on feelings

Love is probably the one emotion people actively stop themselves from feeling, he burst out. 

What do you mean?

How long does it take you to get mad at someone? How long does it take to get annoyed at a complete stranger who cuts you off? A second, second and a half? We do it all the time. But allowing yourself to love someone? Why is that one thing so hard to do?

Annular

Coming up on a year in Jordan, I’m starting to finally feel more positive about being here. I didn’t experience the typical culture shock pattern of honeymoon period, slump, and ultimate settling in – I skipped the honeymoon and spent a large part of our first several months in some kind of slump. First it was a disappointed slump, that I didn’t immediately fall in love with Amman the way I’ve experienced with other cities. It gradually morphed into a slump of Constant Feminist Outrage as I fixated on all the ways that I was constrained from just being me, the person, instead of being singled out as a woman.

Since we’ve been back from Tanzania, though, I’ve finally hit that uptick of settling in that I given up on. I’m feeling pretty content to be in Jordan these days – I’ve got some good friends, a killer backyard, and a challenging and fascinating job. I’m typing this with peach juice running down my chin and I’ve learned where to find top-shelf gin (Israel).

I’m just not a Middle East person, I don’t think. This distressed me a bit at first – I’ve always found something about other countries and cultures to embrace, and I’ve spent so many years daydreaming about how wonderful and rewarding my life abroad would be, so I was panicked at the thought that maybe I wasn’t cut out for this lifestyle after all. But I’ve realized that it’s okay to not love a place. In fact, it’s rather satisfying to find myself settling in and finding things to keep me happy despite the knowledge that this isn’t the right part of the world for me.

 

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Mzungu

Pedalling a beat up mountain bike through the slums of Dar es Salaam, I couldn’t help but keep a running mental tally of how many people’s annual salaries my outfit equated to. Sunglasses, iPhone, wedding ring, to say nothing of tattoos – I spent a fair amount of time in Tanzania cheeks a-flush at how frivolous I must look, how my priorities must seem off-kilter.

And yet the people we met confirmed that Maslow was full of horseshit when he drew up his pyramid. Nobody waits until they have potable water and three best friends to start solving problems. People laugh, dance, innovate, get their hair done, and generally act like all people everywhere in the world, regardless of their circumstances.

Poverty isn’t romantic. Subsistence farming isn’t a noble back-to-the-land pursuit. A lot of the people we met would certainly be happier and healthier with a bit more cash, and we tried to tip well and promised to tell everyone we knew to visit Africa. But life is life; we do the best we can with what we have.

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Settled

Everyone everywhere seems to equate marriage, buying a house, getting a “real” job, and having kids with the end of travel, adventure, and fun. This cultural narrative bums me out quite possibly even more than sexism; it’s an equal opportunity form of telling people that the thing they were instructed to covet is now going to make their life worse.

And yet my life features 75% of those things and I don’t feel mired in boredom. Could it be that this whole concept is reductionist and artificial?

I mean, of course I have to show up to work instead of going strawberry picking when the urge strikes me (which is often). My marriage prevents me from having crazy sex with random people I meet at parties (but your marriage might not – whatever works!). So it depends what your metrics are for adventure and excitement, but in general my life still holds plenty of interest.

A friend of mine is the definition of free spirit. She is preparing to leave a job, a boyfriend, and a community of people and things that she loves to head off on her own for some touring around in a new place – and she does this regularly. I’m awed at her bravery; her confidence that the world holds plenty of love and food and laughter for her to leave what she has behind and strike out anew. The wind in her hair as she pedals out of town with her only possessions in panniers must feel exhilarating. I know she’ll learn a lot and have a fascinating time.

But I don’t particularly envy her. I’m proud of her, but I’m comfortable to have traded in some measure of that freedom for the opportunity to hold still long enough to build something. I may be holding still, but I’m learning a lot and having a fascinating time nonetheless.

It comes back to metrics. On paper our lives look very different, and hers is definitely sexier. But if learning, exploring, and cultivating relationships are forms of adventure, then we’re both intrepid pioneers in the wilderness.

 

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Leaning

My friend J is one of those incredibly calm, competent people that I really look up to because I will never be able to handle myself with such aplomb. When we were in Ottawa, I would often drop into his office bearing cookies in exchange for career advice; now we’re a few time zones apart but still touch base over the phone every once in a while to strategize and compare notes on our first postings.

During our most recent exchange, he mentioned that, although he wasn’t exactly qualified, he was going to apply for a promotion several levels above ours (although he’s about 10 years my senior, we joined the department at the same time). I told him I thought he’d be great if he got it and I would totally work for him (both true!), hung up, and promptly ended up reading this article in the Atlantic about how women don’t apply to things unless they’re certain they’ll get it.

After I had finished harrumphing, I emailed J the article and said I was going to apply. I spent this afternoon writing my cover letter and resume, and self-deprecatingly emailing my former supervisor to tell him I needed to put his name down as a reference.

I’m basically doing this to prove a point (to whom, I couldn’t say). There’s very little (like, negligible) chance of me succeeding, but I figure that it’s at least good practice for applying to promotions. The thing is, though, I don’t want a giant promotion right now – that would drastically narrow our field of possible postings, and I’m not ready to face another Ottawa winter.

But, while I would happily work for J and am cheering him on (his prior experience makes his application a lot stronger than mine), I can’t stand the thought of some unqualified dudebro getting a promotion just because he applied and I didn’t. I may not be that enthusiastic about leaning in, but I can’t seem to fight the urge to win prizes I don’t particularly want.

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Hooked

Last summer when we first arrived in Amman, Eric and I gamely set out for a run in the 35 degree heat, in a hilly city 1000m more elevated than the place we had recently departed. That adventure lasted about 10 minutes and wasn’t repeated for months.

In Baghdad, though, there wasn’t much else to do besides work and exercise. I was also able to run a flat, traffic-free kilometre loop on the compound, and so started getting up in the mornings for runs – short ones at first, then gradually longer, until I was considered the weird Canadian nursing a single beer at the Thursday night parties so that I could get up at 7 for a long run before it got too hot. But I also ate more pudding than the Brits and never felt guilty, so I’ll let you be the judge of who was weird.

Back in Amman, now, I’ve stuck with it despite the challenges. The sidewalks make every run a bit too much like parkour for my liking, and I could do without the stares, catcalls, and honks I get… although Eric had a firecracker thrown at him, so I guess I’m getting off easily.

But those things are worth putting up for in exchange for faster starting to feel easier, for further seeming more in reach every week. We’re googling destination races for the fall. Every time I hit a particularly steep hill (which is often in Amman), I tell myself how much easier this will make a flat course seem.

Obviously, getting to eat everything in sight is a big perk. I love the fact that I basically need giant brunches, extra cookies, and spoonfuls of peanut butter to function.

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Cucumber, cool as a

Traveling anywhere in Latin America, I’ve always felt an immediate click with the country and the people. The mountains and scenery, colourful hats, and fried dough dipped in chocolate speak to me. I’m still waiting on that feeling with the the Middle East, and have resigned myself to the fact that it’s probably never going to happen for me. But arriving back in Amman after two months in Baghdad has made me appreciate the city more than I had when I left. The driving may be crazy, but at least I’m allowed to go places!

Spring in Amman is beautiful. The normally bleach-white-and-beige city is awash in green, with lilacs spilling over walls and brilliant wild poppies splattering the road side like wed paint. The weather is perfectly crisp and sunny, and the first of the summertime produce has started to appear on the back of pick-up trucks parked on the highway.

I realized that even though I’m not in love with the city, that’s no reason not to fully live our lives here. Since I’ve been back we’ve started exploring again – the new Thai place, the cool artsy neighbourhood downtown, more ruins. I’ve said fuck it to the hills and the catcalls and started running seriously again; with the view to maybe signing up for something biggish in Europe this fall.

The posting lifestyle is teaching me to make the best of things, instead of waiting until things are perfect. Life lesson: things will never be perfect, so just get going.

Becoming a manager at the same time as I was learning the ropes to my new job was highly intimidating. I’ve had to deal with some pretty serious issues with my staff, but I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with the role. People mostly seem to want the same things I want as an employee – a degree of autonomy, but direction when it’s required; a challenge and the tools to meet it successfully; clients to not be mean to us. I can’t influence the last one but I can do my best to give my staff the first two (and for anyone in the same shoes, I highly recommend the Ask a Manager archives for invaluable managerial advice from a smart lady).

Acknowledging that my sphere of influence is very tiny has also been helpful in managing my stress about my job (the physical manifestations of which, luckily, turned out to be my very first parasite). I love that my job amounts to solving problems, but I’m learning that there are a lot of problems I can’t solve on my own. I can offer advice but I don’t get paid enough to carry the burdens of others.

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No fixed plans

My mother is visiting us in September, and is already sending me draft itineraries. She considers me little more than a vagabond in terms of how late I leave things, but by any objective measures I’m a planner (as evidenced by ye grand olde to-do list you can link to up there). I like certainty, I like the ticking off of things accomplished, I like goals.

So I don’t find it entirely hyperbolic to call The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking quietly life-changing. I haven’t torn down the to-do list and thrown out my calendar, but I have taken on a new perspective on planning my life out in too much detail.

I tend to hide behind an ironic little facade at times, but I’m usually sheltering some sky-high hopes; when things don’t go as planned I can be crushingly disappointed. I’d love to claim I’m a roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, but the punches often leave me ugly crying at how my daydreamed-in-intricate-detail expectations weren’t met.

So the idea of ditching five-year plans and bucket lists, of recognizing that we don’t control 99.9% of what happens in our lives and it’s better to just experience the road as it unfurls beneath our feet, is not one I’d given much thought to before, but made my heart do a little skip at the idea of just being free to meander.

This tiny, obvious revolution won’t completely upend my life – I’m still required to set yearly objectives at work after all – but it’s a refreshing wake-up call that I probably spend rather too much time planning to do things and not enough time actually doing them.

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Complaints ahead

I’m starting feel the kind of full-body exhaustion that a dog sleeping under a patch of shade in August seem to convey. One of the national identity lies Canadians like to repeat is that we “punch above our weight” in the diplomatic world – that despite our relatively small population we get things done and are of import on the world stage, that we’re cool-headed peace brokers in a world of superpowers and upstarts.*

And I don’t even have the energy to discuss how true this is, the punching and relative weight classes, on an international-policy level. But so far in my time here I’ve counted 11 Americans  and 6 Brits in Jordan and Iraq who would be considered my counterpart. The resources that other countries assign to what has been handed to me as my job are simply mind-boggling. The same goes for my full-time colleague in Baghdad – she’s more or less a one-woman embassy. This would be difficult in, say, Paris or Berlin, but here in the land of corruption index champions this cheery “look what we’re doing with so few resources!” back-patting coming from headquarters is bruxism-inducing.

Really the worst part, though, is the fact that I set what I now realize were unreasonably high expectations for how much I would accomplish while in-country and now need to devise more reasonable “how can we slog through until we sort this out?” plans for our operations, and that’s discouraging. Nobody likes to concede defeat, but try to get a Type A foreign service officer (redundant) to do it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Anyways, though, in the other Great Canadian Stoic Tradition: things could be worse. I’m learning a lot, and am fairly certain that unless I’ve screwed up something major and not noticed as of yet, this will probably translate into good news for my career. I’m running every morning and the cafeteria’s Sri Lankan night is amazing. I’m here for three more weeks, and should be able to check a few more boxes before returning to Amman and my old two-embassy juggling act… and then will be counting down to mid-May, when we’ll ditch the desert (and my Blackberry) for a well-deserved vacation.

 

* I say this out of the purest patriotism, the kind that involves looking unflinchingly at my country and saying, yes, this place is great, but let’s be honest guys we could make some improvements; and also acknowledging that surely every country does the same thing, repeating myths about national identity until they become more or less bedrock of the national psyche. The other big one being how nice we all are, as evidenced by our constant apologizing, which, personally, having experienced my fair share of apologies from Canadians (and having delivered a number of them myself), I can assure you these apologies are for the most part delivered in a saccharinely passive aggressive fuck-you-very-much kind of tone and are not nice at all. 

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this opinion will change

I’m slowly discovering more gray hairs, glinting silver in the mirror when I brush my teeth and floating, almost invisible, in front of my glasses when my bangs grow too long. Perhaps because they number in the dozens, I’m finding myself charmed by them rather than distraught. I like the way they look; in my otherwise hazelnut hair they catch the sun and, I fancy, lend me an air of seriousness to offset my otherwise goofy youth, always standing awkwardly akimbo in my blazers and heels.

I imagine being so startled one day that I grow a glamourous shock of pure white, streaking around to frame my face and prove that I have history, I have cred. I try to measure the new grays, imagine they are like rings in a tree trunk – if hair grows x millimeters a month, you showed up precisely then – what storm did I weather that day?

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