Sunday, February 25, 2007
Back and puzzled (Sunday Scribblings)
Wow, I've been gone only two weeks and yet it feels like a lifetime. After 36 hours of travel from Auckland to Kabul and then a very slow flight on the ancient Antonov aircraft via Kandahar I finally arrived back to Herat this afternoon. Waiting for me were more than 350 work emails, a meeting set up for an hour after I landed to address a case in which one young man has already died and several other are living in fear, and a staff member in jail after being involved in a car accident in which a young child was injured. So that's the end of the beach holiday then, I guess. I was really reluctant to return this time. For the first time ever in my experience of mission work, of travelling to and from duty stations and of saying all those goodbyes, this time I was uncertain that I really wanted to be leaving. I wept as I embraced my darling younger sister and said goodbye, perhaps this time was just one time too many, or perhaps it was just the knowledge that this place has been a place of sadness and struggle for me in the past few months and a reluctance to come back and face that. I came back with lots of puzzles, and above all with the puzzle of how to do this, how to live in the place and do this work while maintaining my own sense of well-being and inner calm. Looked at from one angle this puzzle seems very complicated, and to require getting lots of little pieces all in the right places, at the right time, in the right balance and for the right amount of time. But from another angle it seems that the puzzle can only be solved by trying less, by letting go more, and by the very simplest of approaches, like breathing and resting and finding joy wherever it is to be found. Along with this puzzle, I've come back with some new insights, some new ideas and new approaches. Perhaps most importantly of all I have come back with a growing sense of emergence from the dark, sad place that I found myself in for much of the past two months. I'm still a bit jetlagged and my home and bed are calling to me - but I wanted to share three things that I found on the plane during my journey back. The first came from a wonderful gift from the gorgeous and thoughtful Alessandra who sent me some of her worry dolls, along with some other lovely treats including a copy of Yoga Journal magazine. I read it from cover to cover on the plane and found all sorts of wonderful reminders and new ideas for how I can continue on my journey to discover how to live this crazy life of movement and conflict and yet remain grounded and at peace within myself. One article by Sally Kempton about surrender and the practice of letting go particularly challenged me. I read and write and talk about letting go, but when I am honest with myself I know that I don't practice it very often. What I found especially helpful in this article was the discussion of the difference between letting go and giving up. I am going to keep thinking about this difference. A fear of giving up, of abdicating my responsiblity to make a difference in the world, is a significant part of my resistance to letting go. So it was helpful to read a story about a yogi who learned that "a true karma yogi is not someone who goes belly-up to higher authority; instead, he's a surrendered activist - a person who does his best to help create a better reality while knowing that he is not in charge of outcomes." That is an insight that I need to remind myself of in my morning meditations, which I am promising myself every morning for the next 21 days (thanks to Meg and Thea for the inspiration to use 21 days as a time frame to let this new habit take root in my life). The second place in which I found some words that my heart and spirit recognised was in a book of poems given to me as a gift by a woman who I am getting to know because she is the partner of my boyfriend's best friend. It is a lovely and unexpected treat to find that she is just the kind of woman with whom I would want to make friends wherever and however I may have met her. She gave me a copy of Mary Oliver's collection of poems "Dream Work" and I found myself drawn immediately to this poem: The Journey One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice - though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles "Mend my life!" each voice cried. But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations - though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do - determined to save the only life you could save. The third place was in a booklet that had been left on the UNHAS flight from Dubai to Kabul, it is a little book called "The WFP Field Staff Companion" and it discusses the challenges of field life in a difficult mission like Afghanistan. It includes some very sound practical tips about things like exercising and maintaining close contact with friends and family at home, but it was the section on burn-out and coping after trauma that really resonated for me. Here they explained the symptoms of burnout and of traumatic stress and I felt once again that little shock of recognition, they could have been describing exactly my experience in the months following my experiences during the assassination of Amanullah Khan and the ensuing battles and casualties. There was very little here that I haven't read, or been told on many previous occassions, but now I was reading it with a little bit of distance from the experience and it seemed much easier to see what I had been going through. Again they recommend relaxation and avoiding self-judgement. Which brought me all the way back to the magazine Alessandra sent me, and a article about the importance and health benefits of resotrative yoga. Even further back, it reminded me of the words of a teacher from the Yoga centre in New Zealand where I took some private instruction when I was home for my sister's wedding last year, very soon after the trauma of the fighting. I had asked my teacher Jude for some intensive teaching on the Ashtanga primary series, in the hope of lifting my pratice of the asanas to the next level. She, in her wisdom, gave me some of this, but also insisted on spending some of the sessions focused on restorative yoga and yoga nidra (mediation). She saw my discipline and my drive to achieve and succeed. She acknowledged this as a positive along with my physical and mental strength. However, with kindness and good humour, she also suggested what I needed was not help to push myself harder into the difficult poses, but help to learn to relax and let go. So my 21 day gift to myself (I'm not going to call it a challenge, because somehow that seems too much like the kind of effort I always make, and this time I want to be easy and kind and gentle with myself) is to practice meditation every morning and some restorative poses every night. During my meditation I will practice letting go - not giving up on my commitment to do all that I can to make a better reality, but letting go a (false) sense of responsibility for the outcomes.