Thursday, March 29, 2018

Things I Learned in Peace Corps: Wilson!

Eating Alone
What is the loneliest you have ever felt? Have you ever experienced complete isolation for more than a few days? I mean no face to face interaction with any other human being.

There was a time during Ramadan in 2014, where I didn’t speak to anyone face to face for two weeks. It was a freak thing where all of my friends a neighbors were away and the few left were fasting and tired and not available. One of the reasons I joined Peace Corps was to experience a new level of loneliness and to discover coping skills for that. I didn’t want my first time truly being deeply lonely to be when I’m 90 and all of my friends and family have passed and now what?!!

My friend under the stairs
During this 2 week alone time, I learned what the volley ball named "Wilson" in the movie "Castaway" truly meant. I’ve never been a person who becomes homesick or feels lonely easily but this time, I could have easily developed and appreciated the friendship of an inanimate object. I felt all squirmy and restless and sad and depressed and LONELY on a whole new level that I could not have imagined.  I felt myself completely capable of going insane with a restlessness that is impossible to describe. It is an unimaginable experience to communicate face to face with not one person for just a few weeks, let alone those in history that have gone months or years!

It sounds silly to me now. Two weeks doesn’t seem that long and for some, perhaps, it's not so mind blowing. I guess the only way to know is to try it and see. A friend of mine completed a 7 day Vipasna which is not isolated from humans but is silence with no eye contact or interaction with those around you along with a strictly regimented meditation and diet. She said it changed her life and was extremely difficult.

For me, I had already been living in a place that was difficult for me to communicate on the deep level that I was craving. Hugging was not a thing and touching was pretty rare except with my very close friends. Even handshakes are really only the tips of fingers touching. I was developing awesome but still new friendships and the culture was vastly different from mine so I was an extreme oddity to most people in my rural village which is also very isolating. People most often respond to oddities with fear, aggression, anger, and caution before they become used to you. We humans are complicated creatures that don't always begin with empathy in mind.  I was already extremely lonely and now there are no people anywhere around me in an isolated Javanese village.

Do you see the Javanese princes with a Javanese man behind her?
I quickly realized that I couldn’t yoga my way out of this. The longer I was alone the less effort I wanted to make. I journaled, I made faces in the mirror, I had long conversations with myself about life and God, I pretended the geckos on my ceiling were mini Godzillas having great battles as they screeched and fought for territory...

I played the shape game with the cracks on the walls, I went for walks, I watched movies, I cooked, I rode my bike, I meditated, I prayed, I reached out via internet, I read, and the list goes on.
A defeated Godzilla

The shapes in my concrete wall

I found that the most powerful tools to bring me out of the depression and mind-numbing bored-ness were creative; playing the guitar, drawing, photography, making videos, creating English lessons and games, writing my recipe book for new volunteers, etc. I was drawn out of the funk and into the light when I was creating. When creating, we have a purpose. Often we have an audience in mind which makes us feel deeply connected with them.
"Depression is a lack of expression. If you're feeling depressed move something, do something, write something, make something - just move your energy forward."
-Richard Seaman
My own experiences have shown me that this is absolutely true. Today, I keep a list of certain creative activities that awaken specific positive mindsets.
  • To feel restored and grounded, I singing and playing instruments.
  • To feel peace, I do something to improve my space.
  • To feel a sense of accomplishment, I work on my artwork, blog, and photography.
  • To feel love and belonging, I call a list of friends and family for a chat.

What do you find lifts you out of the dis-empowering funk of loneliness, depression, or sadness?

If I could be of service to you in helping you discover which creative activities help you find balance and joy (even if you don’t believe you have a creative bone in your body), I invite you to contact me at

Many blessings on your journey!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Adventures of Miss and Mac: Part 1

June 2005, I’m looking out the back of the van window, just leaving the most exciting and energetic  baptism ceremony I've ever experienced during a mission trip with my church, (including my own baptism), and I see a little black kitten chasing us and crying after us to take her with us. We keep driving and I never get over my regret of that moment. I promise myself that I will never do that again.

Ten years later, February 2, 2015, I am walking home because, for the first time in 2 years of riding my bicycle 50-80 miles per week during my Peace Corps service in the rice paddies of Indonesia, I have a flat tire! I had spent the night in the city because I didn’t have a bike to get home and had to wait for transportation the next morning. I am admiring the beauty of the paddy fields and the colorful ladies bent over doing the exhausting work of harvesting rice in the pungent mud filled fields. Suddenly, I hear,
    “I hear you!”
    “Where are you?!!”
The rice paddy ladies look up at me with looks of curiosity, to put it nicely. I see a lump of mud that looks like a rat on a mud mound in the paddy. I know that I am not going to repeat the mistake of leaving a desperate kitten calling me again! She hears me and sees me and I can see that she is considering trying to leap the raging canal to get to me. I leap across to her before she tries and is swept away by the raging water. I reach down and pick up what I expected to be a wet kitten but the mud was so slimy it had dried with a sheen to her entire body. She looked like a sleek gray rat with the wrong kind of ears. I hopped back onto the road and she tucked her little head into the crook of my arm and cried the whole way to my house.

I lived with a host family and I figured once I got her washed up she would be all fluffy and cute and the mother of the house, Bu Kalimah, would have no problem letting me keep her. Once I got her washed, she was not cute and fuzzy. Shit! She was fairly bald and so skinny her skin sagged and wrinkled. There was no way anyone was going to welcome this starving diseased animal to stay in their home. Also, what the heck was I going to feed her? No one really kept pets and I certainly had never seen cat food. Where would she pee? How would I get rid of and protect myself from her parasites and, worse yet, how would I keep from falling in love with her?!! I certainly couldn't keep her!

I cried everyday the first two weeks not knowing if she would make it and not knowing how in the world I could find her a great home. I used an old medicine dropper to feed her powdered milk until she could eat eggs and fish. I spent the next few days giving her warm water and vinegar baths to kill the parasites and tweezing fleas and other skin parasites that escaped the baths. She slept in my arms while I picked at her for hours until my neck felt like it would never straighten. I hand washed our bedding everyday to keep the flea eggs from hatching. They were on the verge of sucking her dry, literally!

For a litter box, I started with a bit of cardboard and volcano ash (from the volcano which had conveniently erupted recently), which didn’t work because the cardboard quickly became soaked. Yuck! I found a dust bin made from an old metal container and used that with volcano ash and oatmeal to keep the ash dry. Every time I found a working solution like this, I praised God for providing what I needed as long as I kept my eyes and mind open. One blessed day, I found a small pet section in the city where I could buy real litter, and cat food! I even found a flea collar that I used once she was a bit older. I was freaking out with excitement that she had the potential to make it. 

I started to try to find her a home and no one wanted her because she was tri-colored which, in Indonesia none of my friends wanted to tell me but I found out, meant she attracts evil spirits (I believe she actually battles them). This speaks volumes for how great my host family was. They were terrified of her and still helped feed her when I had to be away for events. Mac would chase my host mom’s broom and I could hear her shushing Mac away with the same terror I have for spiders while trying to be gentle. I had a talk with God about Him bringing this little creature into my life and His commitment to making it all work out. So, when I couldn’t find a caring home for her, I realized that she was coming home with me even if I had to stow away on a boat and I didn't have to worry (ha ha) because God had a plan!

Having her around after two years of living on my own in Indonesia (my host family lived at a different house most of the time), I learned the true meaning of Wilson the volleyball  in the movie, Cast Away. I didn’t realize how lonely it can be when you are in a culture so different from your own that everything you do is “neat.” The jokes you tell make sense to only one or two of your closest friends because, unbeknownst to you, they have put in tremendous effort to understand you (for which I will always be deeply grateful). And, suddenly here is this little kindred spirit who opens her eyes when she wakes up and purrs just see you there. She is happy to be around you without judgement or culture clash. Whatever you do is great and she doesn’t question it (except maybe the vinegar baths). What a gift our fur friends are in this way. Having her with me made me notice a big piece of the puzzle that I had been missing up to that point. She brought joy and peace on such a deep level that I had more smiles for everyone I met with. I had more love to share and happiness to spare. She made the end of my of service go the way I had dreamed it would. I wanted to leave with love and smiles for everyone and was struggling to do that until a little parasite ridden rodent came along needing me desperately and forcing me to fall completely in love with her cuteness.

I couldn’t ask for help from Peace Corps on how to take care of a cat and bring her home because we weren’t supposed to have pets. So, I started reaching out on pet pages via good old Facebook to find out who had advice on how to bring a kitten out of the country. I wasn’t willing to put her under the plane that young so I had to find an airline that would let me take her onboard. I had seen people with dogs so I knew they had to exist. I also had to research vaccines and paperwork to be done. This was an unimaginable maze that I won’t write about for the sake of my own sanity. In the end, I was directed to the most amazing lady ever. She was the government vet who connected me with all the right people to get the paperwork going (For the sake of anonymity, she will be referred to as the Good Doctor).

This lead to a 4 hour round trip bicycle ride to the nearest vet who would work with the Good Doctor to document Mac’s vaccines. I put Mac in a blue plastic picnic basket on the back of my bike and off we went. The whole way she was crying and could get just one claw through the cracks enough to poke me in the butt which would result in me popping up like a jack in the box squealing and laughing at the same time. I’m sure the villagers thought, “There goes the crazy Miiiiss (White Lady) again! What’s she got in the roti basket this time?!!”

Meeting the Good Doctor was one of the most validating moments for me during my service. I took a taxi out to find the Dr. and was kicked out by the taxi driver when he thought we were “close enough” (code for lost). So I wandered totally clueless through some of the most tightly packed alley ways I had encountered in Indonesia with people gasping and shouting that there was a white lady wandering around. With the direction of some neighbors, I finally met face to face with the amazing woman who had been working so hard to help me get a plain old Javanese kitty home. We went straight out to eat Soto as is customary. The Good Doctor was under the impression that I was angry or frustrated with her because the paperwork wasn’t progressing. I explained to her that I understood how things worked in Indonesia after having lived there for two years and that I had nothing but appreciation for her help. She also worried that I was suspicious of where the fees I was paying were going. We quickly squared away the understanding that I knew exactly why she needed to buy “cake” for people to get what we wanted. And then she said, “You Peace Corps are the true ambassadors here! I work with people from many countries calling themselves ambassadors and diplomats and they make no effort to understand. They only feel suspicion and frustration and get very angry with me.” We had a beautiful conversation regarding both sides of the issue and I explained where the main culture clashes were happening between the Western world and Indonesia in this case and we had a great laugh. That is one of the biggest compliments of my life and made my service have tangible meaning for me.

She had her driver take me to a huge mall with a whole section of pet supplies! I was able to get both hard and soft pet carriers for the different stages of our journey home as well as real toys, treats, a harness, and ear mite solution that didn’t work but smelled good like mint.

The time came for me to pack up and the teachers from my school showed up to drive me to Surabaya for the last few days of my close of service. We had a tearful (though true Indo style, everyone is smiling in the photo) goodbye with my host family and I surprised everyone when I brought Mac out and put her in the car. I figured it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission and in Indonesia this REALLY works!

We stopped for lunch with the cat, I walked into the hotel and checked in with the cat, and in the end, I marched onto the plane with the cat!

The Good Doctor and I were able to get her paperwork through just in time and then the government fired the entire office and I had to start completely over on the paperwork! They told me there would not be enough time to get everything through in time for me to fly out so I canceled my tickets with a 100% refund! God performed many miracles like that for little miss Macaroon to come home. The biggest problem was that my visa was up and I would have to leave the country and re-enter with a tourist visa. But what to do with Macaroon?!! I extended my hotel stay and asked another Peace Corps volunteer to watch her for a free hotel stay for a couple of nights (we ended up staying 10 days total in that darn room with Mac escaping to the hall only a few times and peeing on my roommate, Margit, just once).

The need for an updated visa resulted in a random trip to Malaysia where I met up with a couple of awesome friends and made a couple of new friends too (another story including a naked frenchman in an earlier blog post). It ended up being a super cool trip but I was of course worried and stressed about how the heck I would ever get Macaroon off Java! I knew if we could just break free of the island together, we would be home free. I zipped back to Surabaya and just the day before, a deal went through where the US no longer had to pay to enter or exit Indonesia! Another sign from God to stay faithful that it would all work out.

Once the paperwork was through, I had to immediately go to the Quarantine office for a stamp. The taxi driver didn’t know where the heck the office was and finally we found it. They stamped me and I was off to talk to the airline office in person about bringing her on the flight because in 4 months of phone conversations, I was not able to talk to anyone with the airline who knew how to book her alongside me. Their website explained everything but the booking agents just kept telling me to bring her and see if it works out! Arrrrrg! I marched with my cat in her light blue carrier straight through the air field to the airport and not one security person came out to see what the heck I was doing out there on the empty runways. I love being in countries with freedoms we don’t have and trying those freedoms out. The airport office was shut down, as in no longer existed there. I had only two days to get out of the country with Mac or her quarantine stamp would expire. Don’t ask me why that makes any sense. So I booked the only ticket available and that was for the next morning. I called my parents and said, “Surprise, I’m coming home tomorrow!” (It takes two days to get home though).

After 10 days in that hotel room, I packed a giant carry on with newspaper for kitty accidents, cat food, the soft carrier for the leg of the trip when she would be in cabin with me, a mat for us to sit on during layovers, etc. We got on our first flight across the island and she rode under the plane; nerve wracking but only for an hour.

We landed in Jakarta and I went to the ticket office to get Mac’s ticket and they of course argued but I would not accept “no.” (Ask Connie Siepman, she knows). When the poor ticket agent finally acquiesced, they didn’t take credit cards!!! I convinced him to let us fly to Korea and I would pay the airline there. They agreed but would not clear Mac to fly on the plane from Korea to the US! I was so over the word, “No,” that I didn’t even care. I knew that I was simply going to walk on the freaking plane with my cat and no one was going to stop me.

When we arrived at the Korean airport for a 10 hour layover, the hotel wouldn’t let me in with a pet so I went to some couches with a jungle like planter and put her in her harness and let her do what she needed to do in the plants (No judgement! it had already been 10 hours and we had another 10 hour layover). We slept on the couches together and she was so tired her head suddenly dropped dead weight into my hand and I thought she was dead. When we woke up, I took her to the restaurant to get a snack and she suddenly started rolling on the floor purrring and mewing at these two french ladies who though she was the cutest thing ever. I realized, “Oh my gawd! She just went into heat!” She can be heard a half mile away when she is in heat! We are about to get on a plane and she’s freaking in heat! People are going to hate me.

I took her into the bathroom with me on her harness. It was all going well until I stood up and the automatic toilet seat cover thing started making noise. She leapt out of the stall still on her harness going full Tasmanian devil in the lobby of the bathroom while I was holding the leash and trying frantically to pull up my pants while praying the leash wouldn’t break. I got my pants up and stepped out to a circle of silently horrified ladies staring at us both as I picked her up and tiptoed out.

The plane ended up loading early with no warning notice on the board so I was the last person to rush to get on the plane and they were in such a hurry, no one asked about my “purple bag.” I stuffed little Mac under the seat with her blankie and prayed she would be quiet until we were in the air. She did... Thanks again, God!  I kept her on my lap with a hand in her soft zippered carrier. For some reason, as I was adjusting, the zippers on the carrier all blew out! It was open all over the place. I grabbed Mac rolled up in the carrier like a cat burrito and rushed to the bathroom where I was able to get the zippers all back together and give her some time out of the cage while I changed wet newspapers.

Finally, we landed in the US and I was so beyond any level of stressed out that I couldn’t even feel relieved. I was walking forward like a zombie with a cat that I wouldn’t let go of. As I was declaring my cat at customs, they said, “We don’t have you on the list for a cat!” Arrrrrg. I explained that I was coming through Jakarta and paperwork there is not super reliable but I had all of my paperwork with me so it wasn’t an issue. They totally understood. Someone came to take Mac to a quarantine line while I had to go through the human line and that was a bit of a battle but they assured me she wouldn’t be far. Well, she wasn’t. She filled the entire customs hall with her yowling for me. I smiled and sweated and waited for someone to move me to the front of the line. They didn’t. It was the longest heart wrenching line I had ever waited in.

Finally, finally, finally, I was through customs with Macaroon and there was beautiful Libby with a beer and bagels and cream cheese to pick us up and take us to a real bed and safe place for Mac to eat and pee and be a free cat!

It has been a little over 2 years now and Mac has lived in various forests of the PNW which she loves. She is not a huge fan of winter and her coat doesn’t get very thick but she does pretty well. She loves to do summersaults, attack bare ankles, give kisses on the lips and bathe my face. Her vet says she is one of the most beautiful healthy cats ever. Parasite free, fast as a cheetah, happy, safe, and the best friend ever.

Since bringing Macaroon home, I have been contacted by many volunteers wanting to bring kitties back to the states. I created a document of all the information I had collected and submitted it to the Indonesian volunteers as well as to the Indonesian Peace Corps just in case their policy on pets changes or the staff had a soft spot for a volunteer breaking the rules for love (it happens).

Thanks for reading this silly cat story. If you made it to the end, you are a true animal lover and I have complete admiration for your empathy and care for living creatures. Many blessings to you!

Love Miss and Mac!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Things I Learned in Peace Corps: Silakan, Monggo

I was in Cold Stone Creamery in Leavenworth waiting in line to order something creamy and gooey and cake batter flavored. In walks a 6'5" large middle aged man who procedes to try to inch his way infront of me and cull me out of the line altogether! Well, I may be only 5'5" but I have super sharp elbows that hit that perfect soft spot below his last rib. I did my best warrior stance with elbow jabbed precisely in that ticklish spot and looked straight up into his face with my best evil eye that clearly said, "Go ahead punk, make my day..." He looked down at me with a surprised but stern eyebrow raised and then laughed in resignation at the small warrior lady about to throw down for her rightful spot in the line for ice cream. He gave me my space, continuing to snicker, and I felt like the universe had shifted back into alignment. We've often been there at Fred Meyer's with the lady impatiently running us over with her cart, or the hungry guy in the buffet line at Godfather's Pizza. Who the heck do these people think they are!

The line culture in Indonesia taught me to see deeper into values, systems, and beliefs that I wasn't even aware of. People often cut in front of you a centimeter at a time in the bus or grocery line or they may just elbow their way around. Super sassy little old Indonesia ladies were usually the culprits in my experience, silently scootching their way around and in front of you, elbowing and shoving carts or baskets into you all the time pretending they don't see you, that you don't exist, and never making eye contact.

A Dutch friend I met in Malaysia said she and her friend used to play a game by walking slightly faster and faster toward nothing in particular as the people around would try to keep pace to get "there" first (though no one really new where "there" was). The game was to see if they could make it to the point everyone was running. She said it worked a lot which tells me that being first and making sure you don't miss out is super important in places that have more people than resources.

In learning about the "line" culture in Indonesia, I went through 4 distinct stages of adaptation. At first, I said  nothing when people would shove in front of me. In my confusion and misunderstanding, I built up a mountain of resentment that would be ready and waiting to get bigger and more poisonous every time I entered the grocery store.

The 2nd stage was fighting for my spot in line and defending my dearly held ideals of an orderly line and fair turn taking. I would curtly say, "I believe I am next" or "There is a LINE!" feeling no better because I had presented myself as an overly harsh foreigner to the smiling passive aggressive Indonesian standard (You shouldn't actually directly call people out because that's too forward and not gentle enough).

At stage 3, I began giving cuts but still a bit spitefully. I attempted to embrace a passive aggressive version of generosity. This was against all of my American training to become a woman who refuses to be walked on or run over. Even the phrase "passive aggressive" has negative connotations for me. I began giving up my place in line to those who were trying to sneak around me. At first, this too was in a spirit of frustration and meant to passively point out the grave injustice that they were inflicting upon me by adding 3 minutes to my grocery shopping. I really struggled with the question, "Does this make me a doormat?" Was I giving up on the work I had done on standing up for myself and creating healthy boundaries with people?

I morphed into stage 4 after making stage 3 a forced habit. My attitude began to evolve further into a sincere effort to let go of my own pride and sense of entitlement to MY rightful place in line.

People are in a hurry.

People are frustrated.

People are angry.

Whatever their reason for being pushy, I am grateful that (for the moment) I am not feeling that way. So...why not bring some cheer to someone who is already having a frustrating day?

In saying, "Monggo" (after you) with a sincere smile and an attempt at understanding the other person, I felt peace. I was not a being doormat. I decided that it wasn't a battle that I wanted to fight with anger and self righteousness. My goal became caring about and loving others. When people feel cared about, they either love you back (or they just think you are weird and suspicious which if good for a healthy sense of humility as well).

MY right to MY spot in line was a battle that I had been brainwashed to defend to the death (or at least first blood) since kindergarten. I realized that it's not always the battle I want to choose. I choose instead to embrace a healthy sense of humility and a slower pace of life and to welcome others to go before me (unless there is Cold Stone ice cream involved).

*Disclaimer: When I am 80 the "wisdom" of my youth will seem foolish and there will definitely be some big eye rolling at my younger self. Feel free to roll your eyes now if you are farther down the path of wisdom and enlightenment than I am. Love and cheers, friends!