Allyship

Allyship.

There is no word in Kinyarwanda for this concept.

Gloriosa, one of Peace Corps’ Rwandan staff members, explained: “In the Rwandan context, ‘allyship’ isn’t a special word, because you’re supposed to already be there for everyone. . . . There are people around you who count on you.”

But in English, we have this word. Allyship.

ally (v.) to unite for a common cause

In American culture today, this is a politically charged word. It immediately conjures ideas of minorities, systemic oppression, protests, and angry social media posts. But at its simplest, to ally means to join together for a cause.

To stand with someone. To support them.

At a recent Peace Corps conference, we discussed this idea of allyship. We talked about what it means to us and the different ways we see it—or don’t see it—in our own lives. I was struck by the intensity of the feelings revealed during this discussion, and by the unexpected bits of wisdom and poetry presented as people allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

Let me share some of their words with you.

“Being an ally is being okay with being uncomfortable . . . to help someone avoid being hurt.” – Aimee Carlson

Here in Rwanda, allyship takes on a more personal significance for all of us. In this context, in this place where we are perpetually other, we become uniquely aware of our own diversities.

Some of us are PCVs of colour who struggle against stereotypes of what an American should or should not look like.

Others of us represent diverse genders or sexualities and struggle to fit into a culture that doesn’t accept or acknowledge those aspects of our identities.

Justice will not happen “…until my pain is your pain…until I step down from my fight and you step up.” – Dominique Henderson

We may represent minority religions or no religion—both cause interpersonal discomfort in a highly religious culture.

Still others of us are differently abled physically or live with mental/emotional health problems that make daily life a unique struggle.

“Being an ally requires us to constantly manage our own ignorance.” – Claire Pennington

We come from different socioeconomic, family, and educational backgrounds but face the stereotype that all Americans are wealthy and successful.

Many of us are single and have to justify this to neighbours, coworkers, and even strangers on the bus.

“You won’t fix them. . . They don’t want you to . . . Its someone else’s struggle.” – Stina Stannik

Our desperate need for allies is thrown into stark relief against the backdrop of life in Rwanda. Our need is not merely for political allies but for personal allies, at times and in ways that we never would have imagined.

We live isolated lives here. We see each other from time to time, but in general we live alone in our villages, tiny islands of our own culture in the midst of people we love but sometimes cannot comprehend. People with whom we often cannot share our struggles or to whom we cannot explain our fears. Well-meaning people who are at times the cause of these struggles and fears.

“Absorb some of their pain into yourself.” – Claire Pennington

So we become allies for each other.

We correct stereotypes over and over, even when they don’t apply to our own identities. We listen to one another’s fear and despair and exhaustion and tell one another that it’s okay to be tired and afraid and so done with this. We celebrate one another’s small victories. We acknowledge one another’s identities. We do the small things we can do—over the phone at night after long days; over beers in regional towns on weekends; over WhatsApp in between classes and visits and lesson planning.

“I am an individual in a community made up of people who I don’t have to know to defend.” – Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe

Allyship looks different here than you might expect. We find it in unexpected places and at unexpected times, and not always in just PCVs.

I find it in the lady at the market who shields me from unwanted attention. In another single woman who tells me it’s okay not to be married. In a teacher who accepts that my dog and cat are my family here and always asks how they’re doing. In a neighbour who tells others not to ask me for money. In my headmaster who tells the teachers and students my name and asks them not to call me muzungu. In Peace Corps staff who acknowledge how difficult it can be to integrate and who remind me to take time for my own mental health.

“Before taking action, we need to listen to the problem, understand the problem, and accept that a problem is there.” – Esperance Munganyinka

In some ways, each one of us has it easier than the others. In some ways, each one of us has it harder. We find it essential to stand for each other—to join together for a cause.

My time in Rwanda has taught me many things, but this is one that I’m just now realising—the value of allies. The inevitability of each person having some unique aspect of identity that puts them in need of someone to stand with them.

The simple yet elusive truth that each of us needs allyship in a different way.

“What people want is for other people to not be afraid of their diversity (but not be stupid). . . to walk into the world with them.” – Claire Pennington

For many, it is political. For many others, it is personal. For all of us—no matter our identities, no matter our diversities, whether in Rwanda or America or anywhere else—it is vital.

So today, stand with someone. Stand for someone. And maybe find someone who stands with you and tell them thank you.

Oh Brother (or: 8 reasons I’m grateful to my brothers)

You may have guessed from my kind of bossy, kind of control-freak-y attitude that I’m an oldest child. What you may not have guessed is that my younger siblings include four brothers, all of whom now tower over me. Today, in belated honour of my youngest brother turning sixteen (!!!), here’s a list of things for which I’m grateful to those li’l stinkers. If you have brothers, you can probably relate.

1.  Teaching me to punch…
If you’re going to hit someone, do it right; none of this weak-wristed, limp-knuckled sissy stuff. Lucky for me, I had four growing guys around to ridicule me into learning proper form.

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by GIPHY

2.  …and to take a punch
If you’re going to throw a punch, you’d better be prepared to take one. Fortunately there was no end of surprise tackles, slug-bug games, and rough fights during our formative years. Thanks, guys.

3.  Pushing me past my limits
Whether it was climbing to the highest branch of the mango tree, playing 24-hour Halo binges, or taking the dog for a run, my brothers have always pushed me. I lost the “I’m the oldest” edge pretty early on, and while I might think I’m dying, those boys have made me go farther, faster, and harder than I ever would have without them.

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4.  Calling me out
I’m a forceful personality, and let’s face it—most people hate confrontation. Here’s to my brothers for listening to my perspectives and still telling me when I’m wrong.

5.  Pretending I’m tall
They’re all about six feet tall. I’m short. They very nicely pretend I’m tall even though they tower over me—in fact, just this morning one of them pretended to think I’m 5’6″, which is simultaneously ridiculous and very sweet.

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6.  Letting me tag along
There was a time when I was the big kid and they tried to follow me everywhere, and I made life miserable for them by doing things like tying them to trees and leaving them there or locking them inside so they couldn’t follow me. Now they’re the big kids, and they let me tag along on their adventures to the shooting range, their college campus, or boys-only(ish) poker night in the living room.

7.  Calling me cool
Let’s face it—nobody is cool 100% of the time, and it’s not really cool to think your siblings are cool, and yet these boys not only let me do stuff with them but also, apparently, tell their friends that I’m cool. One of my brothers is even friends with me on tumblr, so you know it’s a real thing. Me and my fragile ego thank you, kiddos.

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by GIPHY

8.  Protecting me
Whether it’s shooting the guy behind me in Halo (because, honestly, I am video-game-incompetent), loaning me a sweatshirt when it’s cold, or physically helping me scramble to the top of a boulder, my brothers are always there. We don’t talk about it, because it’s cheesy, but they demonstrate it all the time. There’s nothing quite so reassuring as knowing with certainty that no matter what trouble I get into, those four young men have my back.

  • In short, my brothers are the best. I love them.

What I Am Is White

“God made me white for a reason.”

She said it as I was sipping chai, as we discussed relationships and cultures and the difficulties of listening to people’s stories instead of fixing them. She’s an old friend who works with university students on a mostly-Latino campus, a blue-eyed white girl who grew up on the Mexican border, who looks, perhaps, German, but feels most comfortable around Hispanics.

It would’ve been easier if God had made her brown instead of white, if she hadn’t been a different colour in a town where whites are the marginalised minority. It would be easier if she matched the students she loves, if her affinity for Latinos were visibly explicable at a glance.

It would’ve been easier if God had made me brown, too.

As a child, with no conception of the difficulties minorities face, with the naïve innocence of a sheltered and privileged middle-class white girl, I knew before I was old enough to read that I wished my skin were something darker.

As a white girl growing up in Panama, I desperately wished to look more like everyone else, to stop the old ladies staring on the streets, the teenagers proudly airing their English in the form of catcalls, the girls at camp pointing to my untanned stomach and expounding on how white I was.

Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.
Thats me—the conspicuously white girl in the middle.

As a university student, discussing racial reconciliation, minority issues, and social justice, I developed yet a deeper awareness of my skin colour. The more I learned about systematic injustice, the more I longed to be free of the incriminating whiteness that put me in the “privileged” category and removed me from the struggles of those around me.

My desire to be a different colour changed from an adolescent’s wish to fit in to a young adult’s guilt over society’s wrongs.

Being white became an incurable flaw. I felt that by being white I somehow lost my right to an opinion, lost my ability to empathise, lost whatever it is that allows people to be grateful for their blessings without apologising for them.

I did not choose to be white, but I chose to regret it.

And now here sat my friend, sure that God had made her white for a reason.

And there I sat, accepting the idea, yet fighting back against the logic that said if she were white for a reason, so must I be. And the idea would not leave me. A reason—what reason?

Maybe I’m white to give a voice to the voiceless—to speak for the underprivileged in a society where my privilege lets me be heard.

Maybe I’m white to teach my soul humility—to learn to be gracious with myself and others when so much of our identity is involuntary and immutable.

Maybe I’m white to instil empathy in my heart—to help me see the perspectives of those around me and share their causes when I have nothing to gain.

Maybe…

…days later, I have a dozen potential reasons and no solid conclusions, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

There could be a hundred reasons or none, and in the end, perhaps it all boils down to this: That each of us should live a life dedicated to loving, supporting, and serving others, no matter our skin colour—that each of us is in some way privileged and in some way lacking—that we should fight injustice, right wrongs, and embrace differences—that as we face ourselves honestly, we must acknowledge what we are, but never apologise for it.

And for whatever reason, what I am is white.

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Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.

My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.

We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.

And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.

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I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.

Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.

And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.

I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.

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Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.

Isolation

“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”

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Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.

On Heartbreak

“Any boy who breaks your heart never even deserved it.”

That’s what the article said—you know the kind, those “things you learn in your early 20’s” types, filled with advice that reads like the verbal equivalent of a hipster Instagram feed. The kind you scroll through because you have five minutes to kill and don’t want to entertain any difficult thoughts.

Except I hit a difficult thought: this idea that anyone who hurts you should be shut out of your life.

That nobody could possibly hurt you and also be part of a healthy future.

I’ve had my heart broken. By close friends. By boys. By books. By parents. By circumstances. I’ve lived my life running toward endings, drifting out of lives when relationships became too risky, avoiding goodbyes and moving on to the next adventure, chasing the dream of an impervious heart that never breaks.

My friends, people fail. It makes us human. It makes us beautiful.

Every boy will break your heart. So will every girl. Every friend. Every person you let close. To love at all is to open your heart to pain—to know that you will see your soul shatter and grow back together a hundred times over, and that every time, you will lose something. And every time, you will gain something.

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Love is not the absence of pain; it is not the absence of heartbreak or the promise never to fail. Love is a promise to fail together. To fight not to hurt each other, but to hurt each other anyway—and then to forgive each other, to hold each other through healing.

Heartbreak will happen. Healing will happen.

We are defined, not by the pain we cause, but by the ways we react in the aftermath of heartbreak.

Goodbyes will happen. Endings will come. Don’t run from them. Don’t consign them to bitter memories. But don’t precipitate them simply because you’re afraid. Don’t say the words “not meant to be” and move on because you can’t face the heartbreak.

Running will keep you safe, yes, but running will keep you lonely. Running away will take your mind off your wounds, but standing your ground, fighting for someone you believe in—that will bring healing.

Synaesthesia, or: Seeing People Past the Time

“So my mother and I were talking about synaesthesia,” I say as we pull out of the driveway.

“Oh! Debbie has that,” my aunt says.

“So do we,” I say. “Mum said to ask about your calendar.”

My aunt and I have what’s sometimes called spatial sequence synaesthesia: we see time.

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I see the calendar as an undulating, multi-coloured ribbon extending in front of me, curving away to the left, rising and falling with weekends. My aunt sees a circle like the clock’s face, with winter at the top and summer at the bottom.

We agree that we both see deadlines.

We’re driving to the airport, the car curving along overpasses at the same angle as time, and somewhere into the conversation, she asks my friends in the back seat if they see time.

As it turns out, they don’t have a visuo-spatial sense of the calendar.

“I think of events,” one friend says. “And people, and the things we’re going to to do.” She explains that she has an emotional sense of time. When she thinks of last summer, she thinks of New York, the places we went together, the museums she saw.

I see New York, too—my flat, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the pillars of my subway station, all rising from the waving curve of yellow summertime off to my left.

So I ask, “Do you see events bounded by time?”

My aunt tells me that I’m misunderstanding, still thinking my friends have a visual sense like I do.

I ask my friend if she sees deadlines. She says no.

I ask what she sees when she thinks of tomorrow.

She thinks of getting home, and of our roommates arriving back at the flat. She thinks of how we’ll hug them and ask how their Christmas was, and of whether they’ll want something to eat.

I don’t think of our roommates at all. I see tomorrow in lines—pale blue 5:30 am, when our flight will land, and then the long blank space of the day, which I plan to sleep away, and the darker line of evening.

I see the limits.

She sees the people.

My aunt and I talk about the lines—the time until things are due, the blank spaces that aren’t blank, because they ride above deadlines. We agree that we feel pressured and annoyed when people demand attention during those spaces, because we focus on finishing things on the lines.

My friends talk about people—about events to come, and people to be met and parted with, and time to be spent over tea and coffee and conversation, and my aunt says that perhaps we should step off the line sometimes.

I have synaesthesia. I see time.

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Because of this, I’m good at getting things done. I finish projects. I don’t turn things in late. I see the boundaries of my time and I pack things in, filling the blank spaces.

But I don’t always see people.

People show up in my blank spaces uninvited, and I often brush them away. I can see the lines drawing nearer, and I forget that the people are far more important than the to-do lists that hover along the ribbon of time.

It’s an odd fact of life that the easiest things are seldom valuable, and the most meaningful things are seldom effortless. I see time without trying; it’s a part of my psychology. To see people, I have to try. And maybe having to try a little harder makes seeing people, caring for people, just that much more meaningful.


If you’re interested in reading more about synaesthesia, here are a few great blogposts and articles I enjoyed:

The Wikipedia article, which is actually quite comprehensive and well documented

The blog that first made me realise I might not be totally normal

A rather dense scientific exploration of some benefits of synaesthesia

An even denser discussion of categorising synaesthesia

#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

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I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.