The Other Side of Democracy

Today women all over the U.S. – and the globe – are marching again on the 1-year anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March that overshadowed the inauguration of our current celebrity President.

I had half-written this post last January, and then my spring semester of graduate school took over.  I almost completed the entry in June, and then my summer in Nepal took over, followed by my fall semester.  So today, as women walk by on the other side of this glass café window wearing their pink hats for a second time, seems like a good time to finally post it.

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The day that Bishnu arrived in the US for the first time was January 18, 2009. We flew in to JFK and took a cab to my apartment on the Upper West Side. The next morning we got up to find snowflakes drifting past my fifth floor windows, and ran outside with our palms open. Bishnu had never touched snow. We got bagels at Lenny’s and took the train to Washington DC. When we got out in Union Station, the place was exuberantly decked out for President Obama’s inauguration.

“Union Station doesn’t always look like this,” I said. “This is an incredible moment in our history.”

President Obama’s Inauguration

We woke up to President Obama’s inauguration a few days later. While Bishnu went to register for her first college classes in the United States, my mom and I got in the subway and went down to the National Mall.  We’d been able to get seats at the Inauguration through a family friend who is a former member of Congress, which allowed us special access to a maze of hallways under the capitol building itself. Wearing our winter coats and hats, we ran through mysterious marbled corridors, dragging our gloved fingers along the polished walls, and then emerged dizzy in to an ecstatic crowd of tens thousands. It was only a week after Bishnu arrived in this country, and everything seemed enchanted.

 

Almost a decade later, on Jan 21, 2017, my family woke up in Bethesda and once again put on our warm clothes to go down to the capitol. This time, to protest. For women’s rights, immigrant rights, tolerance and celebration of diversity and equal opportunity. The previous day had felt…how can I describe it?  The somberness of President Trump’s Inauguration had been additionally weighted down the tug of that marvelous day eight years ago, which, in addition to the pain and sadness we all felt, created a kind of suction, a vacuum of joy.

It seems like Bishnu and I live our lives at bookends. Here we are again. The other side of democracy, the other side of celebration, the other side of the freedom to gather in America.  Outrage.

Under my winter jacket I put on my #6 Red Hots jersey, which I wore from age 12 to 17 on my youth soccer team. A group of us started playing together as girls, made up the core of the varsity soccer team at our high school, and won my high school’s first ever Independent School League championship in women’s soccer. Our Red Hots coach Chris was on the Jamaican National Team and he was also God.  When we were on the road to tournaments in Virginia Beach or wherever, he passed the time by testing us on our ability to understand pidgin Jamaican English. We adored him and he taught us that “anybody can teach a donkey to kick a ball,” but we were going to be “brilliant.” In my Red Hots jersey, I had superpowers.

Bishnu, my mom, and my two of my friends and I crammed in to the Metro at Bethesda station just as we had eight years prior. We came up above ground near Pennsylvania Avenue. As we rounded the top of a hill, a sea of people came in to view ahead of us. Immediately, our anger and resentment rose up on a tidal wave of protesters marching toward the capitol. Thousands and thousands and thousands pulling us in with a thrill of momentum.  Bishnu and I floated in to the river like two leaves.The events of these past weeks have forced my mind in to new contortions. I have had an easy life. It is easy for me to go to Nepal on a grand adventure, with no idea what I am doing, take my time figuring it out, and be falsely credited with kindness or courage. I can indulge in experiments of curiosity and empathy and generosity, and it doesn’t cost me anything except for the pain, later, of confronting that as a luxury. This is something I have recognized for a good while now. But in the climate of our recent election, the sting is fresh and hot. What kind of world do we live in where empathy is a privilege assumed only after survival? As long as my survival remains easy, what is my responsibility? I waffle between rage at the outpouring of ignorance and bigotry happening here in the United States, and shame at the helium balloon I live on. From up there, it is easy to take the high road.

The Women’s March provokes this disquiet, luring it back in from around the edges to the center of my attention. With my mom and our friends, Bishnu and I drift through currents and eddies of elation, passion, and indignation – not all that different from the torrent that welcomed the nation’s first black president, right here where I now stand. But this river swells with anger rather than euphoria. When the speeches start, I climb a tree (for the record, some ladies ahead of me try but can’t scale the long trunk to reach a perch higher up; thanks for help with tree-climbing, Nepal). Bishnu sits on a ledge at the base of the tree. From my location, I can see a vast ocean of people stretching out in all directions, and it is breathtaking. I also can’t help noticing, and being surprised, that it is a predominantly white ocean.

Later, the critiques will roll in from feminist advocates, and especially from those who have spent lifetimes advocating on behalf of people of color, of all those in this country marginalized by class or race or sexuality. What will happen after all of this? Will we march, feel better, and then go home? What about those who have been railing against injustice for decades, centuries?  Where were we then?  This sea of whiteness is angry and disappointed and embarrassed, but we are not being profiled and shot. Our sons are not wasting in jail because they cannot pay bail on an arrest for marijuana possession (but our sons are high, I’ll tell you that). Our daughters are not making sixty cents on a dollar, not spit at, welfare queens, baby mamas, you bought that hand-bag and you’re on stamps, learn English bitch, lazy—

Maybe, after today, we’ll feel better, and then we’ll be…you know, busy.

Maybe we have a lot of nerve showing up here at all.

I cling to the tree branch as words fly past me, originating from massive speakers many blocks away.  At the base of the tree, I can see Bishnu looking a little bored, although she is a great sport. I don’t know what she will make of all of this. In the world Bishnu is from, it doesn’t matter what you are doing here in America: if you can get your feet on U.S. soil, you’ve won the golden ticket. Period.  Or so it is perceived, for better or worse.  You hang on and don’t let go.

This thing happens sometimes where I zoom out and I feel I am seeing us from far above. Little me and little Bishnu, like neon dots of radar in an anonymous expanse of blue-gray nothingness, moving in some configuration that must have meaning to it I do not understand. What are they doing? Where are they going?  These two little dots…what is their story?  Can they explain anything about the topography around them?

After all this time, I am no closer to an answer. There we are, leaning on a tree, just as far from something that holds together as when we started.  But in the decade and a half we’ve mucked around in each other’s worlds, there is one I thing never stop coming back to.  It is always better to show up.  Be a little blip of radar.  Even if you screwed up the first two centuries.  Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do about it next.

*

Fall

 

Tiny yellow petals have started collecting in the right angle between the sidewalk and the street. They are huddled there like a paper river, jumping around and changing places ever so slightly as the cars drive by. It is fall.

It was the end of summer before I started to feel like I had arrived here in Connecticut. Even though I’ve been moving between these two very different worlds for twelve years, it has been over a decade since I was abroad for so long at once – nearly seven months, with a brief six weeks back in the U.S. in April, which is when the earthquake hit in Nepal.

I’ve always felt that the gift of living in two worlds, if I am open to it, is the chance to deepen my appreciation of multiple realities. Certain particularities, like the soft muffle of people arriving to temple during the High Holidays, or the rustle of fall and how it smells like apples and makes me think of being outside with my dad, the amazing fact of the New York bagel, a spectacular city skyline twinkling at night, the miraculous convenience of speedy internet – these gifts and many more have been imbued with a resonance that comes only from heightened gratitude. What a tremendous blessing that this is my world, my life, my palette of choices.

Besides being near friends and family, it’s this intensifying of senses that makes me look forward to returning to the States when I’ve been in Nepal. Whatever the tradeoffs, they come with the euphoric feeling of appreciation. Maybe this is why I’ve come to realize that in some way my role on the planet will always be to move between disparate worlds, rather than settle comfortably in one and become stagnant.

This last arrival, however, has been different. It’s been harder for me to access the joys of this plentiful environment. Maybe we are in a new season in America, and maybe I am different, or maybe some of both. I arrived back to the U.S. during the week of Sandra Bland, just as Donald Trump was taking center stage. Everybody seemed so angry and so loud. Among the significant, real outrages and pathologies happening at our doorsteps – Sandra Bland! – precious few were garnering a majority of the words being expended in mainstream discussion. Outside my house, everybody was disconnected from each other, and inside, I couldn’t hear the wind blowing.

It was like being in solitary confinement and being assaulted at the same time.

I’ve started and stopped this post many times, wondering how to write about this season of being between realities without resorting to clichés. I was in rural Nepal working with people to rebuild their houses after an earthquake, sleeping under tin roofs while the early summer monsoon pounded the hills.  Now I’m in Connecticut listening to the Republican debate in my living room. It’s totally cliché.

And yet it’s not these visible differences that constituted the turbulent vacuum between my worlds this summer. Mostly the last two months have been an exercise in putting up barriers. Between myself and the pavement. Between myself and indifferent crowds. Between myself and a certain nothing that creeps in between the activities and compartments of cars and apartments. Between myself and a hailstorm of unmourned and even unacknowledged injury. Between my ears and the fantastic amount of noise, all the talking and procedure that is not about anything.  Between myself and the precious narcissism of our public discourse.

I realize that these barriers have their value. But it feels like a loss. I’m more aware than ever before how many ways American culture forces us to reduce our perceptiveness in order to survive. It’s true that the catastrophe of the earthquake created an especially unique doorway to a productive social consciousness: there was a gigantic and terrible event, but it was fairly concrete – at least on the surface – and I located myself and my community within it. I was one of many people who looked destruction in the face and began rebuilding with patience and humility and a willful connection with others.

But I didn’t really realize how much my sense of my self in the world and in society had swelled out beyond me in these last seven months – even to the earth and its power, to the inevitability of the monsoon, to the practical absurdity of dirt roads going up mountains – until I was back here, and my world became a cacophony of conflicting radio stations, all purporting to be of critical importance.

The summer has been an exercise in shutting down one channel after another, and then re-learning how to decide which ones to turn back on for brief and highly monitored periods of time.

The summer has been an exercise in dodging the frustration, despondency, and aggression that billows about on the street, unchecked, like car exhaust. Then re-learning how to locate and selectively engage sources of collaboration and joy. After all, it is still a blessing to have this palette of choices, whether or not we see it, whether or not anybody sees it. Gratitude is not something that can be faked – it comes directly from a place of knowing.

The summer has been an exercise in observing our political system, our environmental system, and our media, with the surprised naiveté of a newcomer, and hearing the same story repeated in different packages: in how we describe ourselves, our problems, our economic and racial tensions, the rest of the planet.  In the way we talk about the earthquake in Nepal and the victimized people of the third world.  It is a story of detachment, silence, and frustration transmuted in to righteousness.  And yet the power of our systems is tremendous, if only we could see them.  If only we could hear ourselves.

Our narcissism isn’t that we’re a bad society or a bad people.  We just can’t see it.

I have spent a great deal of time sitting quietly in my living room, wondering how we get outside of ourselves without leaving.  I think it is human nature to cling to anything that tells us what we already know about ourselves.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I’ve just spent a lot of time in situations where there wasn’t much to cling to, so there was no choice but to adjust.  We are much more arbitrary than we think we are.

I think about my dear friend Mary every day and I miss her.  I would like to tell her about these things, so she can remind me without saying so that I am just one more well-meaning narcissist, and we are all going to the same place, so we might as well be good to each other and enjoy the scenery.

Now it’s September and the brittle yellow leaves are collecting in the gutter.  They dance around when the cars and people rush by, but they could care less for the hurry that makes them play like that.  It’s just their season to fall from green branches, and become a river in the street.

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IMG_5462

 

Throwing stones at Tin houses

 

Last Thursday, our meeting with two district officials in Lamjung was so encouraging that I’d been energized all weekend. I talked with a friend at home who did her thesis on post-earthquake housing in Haiti. My dad helped me get in touch with the inventor of earthbag building.  I pored over diagrams on the internet and learned the term “waddle and daub.” I was looking for every possible way to supplement a government housing kit consisting of tin roofing and tools. And of course, I talked with a few people about my safe-box idea.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 11.40.19 PMAamod and I made our second trip out to Lamjung on Monday, for the shelter cluster meeting.   (Relief coordination between large iNGOs and the government is divided in to clusters of which shelter is one). We somehow managed to be an hour late again, which this time meant entering a room of a few dozen government officials and representatives from big international organizations.

We sat down in the corner and I took out my notebook. A slide up on the projector showed the names of about six multinational agencies, the villages where they’d been assigned to provide housing, and the number of households covered by each agency, which ranged from about 900 – 1500. Then on the bottom row was our name with two blank columns next to it – no villages yet assigned – and “100” in the righthand column under number of houses. Well, A for effort, anyway.

Besides, with the possibility of using the government’s housing kit, we were hoping to get that number up to about 300.

But the next hour was nothing like either our personalized visit with Lamjung’s district officials a few days earlier, or the big health cluster meeting I’d attended in Kathmandu. Today we were in a room of local politicians talking about use of resources. And my prior enthusiasm was quickly put in check.

Within minutes after we arrived, a discussion about reassigning some villages from one organization to another turned in to a 15-minute debate over whether aid agencies should be allowed to flash their logos while working. After all, it’s the government that should come out with the recognition – is housing aid to become no more than advertising anarchy?

All the big iNGOs have Nepal offices with all-Nepali staff. As I watched the Nepalis representing those agencies negotiate this discussion, even I started to get lost as to who was allied to what cause. I basically understood why these folks engaged a conversation about who would get credit instead of pointing out the more urgent matter of thousands of homeless people in Lamjung; let’s call that standard operating procedure, a necessary hurdle to eventually getting back to housing.

But when someone from one of these NGOs suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should broker
the massive upcoming procurement of corrugated tin roofing, I couldn’t keep up. This guy was working for a huge iNGO that needed to get tin in order to help build shelters.  To put this in context, Nepali P1070134villagers can build anything out of anything.  The overall approach being used with transitional housing is to provide a critical piece of hardware – THE ROOF – and let people build around it.

Foreigners in the room had already explained why their agencies were working on getting corrugated tin from multiple sources to meet the need as fast as possible. Why would this guy, tasked with representing his iNGO to the shelter cluster, encourage all these government officials to control and inevitably slow down the process?  Was he bluffing? Maybe he knew his suggestion would never work out, but would satisfy egos and clear the way. Or maybe he meant it. It was either brilliant or terrible, but I still don’t know which.

Finally, one of the European aid workers spoke up. I’d noticed him sitting off to the side, a burly, hearty looking man with clear blue eyes and a tousle of graying hair. He captured all my biases – obviously a disaster professional, not a Nepali-speaker, here for Earthquake and that alone, bored with these talking games that I’ve come to sort of enjoy as sport.  He was keeping a feel for the pulse of the conversation while mostly ignoring it, looking rather peeved.

In a few swift paragraphs, this guy listed the amount of corrugated tin available in Lamjung district, and in Nepal as a whole – about 10% of the tin needed for the number of houses destroyed. He knew exactly the number of trucks he needed to transport housing materials to his coverage area; the amount of square footage needed to store all the supplies. He pointed out that accomplishing all this was a massive task and that the monsoon will be starting imminently.

“If we could please finalize which of us are taking which areas, than we can all get to work,” he said.

Silence.

Even I was taken down a good notch, as I am so accustomed to all this politicking in Nepal that I’ve come to expect it, even though we’re in an emergency.

Corrugated Tin Roofing

Corrugated Tin Roofing

And there’s more. The government has established a policy to give two sheets of tin to each family that needs to rebuild – but there isn’t nearly enough tin in Nepal to deliver on this quickly without a lot of smart planning and international coordination. So instead, Nepal’s government has decided to give everyone $150 in cash to buy their own tin.

“And when you do that,” said the burly aid officer, “the price of tin is going to skyrocket, because there’s not enough tin available in the local market.”

“We have controls for that,” said an official.

“You can’t control that,” pointed out the aid officer. “When you put money in to a market where there isn’t enough product, the price will triple.”

The matter was never totally resolved.

Later, Aamod and I discussed why on earth Nepal’s leaders would willfully do something like that. The only reason can be to to pacify constituents quickly with cash rather than sorting out the more complex problem the population is actually facing. People will be pleased with receiving $150 and they won’t realize it’s useless because the thing they most need is nowhere to be found, or is now worth $450.

I wonder if this cash reimbursement matter is getting any coverage in the U.S. The only reason it won’t cause an economic collapse in Nepal is because there’s no more room to fall; people literally have nothing. So instead it will just put the most urgently needed commodity – sheets of corrugated tin, for goodness sake – out of reach by displacing the government’s responsibility to provide it on to people who can’t possibly solve a material shortage.

I actually watched a group of politicians look at each other, confront this fact, and, from what I could tell, decide to do it anyway. It felt as though this inflation matter was a good point, but a lot of trouble to solve. It’s a perfect example of the structural rot that weakened this country long before an earthquake shook its softened beams to the ground.

IMG_2599

Just to put icing on the cake, before we left, we found out that the district had changed its mind about providing a government housing kit for us to use. In fact, the friendly engineer we talked with the other day – Pradeep – a genuinely sincere guy who seemed to like our idea of collaboration, said the official policy is now that government is only to deliver its tin (or $150) in places where NGOs are NOT working. As for the entire housing kit, which includes things like nails, wire and hammer…that’s just a suggested kit. The big multinational agencies will use it, but the government won’t.

I knew it had all seemed to good to be true. Didn’t I say it was a miracle?

I made a hard pitch to Pradeep that he and I had the opportunity to set an example for how community organizations can collaborate to achieve the work of the government. There are countless groups like Eva Nepal running around providing aid with tremendous energy. He actually liked my idea a lot, but said I’d have to write a proposal and send it up the chain. We all know how long that will take, and in the mean time, people are living under tarps. It’s not the time to play games.

Looks like if we want to work on shelters in Lamjung, we’ll have to bring in all the materials ourselves.

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