Wednesday, December 31, 2014

3 Tips for Making and Keeping a Better New Year's Resolution

Picture taken from annmariekostyk.com


A lot of men and women have decided on a New Year's resolution for tomorrow. Still more are trying to narrow in on one before midnight. Some of us procrastinators probably won't think of one for a few days...if at all.

Here are three humble suggestions for making (and keeping) a better New Year's resolution!

1) If you have a health and beauty goal, focus on health over beauty.

It's easy to pick a target weight range or weight loss amount and spend your days thinking you'll be happy with yourself if you can just shed a few more pounds. But the fact is, weight is NOT equivalent to health. Believe me....I can eat an entire box of Twinkies in one day and not gain an ounce. Please don't ask me how I know that. Also, not all bodies are the same and there is definitely a danger of fixating on a weight that yours really isn't built to have.

There are so many other exercise and diet related goals that more accurately reflect improvement in health. You could focus on cholesterol, heart rate, blood pressure, endurance, etc...and I guarantee that if you focus on being a healthier you, you'll find a more beautiful you along the way.

2) Focus on the cans instead of the can'ts

It's more fun and a lot easier to stick to when you focus on adding healthy habits to your life instead of cutting out things you're used to. I personally find that when I'm getting more healthy food into my diet, I don't have to make rules about not eating junk food. I just don't want it as much.

This probably works for a lot of non-health related goals, as well. For example, if you're trying to not be as lazy (which is probably the angle I should take) focus on things you want to do-read more, get out more, cook more, whatever.

3) Find ways to have fun with it!

Try new recipes to get those health foods into your diet. Go running with friends. Spend time supporting a cause you can feel good about.

Basically what I'm getting at here is...don't try to beat yourself into being a better person! Not only will it make you miserable....it just won't work.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Exploring Petit Jean Rock Art


It’s a cool but sunny Sunday morning here in Arkansas, despite being in the middle of December. The perfect weather to grab some friends and go on a hike.

Which is quite fortunate, because my friends and I have already planned a day of hiking. A day of hiking at my favorite state park, no less. And of following trails that lead to American Indian rock art, no lesser. And guided by one of the state’s most respected archaeologists, not least.

Ten of us load up in two cars and head toward Petit JeanMountain State Park. Officially, this is a joint field trip between the anthropology clubs at Pulaski Technical College and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Unofficially, it’s a bunch of friends joining together to indulge our mutual nerdom.

A couple hours of driving and we’re at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Teaching Barn. This cute little barn houses the WRI Research Station, one of eleven managed by the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. We are greeted by station archaeologist Dr. Leslie “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy.

Skip supervised me at my first AAS Summer Training Program back when I was a freshman and I’m excited for some of our friends to meet him for the first time. After he shows us around the Teaching Barn and gives us a small presentation about the rock art we’re about to see, we head out to explore the park.

First, we head down the Rock House Cave Trail.

   






 Over the Turtle Rocks and around the bend we go…










Until we come to the mouth of the large rock shelter they call Rock House Cave.
Ever prepared, Skip has given us all papers with pictures of paintings in the shelter. We disperse and try to locate as many as we can.

From the inside looking out
I was the first to find this one:

Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead

I call it The Bacon. Skip isn’t particularly impressed with my interpretation.

And here are some great shots of a woodland bison, and a human figure in a headdress, and a paddlefish next to a fishing trap:



These three photos were all taken from the Arkansas State Parks Blog, a great place to learn more!
Now, if you’re anything like us, you’ve got a number of questions….

When were these paintings done?
Well, nobody knows for sure. According to Skip, the popular assumption is that they date to the Mississippian Period, or about 1100-1700 AD.

How were they done?
Once again, a definitive answer isn’t really available, but the most likely answer is that they used a simple mix of red orange clay and water. “Maybe sometimes with actual iron ore/hematite nodules,” Skip tells me, “but ordinary red clay will do fine.”

After a while, we head to the Indian Cave off of the Boy Scout Trail. Here we see some amazingly well preserved pieces, like this fiddlehead fern and unidentified quadruped: 


Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
American Indians also pecked pictures into the rock. If you look at the wall behind me in the picture below, you’ll see a concentric circle motif. 



This is just one of many symbols that were shared across groups.  “Many of the motifs seen on Petit Jean Mountain are commonly seen across North America: concentric circles, diamonds, curvilinear lines, hands, sunbursts, interlocking scrolls, atlatl drawings, some animals.”

SO WHAT DO THEY MEAAANNN??? 
Again, not even the pros can be sure. “Part of the problem in interpretation is ironically the commonality of these symbols.  The actual rock art elements certainly were not done by the same individuals who were doing rock art in the Southwest or Northeast, but they clearly shared a basic symbol system, much like we see variations on Christian crosses.”

Why did they make rock art? Did everyone do it, or only certain people?
Not surprisingly, Skip answers these questions with more questions. “Why does anyone make religious art?? Were they made by a priestly class, which was certainly present in Mississippian and even before? Or were they made by others as part of set rituals? I'd like to know but don't know.”

What kinds of information about past cultures can we glean from cave paintings?
“Rock art gives us insight sometimes into the most fragile and least preserved elements of culture: myths, stories, heroes, cognitive perceptions of the world, level of basic observation of nature as in the animal portraits, and even shared cultural patterns found among different groups. Except, this is art produced by cultures who had no separation between art, economics, religion, or politics.  Such a unification is almost totally unfamiliar to those of us in Western civilization.  We divide up everything, whether or not it can be divided in reality.  Our ability to separate religion and science has given us effective medicines, but we have no idea why we're here to begin with, if even "why" is an answerable question.”

Before heading back to the Teaching Barn we make one last stop at an overlook up on the mountain. Skip points out across the river and tells that if we had been standing in this very spot centuries ago, we would have seen a thriving community of American Indians going about their daily lives down the bank and across what are now open fields.







By time we’re back at the Barn our heads are filled with day dreams and questions about the beliefs and traditions that gave life to this mountain all those years ago. But I guess that’s what archaeology-or any field of science-is all about. Each generation passes to the next not only the answers they’ve found, but the questions they’ve found. The mysteries of the past were what drew me into archaeology as child…and I guess there will still be plenty there to see me through until the end!

Photo Cred: Carah Still


All quotes are from a follow-up email interview with Skip. Shout out to Skip for coming up on a day off to show us around and to Cameron Still for helping me get pictures and details together for this post!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why "What are you passionate about?" isn't really a good question.

It’s a question that I was asked many times throughout my conservative, Bible-belt based youth, though in different ways. Whether in a personal conversation with my parents, at church, or at some youth convention or camp, I was challenged multiple times to think about what world issues I care most about and how I might contribute to the greater good in that area. It was usually worded something like this:

“What are you passionate about?”

Passion…you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Don’t get me wrong, the point of this blog post is not to criticize anyone who is encouraging folks to find a cause that they can get behind. Whether or not you believe that your interest in a given issue was placed in you by a divine being, it’s a great idea to take that interest to the next level and actually do something about it. If everyone in the world (or even just the first world) chose one cause to support, be it with time or money, the result would be felt across the face of the entire human experience.

What I’d like to propose is that we refine the way we go about it. Here’s why.

Most of us aren’t really doing anything about any of the world’s problems. And it isn’t that we don’t care or think we should be doing something. It’s that we’re too busy, we have our own problems to fix first, we don’t know how to get involved, etc. There is an endless list of excuses that we let get in the way and numb us to the pain of others. I would know, because I’m as guilty as anyone else.

So when a youth pastor looks out at his hormone-ridden flock and asks, “What has God given you a passion for?” What that really translates to is something like, “What do you think you could spare some time for after school and social responsibilities?”

But that’s not what passion is. If you’re passionate about something, it means more to you than just something to write in the “volunteer work” section of a scholarship application. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll invest in it other than when your church family is paying for you to travel to a different country for a week or two with all of your youth group buddies. If you’re passionate about something, you think about it a whole lot more than when you’re asked what you’re passionate about.

When it comes to world issues passion should demand a place among your priorities and not settle with the scraps of leftover time we call “when I’m not busy.” Passion should be more than a reputation boost that gets you an awesome new profile picture holding an impoverished-looking African child who you knew for a few days. Passion should be embers glowing in your chest that spark into flame with the slightest provocation. Passion should be a thirst that you know you’ll never quench yet you can’t possibly be happy if you don’t try. Passion should be painful. It should grieve you. It should linger. It should bleed.

Maybe I’m being dramatic. But as for me, I want to be one of the few human beings who knows a passion like that.

And right now, I have to admit that I don’t. I care an awful lot about education. And after living in a developing country as a volunteer teacher, I care about it even more. I daydream about how I can help improve education in impoverished and underprivileged places pretty frequently. But I’m still developing my passion for education.

I guess that’s the silver lining in this little rant. Not having a passion for anything doesn’t mean you should hang your head in shame and walk away! It means you should look at what you care about and invest in it. You’ll probably find that the more you engage an issue…the more you care about it. The more you taste it, the more you understand it’s complexities and nuances, the more it will mean to you…the more you’ll feel those embers glowing in your chest.

And thus I propose not that we stop asking the question. Rather, I would like to suggest that we start framing it with wording that more helpfully reflects what we really mean:


“What do you want to develop a passion for?”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why you should be glad I don't want to be your fairytale princess.

With the rise of feminism, many of us are rejecting the old standard of the ideal woman. I don’t want to be your Cinderella. I don’t think I could be if I tried.

>I’m not a great cook, my room is always messy, and pretty much any roommate I’ve ever had will tell you that I don’t wash my dishes in a timely manner. I’ve known what career I’ve wanted since I was ten years old, and I will prioritize work responsibilities before having a spotless kitchen or always having a home-cooked meal for dinner.

>I don’t always care if you think I’m pretty. Sure, sometimes I like getting dressed up. But other times I just want to wear a t-shirt and sweat pants. And no, they won’t always be those yoga pants that make my butt look good. Maybe you don’t think I’m classy for showing up to a lecture in my pajama bottoms with my unwashed hair in a messy bun. But guess what? I’M COMFY. Besides, at least I showed up.

>And I’m definitely not always meek, mild, and sweet. I can be obnoxious, I can be annoying, and I can be a jerk. It’s part of the whole being human thing.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Here’s the best part about rejecting the gender stereotypes we see in fairytale relationships: IT GOES BOTH WAYS.

Look, I’m no Cinderella. But I don’t need her kind of Prince Charming, either.

>I don’t need a rich kid who brings home enough money for bills + weekly manicures. I want a man who is doing whatever he’s passionate about, whether or not that entails a traditional career. We’ll deal with chores, bills, and kids accordingly. It isn’t just about rejecting what society thinks our roles in the relationship should be. It’s about splitting responsibilities and supporting each other’s dreams in a way that works for us as a unique pairing of two unique people.

>I don’t need the guy who all the girls at the ball came to chase. If and when I end up settling down, the number of women who are jealous that I’ve taken my man off the market is totally irrelevant. I just need someone who I can’t get enough of…and who can’t get enough of me. It isn’t just about realizing that women have other sources of value than physical beauty. It’s about realizing that people are diverse and there is no such thing as “the perfect woman” OR “the perfect man.”

>And he doesn’t need to be the infallible gentleman who is always strong and can fix anything. I’m attracted to humans, which means I’m attracted to beings as imperfect as myself. It isn’t just about dissolving negative perceptions of female emotion. It’s about realizing that NOBODY has it all together, that treating your partner with love and respect will never be effort-free, and that any successful relationship involves learning to apologize AND forgive with grace.

And at this point, some will say, “Aha! If more feminists were like this, maybe I’d support them more.”

Here’s the thing: if a woman is using feminism to demand change for women yet deny it to men, she isn’t using it correctly. The feminist movement is not about women “getting ahead.” It’s about getting equal. And many of the issues that affect women also affect men.

And here, there will be another round of folks who say, “Well if it isn’t just about women, why call it feminism?”

Not so fast. Many of the issues feminists are fighting to address do affect men, but that doesn’t mean we’re all equally unequal. Maybe it isn’t any fairer to expect a man to be the bread winner than to expect a woman to be the stay-at-home partner. Historically, however, being the bread winner HAS come hand in hand with having more power and respect within the household and society in general. When we see more women succeeding in the realms of business and politics and less woman being sexually harassed, maybe then we can talk about retiring the word and replacing it with a less gendered alternative.

In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is: we don’t want to be the girls that history and our resulting society demand us to be. But we don’t want the boys demanded by that same narrative, either.


We are human beings who want to connect with, love, and be loved by other human beings.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Dagger eyes and Grizzly Beard

Wednesday, Oct 22, 7:15pm

Finally, I’m turning into the hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa! I check in and start dragging my stuff into my new temporary home. It isn’t long before I spot a friend of mine from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I flag him down and we chat. As he’s giving me the low down on the crew, a woman walks by with what can only be interpreted as a “don’t even try to talk to me” face. Devin explains that she’s a crew chief…and not a very friendly one. Great. Glad I’m being thrown into such a happy environment.

But my crew chief is a different person anyway. I’ll be meeting him tomorrow morning at seven. Then we’ll all load up in trucks that should be four wheel drive but aren’t and go look for signs of past occupation in the woods and farms of small-town Iowa.

Thursday, Oct 23, 7:15am

Rapping on my door rouses me from a deep, comfortable sleep. I stumble my way out of bed and see my friend from UALR through the peep hole. I open the door, thinking it must be the middle of the night.

“Hey,” he says. “It’s time to go.”

“What?” At first I assume that he’s kidding, but I look back at the clock and realize that I’m already fifteen minutes late. “Oh no! Are they waiting for me? Are the mad?”

“No, it’s fine…just get ready and get out there asap.”

7:30am

I power walk through the parking lot with a stack of new hire paperwork in my hand. I head striaght to my friend’s crew, which I had been told would also be mine. Self-conscious and flustered, I hand my paperwork to a man with an authoritative-looking clip board before making sure he’s the man I had been instructed to report to.

He isn’t.

However, as he tells me with a smirk under his grizzly beard, the other guy quit and he’s the replacement. BUT….I won’t be on his crew anyway. They’re crew seven and they’ve decided to put myself and another new guy on crew six. With the dagger-eyes lady from yesterday.

Well, what a great start.

5:00 pm

After work, my friend invites me to join him and some of his crew mates at a local grill and bar. I know how important workmate bonding is, and I want to be received well among those who are already established in this group, so I join.

Grizzly beard is there, and makes a few playful pokes at my sleeping in, but overall is friendly and really doesn't seem to care about my blunder. And after we get to the hotel I’m even invited to hang out and have a beer at the fire pit out back.


So I guess I had a shabby start….but overall, it wasn't a bad day. This project and the potential friends in it at least seem promising…

Monday, October 20, 2014

Campfire Stories Near Bellevue, Ohio

Sunday, Oct 19th, 9:30pm

Four women stand and watch as I set up my tent. It’s dark, but I’ve got a headlamp, and the tent is a simple one-person backpacker tent, so I’m able to figure it out without fiddling with directions. It looks like I’m the only tent camper tonight. One little ten tucked away between a dozen RVs.

 The women seem rather impressed, and I shamelessly revel in their comments of praise as I assemble my little shelter. But they’re also all mothers, and can’t help but be motherly. Pretty soon I’ve got an extra cushion to sleep on, a blanket, a flashlight, and even an extension cord leading to a little space heater inside my tent.

Before bed, I join a couple of them around a fire and exchange stories. I tell them about how I’m from Arkansas, how I came to Ohio to work on a survey project, and how the project ended early and I’m now headed to another in Iowa. I even tell them about how I was teaching abroad in the Republic of Georgia last year. They, in turn, tell me stories of when they were young and in love. I hear of both love that lasted and love that is no more…and perhaps never really was.

I love these moments. These moments that you could never have predicted.

Just last Wednesday I was on a shopping spree with the other woman from my crew. We spent our per diem like we were less than a week away from another one.

That night, we found out that we weren’t. We were informed that the company was having trouble procuring land owner permission to access all the necessary parcels, so the project would end two weeks early. In four days, we would be jobless.

On Thursday I applied like crazy to other projects.

On Friday, I accepted a position in Iowa. I would have until next Wednesday night to get there.
Friday night we had one last dinner with the whole crew. Our company reps had gifts for all of us, and we laughed as we recalled the inside jokes and memories referenced by each one.

By this (Sunday) afternoon I was in Columbus meeting, in person for the first time, the young woman who had taught in my village in Georgia before me.

 And now here I am, chatting by the fire with a couple of local Ohioans at an RV park.


Sometimes you just don’t know who you’ll run into, what chance encounters you’ll have, what paths will intersect yours. Living an adventure is all about the getting there, I suppose. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lunch at "the office"

Tuesday, Sept 30th

A huge ravine runs right through our parcel today and the entire area is wooded, with plenty of thorny undergrowth. Probably won’t be much digging. But we hike right into the underbrush, each person with their own shovel, screen, and backpack. We walk for a long time, letting someone with a machete go first. Thorns grab at us as we go and in a couple of spots we’re forced to crawl on the ground to get through networks of vines and branches. Shovel in hand the whole time, of course.

I love it. The physical challenge of it makes it fun, and the woods are breathtakingly beautiful. Through the trees to the left, we can see a wall of woodland sloping down the other side of the ravine. All around us, the circle of life is intertwined with itself. Little saplings await their first taste of winter beside old fallen trees that are now something between wood and dirt. Every now and then one of us steps on one, overestimating its strength, and it instantly crumbles beneath our weight.

Eventually, we come across a small, overgrown road. It’s going in the direction we need so we walk along it until it curves away from our trajectory. We then return to making our own path…until someone notices something interesting to the right. It’s a small tower of rocks. Flat rocks, and obviously stacked on top of each other intentionally. In fact, there is a whole wall cutting into the slope behind it! 

We explore and observe and discuss until our crew chief is satisfied that it’s the bottom of what was once a barn built partly into the hill. This area was once pasture land. We measure it, take pictures, and take note of artifacts, which include the metal remains of farm equipment and glass bottles. And then we decide it’s the perfect place to sit down for lunch.


Lunch at the office. What can I say? I’m getting paid to walk around and look for old broken stuff. Maybe it’s not everyone’s ideal job…but it’s one way in which I’m fulfilling my desire to live an adventure.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On to the next adventure

I emailed my resume in before going to bed Tuesday night. I got a reply Thursday night. Not only did I get the job, but they wanted me to join the crew on Monday…in Ohio. Friday I went shopping and packed, Saturday I ate lunch with the family and headed out with Meowthew as my only companion.  Saturday night was spent in a hotel in Kentucky and I was here in St. Clairsville, Ohio, by Sunday night.





The weekend drive

Driving alone can be relaxing. It being the weekend, I’m totally avoiding rush hour traffic. And I don’t have to exit this highway for another hour at least. I go between Owl City, a Vans Warped Tour Compilation cd, and local country stations. After all, I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s musical preference. Except for Meowthew's. But he likes pretty much whatever I like. 

These highways have been surrounded by trees pretty much the whole way since Arkansas. And as I travel between states, I feel like I’m traveling between seasons.  The forests in Arkansas were still dressed in a lush summer green. But as I make my way further north, the trees fade into a lighter shade of green, splotched with soft yellows and oranges and little spurts of deep red. Enjoying the view but knowing that it comes in exchange for seeing the colors change in the Ozarks, I drink it in as I go.

Monday, Sept 29th

As we all stand in a circle in a Rural King parking lot, awaiting orders so we can hop in the van and get to work, I sit and chat with my crew. There is only one other woman, but she’s cool, and none of the guys are creepy. This looks promising so far.

After a little bit of navigation trouble and “is this really a road or someone’s driveway??” We find the area we are supposed to survey today.

Basically, before putting in a pipeline, the pipeline people are required to make sure they aren’t about to tear up any burials or other culturally significant sites. Thus, they hire private firms, which hire archaeology and anthropology majors like me as archaeological technicians. And then we comb miles and miles of land for possible sites.

We find our bearings and spread out in a straight line. We use our compasses to make sure that we are walking straight and in the same direction. Then we walk, scanning the ground for artifacts.   Every 15 meters, we each dig a small whole and run the dirt through a small screen made of a wooden frame and metal mesh, checking for artifacts.

My first couple of holes are completely sterile. The next would-be hole, fifteen meters away, is on a steep slope. Erosion will have taken anything that was once here, so I move along. Pretty soon we are all in the woods on the side of a hill. The slope and vegetation means digging here is a no-go. But we head single file through the clearest trail we can make to check out the rest of the area…each person carrying his or her own shovel and screen. 

At the bottom of the slope is a dry creek bed. While crossing it, I slip on a rock. I catch myself on my screen, but a bit of the cut edge of the metal mesh is sticking out from under the wooden frame and scrapes my arm up a bit. Battle wounds already! I’ll have to get a back pack I can clip the screen onto, as many of the others have done.




After all, this is only the beginning.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My Sakartvelo


It’s been a few weeks since I left Georgia. Or Sakartvelo, as they call it in their own language. It’s been relaxing to be home. But before more time passes, I wanted to write a little something to capture some of my experiences from and feelings about Georgia.

~~~~~            

My Sakartvelo is mountains in every direction, with rivers running through them, and quiet villages stretching along their sides and in their valleys. But my Sakartvelo is also trash along riverbanks and lakeshores and roadsides and fields and everywhere else outside of a trash bin.

My Sakartvelo is maneuvering through muddy roads on the way to school while exchanging smiles and greetings with neighbors. And my Sakartvelo is walking back hand in hand with one of my girls until a student (or myself) starts a wrestling match or battle, and we’re forced to disperse and gather sticks or berries or whatever ammunition is available nearby.

My Sakartvelo is being emotionally exhausted with the realization that my personal mental health and happiness require human interaction-not simply speaking or being spoken too, but being understood and understanding others. And yet, my Sakartvelo is all the strength that develops through hardship, and the increased appreciation of a uniquely human gift that is so often taken for granted.

My Sakartvelo is ready acceptance into a home away from home, complete with little siblings to both annoy and enamor me. But my Sakartvelo is also the frustration of being subject to the rules and protection of a traditional family in an extremely male-dominant society.

My Sakartvelo is a dozen smiles at once, between little ears that don’t know how to listen on little bodies that don’t know how to sit still…but are at least drawing me pictures or offering me candies while ignoring me. Yes, my Sakartvelo is affection freely given. And, in a culture where teachers are friends and neighbors instead of strangers to be feared, my Sakartvelo is the freedom to return that affection with hugs and kisses and arms around shoulders.  

My Sakartvelo is not being able to make the difference I want to make. It’s a broken education system that I don’t have the power to fix or work around. But my Sakartvelo is the confirmation, through hours of trying anyway, and of day dreaming about what I would do if I could, that education truly is important to me. This is a priority that will demand my attention many times more in my life.

My Sakartvelo is countless beautiful churches. And yet my Sakartvelo is countless empty crosses, always with the right hand…starting at a head that is empty of Christ’s words, then to somewhere between the ribs, then to the right shoulder, and then finally to the left; reaching twice over a heart that is empty of his love.

My Sakartvelo is the flattery of being a novelty because of my nationality, but my Sakartvelo is also the danger of that novelty when combined with Hollywood stereotypes of loose women and the entitlement of men who see filling their sexual appetites as a natural right and necessity.

~~~~~

Really, in the end, I love Georgia. Maybe I hate her. But I love her too. I think many TLG veterans would agree with me that to love Georgia is to let her slap you in the face whenever she feels like, and then still hold her hand. I’m not sure if she’s easy to fall in love with or I just fall in love easily. Maybe a bit of both. My feelings for her are not unlike those I had for my ex-boyfriend from when I was 18. He was horrible to me. He made me miserable. And yet I still loved him. Even worse, I thought I could fix him. That we could become better together.

Having said that…there is some difference. Because honestly, there is a lot more potential for change in Georgia than there ever was in my ex. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but revolution is already in the works.

So love, I shall <3

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I'm feelin' 22...


July 3rd, 2014
 
12:00am

It’s midnight here in Bulgaria, and I’m watching the video for Taylor Swift’s “22.” I’m not a huge fan, but the video is cute, and it is midnight on my birthday, so I post it to my wall just for kicks before I go to sleep. After all, it’s kind of fun to have a theme song for the next year of my life.

And it really feels alright. Having another birthday. I mean, I’m old enough to not like getting older, and sometimes it’s a scary thought….the fact that one day I won’t be young anymore. Youth has always maintained a place in my identity. But the last string of birthdays has made me feel a little more “legit” each year. A little more of an adult whom other adults have to take a little more seriously.

9:00am

I’m sitting alone at Sozopol’s popular Jack Bar, treating myself to a yummy kiwi shake before meeting Phillip at “work.” He is a cool guy. He graduated from UALR a few years ahead of me, but I only know him because my professors had me interview him for an assignment in my Senior Seminar class. Over Skype, he had told me about his research with skeletons from a Byzantine cemetery here in Bulgaria. I had asked him a few months ago if I might be able to come help out while in “the area,” since Georgia is just across the Black Sea. He said he would welcome the help…so here I am. Doing osteoarchaeology at a gorgeous beach resort.

I offer a prayer of thanks and linger on how lucky I am.

But no….it’s not luck. I’m here because I chose to be here.
 

11:00am

I’m cleaning dirt out of the eye socket of a Byzantine skull in the abandoned Soviet naval base that Phillip is using as his storehouse and lab. The place is huge. It’s a shame that they stripped it of anything useful and left it to rot. But as long as you wear shoes thick enough to protect you from shards of broken glass, it’s a pretty cool place to work in.

Or maybe it just makes me feel like a little bit of a bad-ass.
 




 

12:30pm

I grab a burger from a street stand for only a couple of Bulgarian Lev and find a wall to sit on, overlooking the beach.

My mind wanders again to how great it is to be here. And no, it isn’t pure luck. I mean yeah, there are the basic parameters set in place by my general life situation. Being born in a first world country, having parents who care, etc. But still….this isn’t luck. There’s something more to it.

Because no one told me to go to Georgia. I chose Georgia. And no one told me to volunteer in Bulgaria while I was at it. I chose this. I did the communication, the preparation, and the implementation. For quite possibly the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in a situation that I alone put myself into. It wasn’t because anyone else wanted me to. It wasn’t anyone else’s idea. I’m here because of me.

And it feels good to know that. Because this is my adult self that I’m merging into…that I’m somewhat constructing. These years are the beginning of the rest of my life, to be cliché about it. And to know that I am capable of making it a life that I want it to be….well, 22 doesn’t feel so bad so far.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

ARAOM from My Last Week of School


A Random Assortment of Moments from My Last Week of School
 
*

Summer didn’t wait for school to finish. The sun is warm enough to keep the roads from being giant mud puddles even right after a rain, but not so hot that you can’t handle being outside. Cherrie trees are everywhere in the village. One stands right outside of school and has just gotten ripe. I watch out the window while boys climb it, picking off whole branches and sending them down. They like to give cherries to the teachers. We all eat them…even those who yelled at the boys for going up the tree in the first place. 

*

My co-teacher must add up attendance totals before the end of the week, and, being a Georgian teacher, chooses to do so during class time. She tells me I can take the 3rd grade class outside and play ball. Well, I didn’t know I needed to prepare a lesson, and it is the last week of school, so why not?

When we go outside, we have no ball to play with. A couple of older kids who know a bit of English are outside and help me explain freeze tag to the younger kids, and for a while we play a massive game of it, big kids (including myself) chasing little kids. After that gets old, I try to organize the kids for a game of Duck Duck Goose. Chaos ensues. Most of them aren’t listening and the couple of them who are really aren’t understanding my instructions. By the time I’m trying to think of another game, the third graders have fractured into a number of groups engaging in mini wrestling matches. I give up, sit down, and watch until the bell rings.



*

Second and third classes are outside playing Georgian dodge ball for their sports period. I have a break this period, so I join them.

In Georgian dodge ball, only one team is dodging at a time. The other divides in two and stands on both sides, throwing a ball back and forth at the group in the middle. If you get hit, you’re out. If you catch the ball, someone who got out comes back in. The kids are excited to see me and beg me to play. The weather feels great and I won’t get to hang out with them much longer, so I can’t really say no.

Between their constant begging me to come back into the pit every time they catch the ball and my own lack of athletic ability, I repeatedly experience the excruciating embarrassment of being pelted by an 8-year-old. But I’m also experiencing their affection and happiness. And these are all the things that color my world. It’s in times like these that I know I’m living a life I want to live.

*

 By Thursday, my co has done all her counting, and doesn’t come to school. I don’t really mind at this point…classes have been a bit of a joke this week anyway, and I don’t have to hold them without her. So instead I hang out with the 8th and 9th class and everyone else who is attending their “show.” It’s fun little event that all the other teachers show up for, so I guess no one is having class today at all. The two grades form two teams and compete in song/poetry performance, eating spaghetti with no hands, etc. A lot of other students are there to watch as well. I joke and dance with some of my high schoolers while we wait for it to start. I’m thankful for the chance to just enjoy them one last time. I soak in every smile I catch.

*

On Friday, my friend Mariah comes to visit. I’ve decided not to return next semester, but she has agreed to transfer to Khovle when she returns in September. After my host mom gives us lunch she comes to school with me. Most of the students aren’t there. Most of the teachers aren’t even there. But myself and a couple of girls from 7th class are still determined to carry out plans of surprising a couple of the older boys with a water attack. Mariah agrees to be the camera girl.

It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out what is going on. Especially when I show up with five empty plastic bottles. The surprise attack turns into an all-out war.

The boys got in more attacks. 17-18 year old boys have more strength than me, and I am willing to admit that. They didn’t have much difficulty commandeering our weaponry and using it against us. At one point we tried to escape by climbing a tree, which only ended up trapping us. But whoever won, ALL OF US got soaked, so I can’t say I’m dissatisfied with the outcome.

And besides, it was a fun way to end the day; the week; the semester.

 
 


Even if I come back in a year or two as I’m planning, the kids won’t be the same. They’ll be older, some will be graduated, etc. It’s a bittersweet thing…leaving something behind when you know you can’t ever really have it again. I’ll miss it, sure, but I’m thankful that it happened. I’m thankful I was a part of this community for the past few months of my life. I’m thankful that each of these children was a character in this chapter of my story. And I in theirs.

But the chapter is coming to an end. It’s time for a month or so of adventure in Europe, then a final week or two of Georgia, and then back to America.

Next stop: England.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

No you can't.


Tuesday, May 17th, 3:30pm

The sun is shining as I walk out of the schoolhouse with the half dozen students who stayed after class for English Club. The small mountains on both sides of our village are finally green and just begging to be explored. No one really wants to spend the evening at home, so we decide to go for a hike.

4:00 pm

By the time we are on the mountain behind my house, we’ve gathered a few more students and make quite a motley crew: myself, my little brother and sister, a girl from 7th grade, a girl from 9th grade and her brother from 8th, the chemistry teacher’s son from 4th grade, the 11th grade boy she had just finished tutoring, and two other high school boys. One thing I love about these small villages is that all the kids hang out with all the kids. Sure, in the public school in my hometown a 15-year-old would be able to socialize with literally hundreds of other kids…but they would ALL be within an age range of a few years. There is something to be said for the sense of community at a school with not even 200 students in all grades 1-12.

As we are making our way to a 200-year-old bridge in between two hills, I get a call from the school director’s granddaughter. The girl is only 16 but practically home schooled herself into speaking English fluently, and I consider her a personal friend.

“Hey, I need to talk to you about English Day.”

Yes, English Day! It’s less than a week away now. I’ve convinced four of my TLG friends to come to my village on Saturday. I just need the director to open the school for me and for a couple of local teachers to come and help with discipline. We’ll do English workshops and games with the kids, complete with stickers and prizes. I’ve also been working with my English Club attendees through different levels in my Excellence in English Program, and while more foreigners are around would be the perfect time to present their award certificates.

“I’m really sorry, I don’t understand why, but now she says you can’t do it.”

What?

“She says the younger students can’t go because of the meningitis outbreak, and if you make it only for the older students, the younger students will try to come too…”

She knows as well as I do that these are excuses, not reasons.

“I’m sorry, I know you want to help us, but they don’t want the extra headache. You know how it is in the villages.” Yes. Unfortunately, I do. No good deed goes unappreciated.

After we say our goodbyes I catch up with the kids, who are hanging out around the bridge. If nothing else, at least I can enjoy hanging out with my students. One of the boys is sitting on it, a couple of other boys are walking on it.

Mets minda…I want to, too!

The phone rings and it’s my host mom, so I pass it off to my sister before trying to cross.

The kids freak out. The boys are literally holding me back. As I get free from one, another grabs my arm and another runs in front of the bridge to block me. “It’s very old, it’s dangerous!” they tell me.

“Come on, Levani was JUST on it.”

“Yeah, but he’s a boy.”

Oh. No. You. Didn’t.

During almost all of this, the girls are yelling for me to come back to them so my sister can relay the message from my host mother. Apparently it’s urgent, so I finally give up on the bridge. I’ll get back to that business in a second.

“What is it?” I ask, not masking my irritation.

“We must go.”

“What? Why?”

“It is only four girls and many boys.”

“But two of them are your brothers, one is a nine-year-old, and the others are our friends who our families know. So who is the problem??”

“Oh, I don’t know. But it is not good.”

Knowing I have no choice, I go with the girls, but not without fire in my step and a few choice words that they hopefully don’t know in English.

5:00pm

At the house, I use the little Georgian I know to ask the same questions of my host mother. “Is Levani a bad guy?” No, she doesn’t think so. “Is Giorgi a bad guy?” No, she doesn’t think so. So what is the problem?

“People speak maybe it’s boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Seriously? I can’t hang out with my students because people might spin the story for the best rumor material? I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not even offended that they think I might crush on a high schooler. Most kids here graduate at 19, and I’m only 21. Between my only being a few years older than them and my outgoing personality, I’ve been aware from day one that I have to be conscientious about my interactions with them.

But for me, that meant not giving them uneven amounts of attention or being in a room alone with one. I had never considered how inappropriate it might be to go on a walk with them. And a mixed-gender group of younger children. In broad daylight.

No you can’t, because people are lazy and don’t care.

No you can’t, because you are a girl.

No you can’t, because people will talk shit.

It’s three stones for one bird, and this little American eagle is out for the count. I’m not used to being shot down like this. I feel tears coming. I don’t fight them.

It isn’t the first time I’ve cried this semester. And I doubt it will be the last.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Because.

Saturday, May 24th, 8:00pm

At the hostel, I chat with a former TLGer who is back in Georgia for a visit after a couple years away. We share stories with each other and others hanging out at the hostel about the craziness that is Georgia. His host family, for example, was an extremely traditional family full of men who very well could have been connected to the mafia. They had a stock pile of questionable weapons and assured him that if anyone in Georgia gave him a problem, they would kill that person. And their parents. And their children. Sounds like a good place to live. Why not?

10:00pm

After a while we head out to indulge in the small but potent Tbilisi underground, comprised of disgruntled 20-somethings who know that their country is backwards but can’t escape it. We end up at Dive Bar…a popular hang-out for us foreigners and the locals who enjoy our company. I see a Ukrainian guy my age who I’ve met here before, while he was hosting a crazy group of travelers from Barcelona. He tells me they were traveling in a caravan, but couldn’t take it to India, so they just left the vehicle and all its papers with him. He also tells me that he and some other friends are going to the wine festival tomorrow, and then camping tomorrow night. I’m welcome to join. Sounds like fun…why not?
 
Sunday, May 25th, 2:00pm

A TLG friend of mine and I meet up with the Ukrainian and his friends, and he shows us our weekend home. As you might guess, it isn’t a usual sight in a country where black is the most popular color of clothing. She also hasn’t been used in a couple of months, and they didn’t clean her out before they left…but hey, our chariot awaits! We hop on board and settle in on the bed in the back. Looks like this could be an adventure…so why not?
 

 

9:00pm

We camp out at a lake called Lisi Lake. By the end of the night I’m sitting around a fire with two British guys, another American, a Ukrainian, a Turkish guy, and an Iranian girl. As it gets darker, the scenery around us gets more beautiful. In front of us is the water, dark and still. Part of the city is framed by hills to our right, and we can see large buildings with hundreds of little golden lights lined up in rows stories high. To our left are more hills, standing tall and deep purple, never minding the quiet lightening lighting up the sky behind them. I can’t help but think to myself that this is what being young should be like. No…that’s not enough for me. This what I want my life to be like. Spontaneity, companionship, beauty….I mean really, why not?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Seaside


Saturday, May 10th

11:00 am

I’m settling down on the 11 o’clock train to the portside city of Batumi, where I’ll enjoy the weekend with TLG friends. There are two of them on the train, but in the next carriage, as they bought their tickets before me. The other two seats in my row of three are occupied by a couple of guys from somewhere in the Middle East. Across the aisle are a couple of young people from somewhere in Europe. Between the guy’s blue eyes, the girl’s blonde hair, and something about a Norwegian sandwich shop on the guy’s shirt, I assume that they are from Norway.

The guys in my row aren’t impressed by my presence, but I’m definitely getting “we should talk at some point before the ride is over” vibes from the Norwegians. As I listen to their conversation, I keep hearing words that sound Georgian to me. I guess that happens when you are constantly surrounded by a language.

Eventually, our ice breaker comes in the form of light pelvic thrusting. On their part, mind you. I laugh when the girl makes eye contact with me while attempting the “moves” her friend is trying to teach her. She responds with laughter as well. And thus friendships are born.

Despite the blue eyes and blonde hair and the audacity to engage in pelvic thrusting in public, it turns out they actually are Georgian. But it doesn’t take long before I feel confident that they are not typical tradition-bound Georgians. And for the first time, I’m able to engage in nerdy conversation. With Georgians. I even mention Lord of the Rings Online and am met not with “Seriously, you play that?” but with “What do you have? I have an elf.” So impress. Much amaze. Wow.

11:00 pm

I’m with American and South African TLG friends and a Canadian we know from the hostel, walking around Batumi, looking for a place to hang out. We end up meeting with the Georgians I had met earlier at a pub that’s popular with internationals.

As modern as they are, they still follow through with a special tradition of Georgian “hospitality” and buy me shot of cha cha. And despite being an American 21-year-old, I’m a baby and only do half of it. Then some Turkish guy comes and starts hitting on me….then some Ukrainian guy comes and starts hitting on the Georgian girl….it’s funny how pub culture is so widely homogenous.  
 
I totally forgot to take pictures while there so please enjoy these googled ones instead. I'll try to post different ones if/when myself or my friends get some.

Photo from www.levke.net


Photos from Wikipedia

Thursday, May 8, 2014

But do I want to be one of the crazies?


But now I’m waffling. Is this really what I want?

Life in Georgia is hard. I mean, I have a great host family, and I have it good in my village compared to almost all the other volunteers. But that is a very relative “good.”

I am still surrounded by a constant gloom. A constant feeling of hopelessness. Because I know that even though I can help these kids speak better English than if I wasn’t here, it will still be remedial at best when I leave. With this education system, they have to take the initiative to study on their own if they want to succeed, no matter if I can give them a boost or not. And indeed, the students who can have even half of a conversation in English are the students who make an effort on their own time.

And if I go back, I can easily get a job as a sub in Arkansas. Still teaching. Still being a role model. Still encourage dreams. But with the exponential increase in effectiveness that speaking the same freaking language can provide. And with freedom over my own schedule, closeness to my family and friends, and with more opportunities to volunteer for archaeologists around.  

And I’ll also be able to make some money. Here we get a stipend, but saving is next to impossible. In the states I can live with my parents for cheap and save up for whatever adventure is next. AND because I’ll have some money, I’ll be able to have more choice about what that adventure is.

AND because I’ll have both more freedom over my own schedule and more money, I’ll still be able to travel and do cool things, if only in and around Arkansas. But it still might be more than I can do with my current situation.

I haven’t actually signed the new contract yet, so I can still change my mind…..

Anybody wanna give their two cents?

Am I one of the crazies?


I used to call them the crazy ones. To their faces, even. Jokingly, of course…but seriously. But I mean, after only a couple of weeks, most of us felt completely trapped. The language barrier keeps us from expressing our selves on a daily basis, and the cultural barrier is often there to stop us in our tracks should we get past the first.

And to make matters worse, our hands are all tied behind our backs as far as school goes. A bunch of adventurous souls wanting to make a difference abroad…and over half the time our Georgian co-teachers just want us to sit there and watch them lead the lesson, despite the fact that their methods of teaching have been tried and found lacking. And even for our English clubs and extra-curricular activities…organizing anything is a challenge when nobody understands anything you say.

By our mid-term training in April, I was confident that I wouldn’t be coming back for a second semester. I started dreaming up other possibilities for the rest of my year. I won’t be in my early twenties forever, after all. I should do more exciting things while I have this independence.

But then….

After training, I went back to school. Back to not being understood.

But also back to dozens of smiling faces rushing at me with smiles, stickers, candy, “I love you” notes with my name misspelled…anything to make me happy. How hard is it understand a child’s affection? How hard is to understand that as frustrated as I am, that affection is reciprocated?

And I went back to not feeling like I was making much of a difference.
But also back to ideas and possibilities that present themselves throughout the day and don’t ever fully leave my mind until it is asleep. I’m learning a lot about the problems of this educational system. I’m also learning a lot about what it needs. I could really make a difference.

And another semester seems like so long now…especially during this independent phase of my life. I mean, to spend a whole year on one thing….it’s a scary thought for me. But when I’m older, won’t I be happy that I stayed? That I came back and experienced the second semester?

So, what do you know, I became one of the crazy ones. I sent in my request to renew and was approved!


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Riding the Roller Coaster


Sunday, March 30th, 6:00pm

I’ve spent the weekend in Tbilisi and now it’s time to head back to my village. My host father is a marshutka driver so I get on his bus. About halfway home, a rather sociable (and possibly tipsy) woman from my village gets up and starts dancing. She motions for me to join. The next thing I know, I’m having a dance off in a moving vehicle and at least half a dozen camera phones are pointing at me. Our audience laughs and claps us on and a couple of boys from my second grade class even bust a few moves of their own.

Wednesday, April 2nd, 1:00pm

I have a break during 5th period on Wednesdays. I decide to spend the time outside chatting with students who are gathered outside, also enjoying a class off. Among them is one of the high school boys who attends English club. But doesn’t really know any English. He tells the students some story about his friend’s belt, then tries to translate to me, despite not knowing English. He keeps motioning to his belt, but I’m still not getting the story. So eventually I make a joke out of it and cover my eyes and say “me mastavlebeli!” Meaning, “I’m a teacher!” Everyone laughs, except for him. He then proceeds to apologize profusely throughout the rest of the day. That was probably not my smartest move.

5:00pm

The Irishman has come to visit and my host siblings, the director’s granddaughter (who can speak English well enough to communicate with) and a few other kids walk us to an old house in the village that has actually been excavated by archaeologists, and then to an old tower and church in a cemetery. It’s all cool to me, since I’m an aspiring archaeologist myself and I love old broken stuff. But in conversation, I learn that the kids weren’t outside because they had a break. They were just skipping. Furthermore, the other teachers assumed I knew this. Don’t get me wrong, a couple of them yelled out the window at a couple of the high schoolers, but teachers yelling at students is exhaustingly commonplace in Georgia, so I had believed the students when they waved it off and said “oh, nothing.”

Thursday, April 3rd, 11:00am

When I arrive at school that morning, the boy who was telling the story about the belt is at the door. I at once try to confront him about the skipping class issue, and communicate that the teachers think I am a bad teacher because they think I was encouraging the students to ignore them.

2:30pm

As I prepare for English Club, he asks to speak to me outside of the classroom for a minute, and hands me a mislead (albeit adorable) letter that he made the director’s granddaughter write for him, apologizing again about the belt incident and explaining the story more fully, because he doesn’t want me to think as if he’s really rude and bad gue. And he is sorry for the yesterday’s happen and hopes the letter will give me the right opinion about him.

It makes me smile, but still…..it feels like my life is defined by language barrier right now.

6:00pm

The twins are turning eleven today. I’m at a table with them and a few of their friends. Some homemade liquor is brought to the table and we are all poured a shot. Yes, all. We take turns making toasts, but don’t worry, no one gets drunk. To their credit, one refuses refills multiple times just because he doesn’t like liquor that much, and another because he still has homework to do.

Everyone heads outside after dinner to watch the twins light heart-shaped paper lanterns. I’m still upset and frustrated by all of the misunderstandings from the past couple of days, but I force myself to drink this in. Because moments like these-seeing the light from the lanterns flicker over the smiling faces of my host siblings, running around with the kids to see if a lantern is going to land on the roof, and watching each drift further and further until it’s just another star twinkling in the sky-these are the beautiful moments. And they’re a lot easier to miss than the ugly ones.  

Tuesday, April 8th, 8:00pm

The weekend was kind of relaxing yet kind of exhausting. I went with some friends to the seaside city of Batumi. It was beautiful, but a couple of freshman at their first party got too drunk and needed a lot of taking-care-of. And by freshman at their first party I mean adults who should have known better. But I still got to see my friends and the sea. And was able to speak in English and have people actually understand.

And tomorrow I leave for mid-semester training, which means I get the rest of the week off from school, AND I get to see my friends.

But now I get a call from the director’s granddaughter, the one who speaks English. She was a friend and more or less the English life-line of the volunteer before me, and she understands some of the differences between American and Georgian culture. She warns me that some of the things she has heard the other children and teachers say don’t line up with her perception of me, and that my outgoing behavior is read differently by Georgians, especially in regard to the high school boys. And the one mentioned by name isn’t even the one I made the belt joke to.

Right, I thought this wall seemed really thick. I guess I should have realized it was actually two walls…language barrier AND cultural barrier. Of course.