Endure

Ihangane.

Endure.

Around me, students skip up and down the steep hill, but I move slowly, eyes fixed on every sandy step, plotting my course with intense precision.

Walking with crutches seemed easy in America, with its smooth sidewalks and even floors. Here, on steep inclines covered in loose sand and cut by deep water-carved gashes, it demands concentration, physical coordination, and patience.

This enforced patience separates a continuous string of experiences into individual moments as my focus narrows on the earth in front of me.

One moment, ten years ago:

Water closes over my head, cold with the frozen ghosts of the ice it once was. I had found a rhythm, fingers clutching rough rope, feet pushing off firm stone, body arcing above the deep water, pausing a moment against all the forces of gravity, and then dropping back—but I missed a beat, lost momentum, came to a dead stop hanging above the river, too far to reach land.

And I dropped.

For an eternal heartbeat, my body hangs suspended in a thrumming blue world, muscles petrified in the sudden cold, mind caught between thoughts.

Then I surge to the surface.

One moment, two months ago:

Electric buzzing fills my ears. Strange new discomfort inches down my back—a rough, oddly isolated scratching that occasionally sparks into sharp pain before subsiding. The apex of the table’s hard cushion presses against my chin as the needle deposits a word in extreme slow motion between the layers of my skin:

Ihangane.

Be patient. Endure.

Rwandans say this when expressing sympathy. If your grandmother dies, if you slip on the gravel (if tendonitis and an unstable patella make themselves known in a painful burst and require the use of a crutch for a couple weeks) this is word you are given.

In English, they say to me, Sorry, but in Kinyarwanda, they tell me Komera—Be strong—and Ihangane—endure.

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One moment, a day ago, a week ago, every day:

A deep breath fills my lungs before I step out my door and the world closes over me. I thought Peace Corps would make me brave, but under the harsh light of high yet vague expectations and the close scrutiny of friendly or indifferent or judgmental Rwandan eyes, my fears are magnified.

A chronic sense of uncertainty has become overwhelming self-doubt.

A mild social anxiety has become gut-wrenching terror.

The sun is drying the rain-soaked dirt road, but I am frozen, paralysed by the gaze of my neighbours. I am walking to the bus stop, to the market, to the school, but my projects hang suspended, caught between ideas and reality.

Every day, I fight toward the surface, and my mind spins an endless mantra:

Take one more breath.

Ihangane.

Take another step.

Endure.

Breathe again.

I finish my journey, I buy my food, I teach my students.

I close my door behind me.

I exhale.

One moment, an hour ago:

Simple words leave my mouth slowly, pronounced with painstaking clarity. My student listens, eyebrows drawn in the concentration needed to keep every word in his mind long enough to understand it and connect it with the others, to catch the meaning in my short sentences. I draw him a diagram, blue ink on a scrap page of a notebook:

a femur

a tibia

a patella.

I tell him tendons and ligaments are like strings holding the bones and muscles together. He knows “string” because we learned it last year.

Understanding lifts his features. His eyes widen, his eyebrows rise, and his mouth relaxes.

“In our culture, when someone is sick, we go to visit them,” he says, nodding, “to say, be sorry.

This student has a courage I lack: he plunges into the water and fights to swim. He strings words together until he can make meaning, even when half the words are wrong, when the grammar is a tangle, when it takes multiple repetitions for me to catch the words or to guess at the ideas they outline.

This student reminds me why I walk out into the current of stares and whispers and giggles every day, why I hobble up steep hills and pick my way across dirt with a crutch.

There’s no glamour in Peace Corps. There’s no saving the world.

Before I came, I said, At worst I’ll spend two years doing something I hate to help someone else.

But it’s not that, either.

It’s enduring.

It’s limping to keep moving. It’s swimming upward despite the cold paralysis of fear. And once in a while, it’s breaking the surface long enough to see a student’s eyes widen in understanding.

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Be Calm (or, How to Cope in the Peace Corps: 24 tips from an introvert)

Humura.

Be calm.

Have I mentioned Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

It’s isolating and exhausting—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Half the time it’s incredibly rewarding, and half the time it feels thoroughly futile, and on top of everything, you can’t buy a pint of ice cream when you have a bad night. After over a year of this, I think I’ve become something of a pro at coping.

From one anxious, introverted PCV to you, here 25 things I’ve found essential:

  1. Keep some clothes that make you feel most like yourself, even if you can only wear them inside your house. In any country with rules about your wardrobe, Peace Corps comes with some identity disconnect, days where you feel like you’ve dressed up as someone else for so long that you can’t remember who you are underneath. Give yourself a break sometimes. I keep a handful of tanktops, short dresses, and leggings on hand. (And honestly half the time I walk around my house in my underwear.)
  2. Exercise regularly, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, even if you hate it while you’re doing it. Exercise really does release chemicals that help regulate your emotions and make you feel better, even if you don’t feel them at the time. Plus, with the total change of diet and lifestyle, Peace Corps makes a lot of people’s bodies change in ways they may or may not like. Exercise gives you control over your own body.
  3. Figure out the easiest ways to eat a balanced meal at site. It’s no walk in the park trying to get a balanced meal; I’ve never paid so much attention to my protein intake or craved vegetables so often before in my life. Figure out not only what’s easy to get at site but what takes the least effort to make. Get into routines with your food. Keep yourself nourished.
  4. Stay in touch with people who refresh you. Pay attention to which people don’t drain you when you talk to them, which people make you feel heard and supported and encouraged. Talk to those people.
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  5. Take lots of photos, even if you don’t share them, and look back on them from time to time. It’s fun to look back on where you’ve been. It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve come, to remember the good days and to see that the bad days ended. Plus you’ll want to look back on these in the future, when you’re back in the world of delivery pizza and fast internet.
  6. Keep lots of water bottles full of potable water so staying hydrated isn’t a chore. Dehydration is sneaky, and it ruins all sorts of things about your life, from your energy to your mood to your health, and there’s nothing worse than having to haul water and wait for your filter before you can quench your thirst.
  7. Write down the small successes. Record the moments that make you feel good, the small events that make you glad you came here, the little things that feel like you’re not failing. Keep that list where you can read it sometimes to remind yourself that you’ve done things right and made progress.
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  8. Play music in your house, and have impromptu dance parties by yourself. Trust me. It makes you feel better. You may look ridiculous (I do; my cat has told me so many times), but a few minutes of spinning and bouncing and swaying will get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face, even if it’s just because you’re laughing at your silly self.
  9. Keep your kindle charged and loaded. You never know when you’ll need a book, whether it’s during an unexpected wait because scheduling doesn’t exist in your host culture (hey there, Rwanda), on an lazy weekend afternoon, or while your rice is boiling.
  10. Figure out the things that make you feel most like yourself and make space for them in your life. For me that includes keeping a few physical books on hand, making time for lingering over coffee in the mornings, and keeping in touch with writers groups whenever my internet works.
  11. Figure out what you can control. Maybe it’s your diet, maybe it’s your hobbies, maybe it’s your bedtime. For me it’s my workouts and writing events like NaNoWriMo. Even if it seems insignificant, it’s something to hold onto when it feels like everything in your life is spinning into chaos.
  12. Stock up on toilet paper, pepto bismol, and ibuprofen. Trust me. You do not want to be stuck at home with endless diarrhoea using notebook paper because you can’t walk into town for toilet paper.
  13. Keep snacks on hand for emergency coddling on bad days. Hoard your care package goodies—I keep an “emergency American food” trunk in my kitchen—and pick up treats for yourself when you visit a town. Save them for the days when you need a little extra love.
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  14. Keep a makeshift clothesline easy to set up indoors for rainy laundry days. It’s bad enough having to run out in the rain to collect your month’s worth of laundry off the line without having to leave it all in a sopping pile while you try to figure out where/how to hang an indoor clothesline.
  15. Always round off a list of complaints with one good thing. Don’t pretend everything is fine when it’s not; air your grievances and acknowledge your frustrations, but don’t end there. Force yourself to find something good that happened during the day, the one thing that went right or at least wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Even if all you come up with is, “I don’t have malaria,” that’s something. (I’ve had those days. They’re real.)
  16. Make some physical spaces yours. The corner seat in the local tea shop, that one walk with the pretty views, the living room of that neighbour you really like—wherever it is that you feel comfortable, make yourself a little home.
  17. Sleep in sometimes. Or I guess if you’re not a night owl like me you could go to bed early sometimes. Or do both. Sometimes I go to bed by sunset because lying down sounds nice. Give your body and mind a break. Rest.
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  18. Journal. You don’t have to write sweeping paragraphs, but write something. Dump your anxious thoughts when your mind is spinning at night. Bullet point the ideas that feel strongest or the details that seem most important. Write lists of events or aspirations or moments that made you laugh. Skim your old entries sometimes; see where you were and how far you’ve come.
  19. Make your living space as comfortable as possible. Shell out for the nicer couch cushions, buy some soft blankets, keep the milk and sugar for your coffee within reach of your armchair. Protip: it is worth it to buy a slightly more expensive lightbulb that will actually brighten your whole house. So many things in your life will be uncomfortable in Peace Corps. You have to make your own happy places.
  20. Take self-care days. Do whatever it is that replenishes your spirit. For me, it’s staying in my PJs and refusing to answer my door. Maybe for you it’s travelling to the nearest town to have a meal that you didn’t have to prepare for yourself while squatting on the ground. Whatever it is, give yourself a break. Don’t check your email, don’t work on projects, don’t worry. You can tackle your M&E and your action plans and your problems tomorrow.
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  21. Always know what you’re looking forward to. Whether it’s an international vacation or just some down time on the weekend, you should always have something on the horizon, some rest stop where you can get your breath, have a drink, and do some self-assessment before you dive back into the turmoil of life.
  22. Keep flashlights and headlamps all over your house. There’s nothing worse than losing power in the evening and not being able to find your flashlight. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve given up at five in the evening multiple times because I couldn’t figure out where I’d stashed my flashlight.
  23. Define ‘successful’ your way. Let yourself be unhappy sometimes. You’re not a failure if you don’t love your site, your counterparts, or your job every single day. Decide what you want success to look like and work toward that. Never mind what everyone else is doing or what the VRF says. If you are at your site, getting out of bed, walking out your door, making an effort to do your job, you’re a good PCV.
  24. Tell yourself, just one more. And then one more. Take one step at a time, one word at a time, one breath at a time. You don’t have to do your whole day, project, or service at once. Right now you just have to take one more breath. And then another.

 

 

One Who Works Willingly

​Ndi umukorerabushake. 

I am a volunteer. 

Umukorerabushake” is perhaps the longest Kinyarwanda word I know, and I learned it early on by memorising its parts:

Umu: the singular prefix for a person

Korera, derived from gukora: to work

Ubushake: a will or desire

Put all together, it literally means “one who works willingly.”

This is something I understood when I applied to come to Rwanda, that I would be working willingly. 

I remember saying once, “In the worst case scenario, I find out it’s hard and I hate it, and I work really hard for two years to do something that helps someone else.” It sounded noble at the time, but more than that, it sounded feasible. 

Today I’m lying on my bed, alone in my house, the only American in my village (although I keep hearing about a French guy in town?), and the term umukorerabushake seems very far away. Work seems like an abstract concept. Until school starts in about three weeks, my only work is integrating—a small word that carries a big punch in the Peace Corps. 

On paper and in PST lectures, “integration” means walking every road in my village, meeting everyone I can, visiting houses, attending religious and social functions, asking questions, memorising names, learning everything I can about the village, it’s people, and my place in it. 

But in real life, integration is much less standardised and much more personal. 
For some of my friends, it has meant joining church choirs, playing sports, or hiring local kids to haul water. For me, it has often meant simply opening my front door every day. 

Some days, of course, it means more than others. Sometimes it means walking down the street to another teacher’s house and having a conversation on her couch. But sometimes I consider it successful integration if I manage to return my neighbour’s milk jug in the morning. 

On Tuesday it meant greeting everyone I passed on the way to the market and learning the name of the girl who helped me find garlic and potatoes. But then it meant not crying on the way home before I locked myself in the house for the evening. 

A sense of guilt hangs over me, a pressure to do more—to know more names, go more places, to ask more questions. Somehow the freeing idea of working willingly gets lost in this heavier idea of doing all the right things. 

But this isn’t about “all the right things.” Someone pointed out a while back that, “we are the resource Peace Corps sends,” and if they wanted to check off a box, they could ship in some materials, hold a week-long training, and walk away. But they don’t. They ship in us—individuals. Scared, excited, uncertain, hopeful people with a mediocre grasp on the language and a passion for some aspect of this job and a lot of quirks.

Some of us have convenient quirks, like enjoying visiting strangers. Some of us have inconvenient quirks, like anxiety. But we are all here to work willingly. 

In a few weeks, when school starts, that working will involve lesson plans, counterpart teachers, and classrooms full of students, and we will do that willingly. 

Right now, though, sometimes that work involves walking out the door and breathing at the same time. And that, too, we find a way to do willingly. 

In General

Muri rusange… 

In general… 

I haven’t posted in a few weeks. Everything I want to tell you seems obsolete by the time I get it written. 

I wanted to tell you about finishing PST—about how I thought by the end of training I would feel confident and prepared and not like myself anymore but how instead I felt like I did the time the lights went off while I was in the latrine, leaving me in the dark with my trousers down and a family of cockroach was watching me. 

I wanted to tell you about seeing Nirere again—about how I had thought my umukozi was gone forever but how I stepped in the gate one night to see her sitting on the ground holding her baby, how before I left Rwamagana I got a chance to say murabeho—the goodbye you use when you don’t expect to see someone again—and how she hugged me and said something I translated roughly as “go with God,” and how it didn’t matter that I couldn’t entirely understand the words, because we understood each other. 

I wanted to tell you about leaving my host family—about how I never quite lost that anxiety that I was in the wrong place when I was around them but how saying goodbye felt impossibly hard anyway, how we exchanged gifts and hugs and promises to call, and how the little girls held onto me before I rode away in the back of a Peace Corps car. 

I wanted to tell you about swearing-in—about how solemn it felt with our right hands raised and phrases like defend the Constitution and Peace Corps legacy marching out of our mouths in unison but how the gravity of the situation dissipated immediately in selfies and conversations and overeating on the kind of food we won’t see again for months. 

I wanted to tell you about arriving at site—about how freeing it feels to have my own house but how terrifying it is to be alone in this beautiful little town full of staring eyes and muzungu-ing voices where I have yet to find the market or a tea shop. 

In general I wanted to tell you about everything. 

About how I spend my days in a house without furniture, slowly developing a routine, allowing myself to lie about reading or watching Friends if I’ve left the house at least once that day to talk to someone. 

About the first day here when it took me a box and a half of matches to light my imbabura for lunch and how I spent the rest of my matches without once seeing a successful flame that night. 

About the chicken that visits every day, appearing like magic in my backyard or livingroom—about how I followed it yesterday and discovered it squeezes through a drain hole in my compound wall. 

About how it doesn’t feel like Christmas here yet and might never, but that’s turning out to be okay. 

I wanted to tell you that some days I think I can’t do this—that it’s too much for me, that the feeling of suffocating every time I walk down the street is too strong and my communication skills are too weak and I don’t think I can actually help these people. 

But I also wanted to tell you that some days I think this is the best thing I’ve ever done, that my neighbour checks on me despite our language barrier, that a little boy named Gisa stops me at the end of the street to talk every time I go out. 

I’m general, I wanted to tell you that I’m still here and that right now here is hard, but it’s also good, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I’m Tired

​”Ndananiwe cyane.”

“I’m very tired.”

I find myself saying this often. Before I came to Rwanda, I envisioned myself surrounded by new friends, confidently exploring a new environment, eagerly practising a new language. 

What I didn’t take into account is that being in a new place with new people and a new language doesn’t make me a new person. I’m still me. 

Peace Corps doesn’t change that, and Rwanda doesn’t change that. 

But it does force me to act like a different person, pushing me out of my comfort zone a hundred times a day. And yet while it can force me to make small talk with strangers in a language I barely understand, it can’t take away the fear I feel while doing so, and that is exhausting. Every day I see more clearly the sharp discrepancy between who I am and who Peace Corps would like me to be. 

Peace Corps would like me to be bold and outgoing, ready to talk to anyone and everyone—but I’m not. Some days I think I’ll shatter if one more child yells at me from the side of the road. 

Peace Corps would like me to immerse myself in my host family’s daily routine–but sometimes I can’t. Some days the anxiety and feeling of being and outsider are so overwhelming that it’s all I can do to greet them politely before I lock myself in my room. 

This is not to say Peace Corps is too much for me. I can do the tasks required, but I pay a price for that functionality. 

Some days I pay that price in tears or headaches or trembling hands. Some days I pay that price with exhaustion or a petrified mind, unable to process information or form coherent answers. 

Every day is different. Sometimes I talk to people even though I’m shaking, and sometimes I laugh when everything in me wants to cry. But sometimes I stay on my bed all afternoon, and sometimes I walk away without answering so I can break down in private. 

I’ve spent the last month searching for ways to cope with this dichotomy between who I am and who I need to  be to succeed here in this new world.

Coping strategies are hard during PST. I have little to no control over things like my schedule or diet, extremely limited free time, and a timetable that changes frequently and often without warning. My private space is limited to my bed, and my activities are limited to things I can do there or that I don’t mind people watching (working out on my porch ended after five minutes when a handful of neighbours lined up to watch). To make it worse, I feel guilty if I spend more than a few minutes at a time in my bedroom—I should be integrating, right? 

I have to find the things I can control, the things that make me feel most like myself, and fit them like glue into the cracks of my life to hold myself together. 


Things like reading, posting on Instagram, watching movies. Things like texting friends and family, listening to familiar music, writing. 

Right now the thing holding me together is NaNoWriMo. Usually it feels like one more obligation in a busy schedule, but now it feels like a goal I’m actually competent to achieve, an outlet, a way to feel like myself while I’m stretching and bending to fit into the Peace Corps mould. 

Ndananiwe cyane—I’m very tired. 

But I’m also many other things, even if sometimes I forget them. I’m also strong and brave and curious and eager and truly glad to be here. 

Being in a new place doesn’t make me a new person, but it does add things to my essential self, and I think this change, this constant growth, this struggle to discover what is me and what I can change—this is also a beautiful process.

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.

Today I Feel

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Today I feel numb. Or perhaps I feel so much that my capacity to feel is overridden and subsumed under a more urgent instinct—the instinct to hide. To curl into a ball tight enough to feel myself, to wrap my arms around my legs and feel that my body is solid, not flying apart in every direction, that it’s real, not an extension of my overactive mind. To pull in close until I think, maybe, I have some control.

A few years ago, on a day like today, I would have said, “I’m ill.” But over time I’ve learned to recognise this feeling and the seed of panic that comes with it, blooming somewhere at the base of my skull, spreading until it pounds through my mind. Today, I know to say, “I’m anxious.

A year ago if I were writing a blog post on a Thursday morning, I would have apologised for posting two days late. I would have said, “I was busy.” Today, I know the truth is not that I was busy but that I was anxious—so anxious that I opened my laptop to write, but instead found myself curled in a safe nest of blankets watching Emma for the hundredth time.

A month ago, I would have felt guilty for this—for letting my dysfunctional mind take over, for succumbing to the undercurrent of fear running through my life. But today, I recognise that anxiety is a spectrum, and living with anxiety is a journey.

Sharing my body with anxiety means some days I’m in complete control, and some days I fight for every step. And some days, the anxiety wins, and I watch from inside my head. And whereas a year ago or a month ago I might have seen a day like that as a failure, today I can see that day as a single step in a much longer walk—one moment that does not define me.

Whereas a year ago or a month ago I might have denied my own experience in light of the worse experiences around me, today I acknowledge that my experience is valid—that someone else’s greater pain does not lessen my own. And today I can focus on taking care of myself, whether that means staying in bed an extra hour or simply remembering to breathe as I walk through the snow to class.

Three Weeks of Crowds (and also rain)

Three weeks: the point at which any adventure begins to crumble.NYC

At three weeks in New York City, I’m exhausted. The thrill of the adventure has given way to the repetition of the mundane.

Every morning I spend nearly an hour jostled by a shifting mass of shoes and bags and shoulders. Every evening I do the same. Every lunch break I brave the row of knees and takeout bags settled on park benches; strangers terrify me, but the office is cold, and I need that hour of sunshine.

Walking around town isn’t so bad. I have a destination. I don’t have to brave any one person’s presence for longer than the time it takes me to notice and then pass them on the sidewalk. But trains, coffee shops, parks… I have no escape. Nowhere to go, no excuse for where I look. Just me, motionless, and the crowd.

The fact that most of these strangers probably don’t notice me makes no difference. I know they’re worried about their own issues, not wondering about mine. They’re too concerned with whether or not they can find a seat to notice that I’m two inches too close or that I forgot to grab my rings this morning. But I notice. I feel their eyes on me, wish I could make some kind of public apology for taking up space on the train, for sitting on this bench, for eating my lunch in this place, for needing a second to zip my purse before grabbing my coffee and running out the door.Subway

I have no buffer. I’m alone in the city. Just me and my book on the train. Me and my tupperware at lunch. Nobody to distract or protect me or say no, it’s fine, you’re not staring at anyone, don’t worry.

Anxiety is like a spiderweb you didn’t see, and then you feel the sticky strands across your face, and you panic. And you can tell yourself it was just a web, but you’re still convinced at the slightest prickle that some hideous, venomous spider is hiding somewhere on your body, waiting to sink its fangs into you. And even though nothing bad ever happens, that spider rides on your shoulder until all you can feel is its weight.

The crowds are like filaments of spiderweb, each so light I barely notice, wrapping tighter and tighter, and somewhere in the tangle, I know there’s a spider biding its time.

And then this afternoon, something happened. It rained.

I walked out of the office building into a downpour. My umbrella did nothing to shield me from fat, warm drops, and rain ran into my shoes and soaked my feet, and the trees in the park dripped a wet syncopation, and the streets became rivers, buoying up taxis and busses. Umbrellas bobbed along above splashing heels, and as everyone else clutched their coats tighter and hurried from sheltered place to sheltered place, I found myself laughing in delight. Sopping wet and no way to prevent it, I couldn’t find it in me to pout about the rain when it turned the whole city into such a fascinating chaos of wet reflections and refracted lights.

Rain

And yes, I walked through that sodden park and got on a packed train and braved a hundred faces before I reached my flat. But I also remembered that there’s always something beautiful if I look for it. And sometimes, something beautiful is enough to distract me from the spider, just for a moment.

On Meeting People

My comfort zone is a lot like a wool jumper–cozy, hard to get out of, and liable to shrink without warning. So last week I stretched it a bit.

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Last week, I stayed with family friends who live the kind of farming lifestyle that involves butchering pigs in the spring.

Pig butchering, believe it or not, is actually inside my comfort zone, nestled between cooking from scratch and hunting rabbits with a BB gun. What’s not in my comfort zone is meeting new people. And pig butchering involved a lot of people. Four families, to be precise: some twenty-ish children. About thirty voices. Around a hundred and twenty arms and legs.

Now, I like people. I can handle two at a time for a couple of hours, with a few days of solitude before my next exposure to humanity.

…okay, slight exaggeration, but I do have reclusive tendencies, and meeting new people is on my list of most terrifying experiences ever.

So last week, I stretched my wool comfort zone, put on a smile, and met new people. For those of you who are, like me, introverted or prone to social anxiety, here are some ideas for your next comfort-zone-stretching situation.

Smile. My mother always told me to smile when I was a kid, and apparently mothers know everything, because it works. You smile, and your brain shoots off chemicals that say, “Hey, it’s cool, I’m happy.” Plus you look nice, not creepy, so people like you better. Win-win situation!

Ask questions. People like answering questions. If you’re doing something (like pig butchering) that you aren’t familiar with, ask how to do things or why things get done certain ways. People in general like sharing information and tips. Let’s be honest–we all like feeling like the expert for a few minutes, and everyone wants to feel needed.

Keep small-talk small. The weather happens to everyone, so it’s a nice starting point if you need one, but we all see it out the windows, or else we all walked through it to get here. We know what the weather is. Move on. Don’t immediately dive into divulging dark secrets, and don’t start asking for creepy amounts of information, but talk human to human. Ask people where they’re from or why they’re butchering a pig in the first place. Compliment them on their adorable children–people love talking about their children.

Jump in. People like you better if you don’t just sit on the sidelines. So there are ten small children with knives already taking care of all the meat. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a job. Probably something needs to be washed, or someone could use another hand in some aspect of the job. Maybe you can find your own niche–I earned the official parsley-chopper designation, which was kind of cool. (And, if you’re not into social-ness, like me, having a specific niche gives you a safe place. You can make friends from behind the cutting board, with your chef’s knife tight in one hand for protection.)

Use names. People like you if you use their names. Introduce yourself, try to remember people’s names, and then be willing to use direct address. For some reason, I find it hard to use people’s names until I know them well. No idea why; maybe names just feel more intimate than I’m comfortable with–but if I can recognise that discomfort and then put it aside and use people’s names, everything goes smoother.

Fake confidence. I know, I know, genuineness is important. But in uncomfortable situations, people will mirror your discomfort. If you act confident, pretend you’re comfortable even when you’re not, people will react with confidence and comfort, and everyone will slowly help everyone else feel more comfortable. Trust me; it works. Stop crossing your arms, straighten your shoulders, look people in the eye, and smile. Turns out those strangers in the room are mostly just normal, nice humans who also feel a little uncomfortable and who want to make a good impression just as much as you do.

So actually, once I got past myself and started being friendly, I discovered all those other humans were pretty great. I got to hold one of the world’s top ten cutest babies (it’s not official, but I’m pretty sure she’s in the top ten). They shared humour and good food, welcomed me into their homes, and hugged me when I left. And my “wash cold to avoid shrinking” comfort zone managed to stretch far enough to include four families: some twenty-ish children, about thirty voices, around a hundred and twenty arms and legs…and more smiles than I could count.

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