of vocal music/ a cappella as a medium uniquely suited to honor the role our connections seen and unseen play in shaping and sharing our song with the world. In that same spirit, I aim to be present to all the people who have shaped who I am and who I hope to become. If you’re reading this now, I count you among my many collaborators.
Deep down, I feel that something magic is about to emerge from the messy witches’ brew I’ve made of my life- I just don’t know what it is yet. Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism , says “there are two kinds of people in this world: people who are lost and people who know they are lost.” As a perpetual explorer, I’m proud to recognize my place in the second camp. I embrace that it’s going to take finesse, failure, faith, and good friends to find my way. I’m choosing a life of letting go, getting there, going with the flow, and saying YES to what’s next.
Thank you for reading- I look forward to connecting with you again soon! I’m challenging myself to write at least one of these a week, so check back for more #ScrambledSundays!
While the last official protest I attended was the Million Puppet March for PBS in 2012, with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency (a man who has shown such great disrespect for the women, immigrants, and non gender conforming people of this nation) I felt compelled to show up and be counted among us who refuse to be silenced by this devastating loss of trust. I could not make it to Washington D.C., but instead attended the March and rallies in Philadelphia, where I’m proud to say there was a turnout of nearly 50,000 women, men, and children of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds. Together with participants in almost every major city around the world, our numbers exceeded 2.5 million, all marching for our own reason but all to assert our collective power.
Today I marched so that come the time I bring a daughter or a son into this world they may know the unfailing truth that they live in a country where their hard work, character, and smarts are paramount to their success, their leaders model empathy and aplomb, their bodily autonomy is respected and protected, and their voices are valued. I marched so they could know that it is their heart, not their “pussy” that holds power. I marched today so my children can take these things in stride.
And in another scrambled episode of my life, I am posting this from a ritzy bathroom in Atlantic City.
It’s no matter that my sister and I came up with these plans to be here just this morning. It’s no matter that the ticket cost more than two days worth of my commute to and from my job in New York City. It’s no matter that just beyond these walls people are tipsy and bubbly and singing and I feel awkward.
What matters in this moment is welcoming the new year with open arms. Soon, I’ll be starting a new chapter of my life in NYC, where I’ve been commuting to for work over the past few months and where I will finally be moving in just a few short weeks! I’m excited, nervous, and eager to try my hand at life in the city made of songs and towering stories.
And because no New Year’s Post of mine would be complete without it, here is a recap of my resolutions from last year. While I’m honestly proud of what I accomplished this year, it’s not entirely what I set out to do. After all, the year turned out so differently from what I had envisioned… this time last year, I was in Ethiopia with no intention to leave before my contract was to end in October. Instead, after having to leave Ethiopia in May, October is was when I secured my job as a video editor in NYC. More on how I came to leave Ethiopia early HERE. The change of plans aside, let’s see how I did:
1) Become a more grateful and generous person- focus more on how I can help other people.
While I commend my well meaning 2015 self for such a noble aspiration, I say with no pretense that I made little progress on this front.
2) Write, read, repeat.
Well, I fell woefully behind on blogging (my last post was from before I started my new job a few months ago!) but I definitely did make great strides on my reading goals since last year. My favorite read this year? How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
3) Trust my creative impulses: explore, take risks, discover.
While I haven’t made the progress I had hoped in moving forward with some of my personal projects, I am lucky to have secured a job that affords me quite a bit of creative freedom on a day to day basis. While I don’t ultimately want to be a full time video editor, I genuinely enjoy my work and find great satisfaction in the process of crafting a story will be out of a heap of footage. I feel good about where I am right now and the unforeseen opportunities afforded to me by my work- such as recording voices for animated characters on my company’s original children’s show!
I’m proud to say that I’ve definitely experienced an uptick in my general level of confidence from the time I wrote this last year. I secured a new job, I have proven my competence in this job, I lost a fair amount of weight, and I had a few personal breakthroughs in the way I view myself and my work. The one thing which bothers me now is the thought that while I work hard, know my stuff, and show my stuff, I know I’m just not working hard enough at the right things- the things that would move me toward attaining the major accomplishments that I ultimately want to achieve in my life. I’m also questioning- do I really want these things, and for the right reasons? The thought of compromising or letting go of the future I’ve been pursuing since my freshman year of college (a career as a children’s media producer) terrifies me.
In an effort to keep things simple, I only have two overarching resolutions this year:
1) Do more of what moves me forward and brings me joy.
• Working up the courage to meet new people
• Eating lots of greens, protein, and healthy fats
• Complimenting strangers
• Drinking tea
• Setting multiple alarms for when I need to leave
• Pursuing informational interviews with professionals I admire
• Doing research to discover my dream career
• Making my bed every day (still a noble goal)
• Dressing for success
• Following up with people I want to become friends with
• Spending more time with my family
• Using my favorite brand of handmade soaps (LUSH <3)
• Being honest with myself and others about my desires, feelings, and ideas
• Choosing the best takes and graphics to include in the show I edit
• Asking people to tell me more about the things they are passionate about
• Walking around the city
• Enjoying the new gems in my “Discover Weekly” playlist on Spotify
• Spending time with people who inspire and energize me
• Having hearty debates after thought provoking films
• Petting cute animals
2) Do less of what holds me back and causes me pain.
• Eating too much sugar, starch, and fried foods
• Acting cold or disinterested for fear of getting hurt
• Taking things too seriously
• Overthinking my work
• Committing to projects and plans before thinking critically
• Aimlessly scrolling and posting on social media
• Comparing myself to others
• Spending time with people who drain me
• Forgetting to take out my contacts at night
• Thinking about doing things more than actually doing them
• Getting stressed out over what others may or may not think of me
• Taking my family for granted
• Giving myself too much credit for my past accomplishments
• Giving myself too little credit for my present accomplishments
• Giving myself any credit for intended future accomplishments
• Letting my room get hopelessly messy
My hope is that these two big resolutions will help me recognize the power I have to turn the dial toward becoming my best self by identifying the small, everyday changes I can make to create lasting impact in my life. Let’s see what changes 2017 brings…
It has taken me several months to work through some thoroughly unpleasant feelings about the way my time living and working in Ethiopia came to an end. In many ways, I’m still processing everything I learned in my time there…not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of life back in Addis and wondered what I might be doing if I was still there. We’re coming up on what would have been the one year mark of my time abroad, so this has been weighing on my mind a lot recently. Back when I left Ethiopia in May I was feeling very upset, hurt, and disappointed by the circumstances that changed what should have been “see you soon” to “goodbye” to the people I had grown so close to over the course of my eight month journey.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of how I came to leave Ethiopia early, here’s what happened:
For months, I had been eagerly anticipating this trip. My bags were checked and I was at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport ready to board a plane for Munich to attend Prix Jeunesse, a festival showcasing the best and brightest of children’s media from all over the world. Whiz Kids Workshop was the recipient of the festival’s “Next Generation” prize for Tsehai Loves Learning back in 2008, so it was an honor to attend with the winners of one of the industry’s most prestigious awards (and as they were about to launch an amazing new project no less).
I had high hopes that my attendance would further expand my worldview and help me build contacts in the industry, so I had spent ample time researching the work of people I thought might be in attendance and preparing my portfolio for the occasion. From there, I was to fly to Rome where my mom and sister would be waiting for me for a mini-reunion and mother daughter trip around Italy before I returned to Addis to complete my time working with Whiz Kids Workshop. Things were going pretty well at work- I genuinely liked my colleagues, I was passionate about the projects I was assigned, and with the emergence of exciting new opportunities I was even considering extending my contract with the company.
Imagine my alarm then when I excitedly presented my passport to board the plane and I was told that not only was I barred from my flight, but also that I had been living in the country illegally. Somehow, my immigration papers were processed incorrectly so until I went through immigration again I wasn’t going anywhere. My heart sank, thinking back to the month-long ordeal I had with customs just to enter the country. It hadn’t been easy, and I expected nothing less of what now lay ahead. My daydreams of electrifying conversations about children’s television, networking, gondolas, gelato, and time with my family were crushed in an instant.
And so ensued a hurricane half week of trials, tears, and tremendous disappointment as I learned that I would have to leave Whiz Kids and Ethiopia prematurely. Let’s just say it involved a lot of running between various offices within the government immigration compound and all over Addis, frustrating gaps in communication, rescheduled flights, uncertainty, stamped documents (Ethiopian officials loooooove their stamps), and a large fine to top it all off.
The short version of the story is that while I sadly missed out on Prix Jeunesse, by the grace of God I was fortunate enough to make it to Italy and then return home to the US in time to work a fourth year with my old summer job at Discover the World of Communication. I could write much more of a play by play retelling of the craziness I endured that week, but I just don’t feel it would be productive at this point. What I will share with you here is what I can safely say are the most important things I learned in immigration:
Unless someone died, things are probably not as bad as they feel.
In the moments where my chances in immigration seemed bleak, I felt truly devastated and let this lack of morale get the best of me. While we recognized from fairly early on that we couldn’t get the immigration paperwork processed in time for me to make it to Prix Jeunesse, there was still a sliver of hope that we’d make it in time for me to see my mom and sister in Italy. I now understand just how lucky I am to have had the problems I was dealing with in the first place- I was in a position where going abroad was even a possibility for me, I was well fed and had a comfy bed to sleep in at night, and had good friends supporting me throughout the whole ordeal. Many people dream of having such problems.
I also said some pretty cringeworthy things in my disappointment and disgust. One of them was a Facebook status saying that my situation trying to obtain an exit visa was just like “Casablanca minus two men”. While I would give anything to channel the lovely Ilsa Lund, the reality is that in Casablanca the main players were also up against Nazi Germany and the very real danger of being thrown into a concentration camp. Yeah, that was not quite my situation.
A more appropriate Casablanca reference would be one of the most poignant quotes delivered by Rick, the unlikely hero of the film- “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” If the problems of three little people are insignificant, then the problems of one are microscopic. Which brings me to my next point-
Maturity is just as much a learned skill as it is a trait.
I’ve been told that I am a “mature” person. That idea, that I might be somewhat wise for my age, has always been a personal source of pride. However, I don’t think such “maturity” is truly tested until you’re put into a particularly trying situation. When put to the test in immigration, I know I didn’t always pass the bar. When I expressed my shame for my panicked (and pretty self-absorbed) state, my dear friend who helped me through this process in more ways than I can count gently reminded me that it often takes going through difficult experiences to build maturity, and that it’s okay and normal to react to a stressful situation imperfectly. It was one of the most empathetic things anyone has ever said to me, and exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. While I’m far from perfect, I’m proud of myself for where I did carry myself with decorum through this process.
The value of a helping hand cannot be overstated.
I am incredibly fortunate to have had the support of so many wonderful people. There was my Amharic speaking American friend who stood by my side to help me make sense of everything, as most of the exchanges with the immigration officials were in Amharic. One of my colleagues from Whiz Kids put everything on the line to help me, even though that meant missing out on time with his girlfriend who was visiting from out of town. A friend from the U.S. Embassy, a random person waiting in line at the immigration office, and my friend and her family all lent me the cash I needed to pay the large fine which was issued entirely in USD (they sure don’t make this easy for foreigners). My good friends consoled me both from Addis and abroad. Eventually, my boss and her husband absorbed the burden of the fine. Someday I hope to make good on the sacrifices they all made for me and similarly support a friend in need.
Blame is an empty action.
In the heat of the moment it might feel good to pin your problems on something or someone else, but that satisfaction wears off fast and leaves you in the exact same place you were before you blew off steam. It’s much better to either spend that mental energy seeking solutions or to suck it up and keep your mouth shut. While there are many people who could have been responsible for this unfortunate event, ultimately who did what wrong is irrelevant. Blame can’t change the past, but left unchecked it can prevent you from moving forward in the present.
No problem. It happens.
Sometimes, life just really sucks. No person gets through it without episodes they would have rather skipped. There’s a fitting term I learned in Amharic for “no problem”/ “It happens”: “minim aydel”. Uttering this phrase was just short of a prayer during my last and most frustrating days living in Ethiopia.
So the airline lost my luggage, leading to hours spent trying to track it down through phone calls and visits to the airport? Minim aydel.
So they sent it to Munich without me? Minim aydel.
So all of my underwear was in that bag? Minim aydel.
So we decided I should get an exit visa with the hope we would be spared the hefty penalty fine, only to be charged anyway? Minim aydel.
So this shouldn’t have happened to me or my colleagues because we’re all good people. So what? Life isn’t always fair. It’s not anyone’s fault. Minim aydel.
No problem. It happens.
And so it happens that I write now from my family’s home in South Jersey, feeling a bit apprehensive about where I stand. Essentially, I’m in the same position that I was around this time last year– scared and standing before my next unknown.
I don’t know how long it will take to secure a steady job in my field in this highly competitive job market.
I don’t know exactly what that job will be or where it will take me. While I am generally open minded about where I pursue work opportunities, at this stage in my life I am also craving to move forward in ways that I know are largely inhibited by hopping from city to city (or from country to country). I am looking for longevity in wherever I move next and have focused my search accordingly.
Until fairly recently, I didn’t even know if I made the right choice in moving abroad. The tumult in which I left Ethiopia left me so full of doubt.
It wasn’t until August that I came across all the evidence I needed that living abroad was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. Following the end of my summer job, I was freaking out because I had booked extra time out in California with absolutely no plans. Zilch. Nada. None. But suddenly, something inside me clicked: wait, I’ve DONE this before. Completely on my own, I had an amazing day exploring Vienna on my layover and then eight awesome months getting to know the incredible country that is Ethiopia.
It occurred to me that the girl I was a year ago would not have known that she had it in her to chart her own course with such confidence.
Wasn’t my quest for self empowerment precisely the biggest reason I chose to move to abroad in the first place? Revisiting everything I learned while living in Addis and working at Whiz Kids Workshop, I discovered that I learned so many new things about myself- things I never would have expected when I first moved to Ethiopia.
Sure, I learned a ton about making media for children- but what was more important was the inspiration I found in the people behind the craft. I learned a lot about what happens behind the scenes to run a successful show, and found that above all else demonstrating respect and appreciation for hard work is what keeps a good team together. While I learned a lot about my long-held interest in international children’s programming, I found I was even more excited about using media as an agent for health education. Completely unrelated to work, I found that I do really want to have kids someday (I blame my boss’s adorable children for this). I met people from all over the world who taught me to embrace calm, treat everyone like a potential friend, recognize and run from red flags, look out for the new kid, and know that with drive and dedication, you can create anything you imagine if you work hard and work smart.
Everything that we know was once unknown. Every new exciting place, every new spice we taste, and every new friendly face holds the power to sweep out the corners in our mind that we never knew we left untended. In these corners relationships are forged, ideas are born, and lives are changed. All it takes to is the courage to board that plane, smile at that stranger, send that application, pick up that book, or pursue that passion project- whatever it means for you to take a step in your search for everything you hope to know.
This I now know- while I may not have all the answers I sought from moving abroad a year ago, I returned with more questions- and questions are what help us grow.