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Putting Pen to Paper

It is hard to explain the feeling that washes through my veins when I lay words on a page; impossible to describe the process behind each selection, why I string this word along with that one or where they even come from in the dredges of my mind. This is something that flows…writing is a substance that seems a part of not just my brain or heart, but perhaps also it is included in each sequence of my genes.

Writers might call my style convoluted or juvenile; editors would probably guffaw at the improper use of ellipses. But here, behind the computer, with my fingers lain gingerly atop the keys, none of those opinions matter. The critiques of my syntax, the skepticism of my voice, those all slip away as if they never even existed….writing is an escape, it’s a place I go to free myself from MY thoughts. Writing it out means I have to analyze myself, explain my point of view and, really, come to terms with my opinions.

But while the process comes easily, the decision to let the words go is impossibly hard. For whatever reason, once those thoughts escape, they do just that—they escape and I can’t reclaim them. I have to commit myself to releasing a story that I won’t be able to tell again, I cannot take it back or retell it—once the story is gone, it isn’t mine anymore. Maybe they’re my thoughts or beliefs or what have you, but the words don’t belong to me. Not once they have left, anyway. Writing isn’t this static thing that I have created; it’s alive. So maybe that’s why this is hard; why it’s tough to release my words into the world—like a parent who watches their child grow, I spend embarrassing amounts of time clinging to the stories I want to tell.

This very post has lingered in my mind for ages. I’ve mulled over every facet of it, I’ve dissected its influences, and I have spent time acquainting myself with what this really means.

Writing is cathartic. When it comes to sad things, or intimate things, as often as I consider letting them flow away, I spend about twice that time convincing myself to keep it all—keep it close. I find myself in a wildly unpredictable argument about two mutually exclusive terms—to let things go or to hold on for dear life?

In the end, the drive to put pen to paper (or, really, fingers to keys) always wins.

Is Tact a Dying Breed?

In my job, I often meet a hundred people at college fairs; on preview events, I’ll probably meet a hundred more and when I visit high schools I have the opportunity to interact with half a dozen students or so. Though I’m not by any means *the best* when it comes remembering names, I insist on trying my darnedest to commit at least faces to memory. I love seeing students I have met at college fairs come to visit the school on preview events—they remember me and I always want to remember them. So here’s the thing, while I can’t always draw a name out of the dredges of memory, I want the opportunity to say “It’s so good to see you again!”; even if that has to be followed by “Remind me of your name,” remembering people, in my opinion, is a great way we can show others that they matter.

This past weekend, I encountered someone I’ve met a couple times before; she’s a friend of an incredible friend of mine and so I’ve always made it paramount that I remember her because of that fact. On this occasion, I happened to be speaking to someone else we both know and I remarked that it was funny how small the world is—that we should both know this person but not ever really discuss it. She looked at me, in a way that implied I was something of an irritant, and she said “Who are you?”—not “Good to see you again, remind me of your name,” not “Oh my, I didn’t even recognize you!” but rather she actually inquired about my identity, as though we hadn’t ever met before. In the moment, I stammered to explain myself. I told her my name, I reminded her how we know one another and I made excuses—“my hair WAS a different color then, so I really can’t blame you…” She never acknowledged that we’d spent an entire evening together less than a year and a half ago and, actually, she never acknowledged we’d even met before that very moment.

Looking back on it, I haven’t been able to rid myself of the fact that I am genuinely offended. Perhaps recognizing others and showing recognition of our encounters is something only I value but even if that were the case, I would think that she would at least navigate such a situation with tact—after all, if I clearly knew her then she should probably know me as well.

But that brings me to a question I often mull over: in the present day of sarcasm as a second language, bluntness as an admirable quality and celebrations thrown over candid speech, has tactfulness fallen to the wayside?

Fair Weather

I used to think arguing was worth my time. That somehow, I wasn’t utterly wasting my breath trying to change other peoples’ minds about me, about the world, about what they believed of me.

I learned something. Arguing is not the same as debating. Changing peoples’ minds is not the same as seeing the light. Questioning is not the same as hearing. So I changed my view. Instead of arguing with other people and fervently attempting to vouch for myself, I decided to become right with ME. Spending time considering what I believe and what I want and how I plan to get it became a goal. I shared those feelings with the people who care about me, the people I love. I learned something else….arguing, proving myself, and trying to get other people on my fence left me jaded, wanting and bitter.

Approaching the world from the perspective of Bernard Baruch in the fashion of “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind,” gave me peace and peace of mind. This wasn’t an overnight journey, I spent time exhaustively trying to convince people I was worthy of something, that I deserved their respect–instead of taking what I deserve, going after what I want and surrounding myself with people who don’t need to be convinced.

As people, we all make mistakes; we occasionally fail to live up to our potential. But we don’t owe success to those people who don’t support us when we fail. We don’t owe consideration to those who walk away when we aren’t our best. Life is exhausting. Being a person is a learning process, it’s full of ups and downs, three steps forward and two steps back. It’s trying enough to live without grudges or hatred, so I choose to let that go. If you don’t value me, that’s okay, I don’t hate you and I won’t blame you. Why? I have room in my heart for anyone and everyone who has room in their heart for me but I’m too busy loving my family and my friends, focusing my energy on those who have carried me through this life to worry about the people who choose to act selfishly, who choose to be fair weather and who choose to love conditionally.

Here’s to those people who love me at my lowest AND my best, who value me as a person when I fail AND when I succeed, who put in love every day even when I mess up. I promise to always do the same.

At lunch today my co-workers and I joined another office on campus for burritos at one of the local favorite spots. It’s always a nice change of pace to meet up with new (read: not new, but rarely seen) people so we can back and forth about what’s going on in the office. On this occasion though we got onto the subject of student tour guides and one of the other individuals adamantly expressed “I HATE when you walk backwards, it’s so wrong.” It would come out that “you’re not supposed to walk backwards because it makes people nervous.” I didn’t expect to be so vehemently opposed to this line of thinking…but, you know, I was. 

As the coordinator for tour guides and a former tour guide myself, I’d say I’m pretty well versed in the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t on the campus tour. And here’s the really important thing, something my fellow co-coordinator and I have always emphasized with your guides–DO what you’re comfortable with, DON’T do it if you’re not. I think it’s that simple. The best tour guides are students who engage their groups and are confident in what they’re doing. 

Personally, I probably spend less than a quarter of my time walking backwards on tours. That said, it serves a great purpose in how I execute my tours: 1) I have the opportunity to make eye contact (see: connect) with each of my group members. 2) I familiarize myself with their faces and they have the chance to do the same with me. 3) It engages my group in what I’m saying. I’m talking to them and with them, I’m not talking AT them and I’m not talking toward them. 

If the strongest argument against backwards walking tour guides is that it makes visitors “anxious”, then pfffffft, can’t we just get over it? There are a million things in this world that make people anxious. Pickles make my pledgesister uneasy. Little kids on scooters make me incredibly nervous. My coworker feels queasy at the mention of the word “moist”. Anxiety is a part of life, and in the event that I do trip over something while backwards walking…so what? We laugh it off, keep going and have a funny, quirky story for our visitors to tell when they leave. This isn’t the end of the world. 

That said, I don’t walk backwards all the time, I would trip and I would get tired of it. So I adapt my tours to my own pace, style and the desires of my group. My tour guides are encouraged to do the same. If they want to walk backwards they’re free to; if they want to walk forwards, go for it; and if they have their own mish mash of patterns then that is fine too. 

Pentagon tour guides receive extensive training on how to navigate the twisty, winding pathways of that building (which, for the record, includes 19 escalators and 131 stairways) seamlessly while walking backwards. So I say this, if the Pentagon can do it…so can we. 

:D

Yield

Many people know that I have a tattoo on my shoulder which reads “and so it goes that I shall bend to love and love to time…”. I’ve had this tattoo for close to three years now and I wear it as a constant reminder to embrace life’s experiences. I’ve decided to post the poem from which I drew my tattoo for the first time. I titled it “Yield”. 

As the winter frost must yield to the springtime light,

So must the moon fade for the rising sun;

Neither less glorious, less worthy for its finite stretch.

To absorb the beauty, to feel, is the ultimate feat.

And so it goes that I shall bend to love and love to time…

Never fail to endure when the end is nigh,

Never forego love for lack of time,

Never sacrifice life for lack of eternity. 

Unrequited

Speak.

Desperate words planned out,
Stumbling and tumbling through heart to head.
I choke on the words I’ve left unsaid.

Say something. Say something.

These desperate words, these pleading words,
Ravage my brain and course through my veins
Until feeling is all that remains.

Say something, say anything.

Nothing comes out, no words,
For fear that the passion I’ve ignited…
Is naught but unrequited.

Working in the sphere of higher education, I find myself consistently reflecting upon my own experiences as a college student in a new light. Global education is a constantly evolving realm but the concept of culture shock has been an unrelenting force. In layman’s terms, culture shock is the state of confusion/bewilderment/anxiety as an individual confronts the differences between his or her own culture and the one which he or she is experiencing. It’s a relatively simple notion but I think the discussion/education surrounding culture shock ultimately has resounding negative effects on travelers.

For as long as I can remember, I have been utterly fascinated with other cultures. The first trip abroad birthed in me a desire to never stop traveling, never stop devouring new experiences and never stop delving in to, sometimes uncomfortably, different environments. So it’s no surprise that I have always pushed myself to make international travel possible. My first international experience occurred in Mexico, a short vacation with family that introduced me to pan dulce from tiny tiendas and roosters crowing at the crack of dawn. After that I was, undeniably, hooked. From then on, I’ve been motivated by a passion for learning about unfamiliar cultures. This passion has pushed me to study abroad in Brussels, Belgium, back pack through Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Greece, spelunk in Budapest, abseil in Assisi, and spend countless hours inexhaustibly planning future excursions. Throughout my travels, one philosophy has been every present and ever abhorred—culture shock.

Travelers become acquainted with the concept of culture shock at the early stages of our journeys; for those of us pursuing lengthy sojourns, one of the first questions we are asked is “aren’t you worried about culture shock?” and one of the first assignments we seem tasked with is a game plan for how we’ll deal with the phenomena once we greet it. For students planning to study abroad, there are often whole pre-departure planning meetings focused on how to recognize culture shock, get over it and move on. Incontrovertibly, discussing how one will approach these differences in culture is an important part of preparing for any journey. While proper education about the nuanced (and not so nuanced!) differences in culture is an integral part of keeping travelers safe abroad, instilling such a consciousness of culture shock into our travelers is perhaps not the best way to do so.

There are so many lists floating around the internet advising travelers of what to do abroad, what not to do abroad, what to be wary of and situations into which they should never put themselves. These are wonderful resources for travelers. But when we consider that culture shock is a problem of adjusting to new/unfamiliar environments does it make sense to constantly point out, often with a negative air, all the differences that travelers MUST be aware or something bad might happen or they might never be accepted or *insert some possibility here*. Whether we intend to or not, our speech instills a sense of fear and while a healthy dose of fear is necessary, shoving travelers into this mindset is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we teach them to be anxious about culture because things could happen, we inevitably begin their spiral into “culture shock”.

There will always be some degree of anxiety over culture differences for travelers. Most experts agree that “culture shock” will occur in some capacity for travelers at SOME stage. But it’s a pretty ambiguous territory. There’s no golden rule for when it will happen, how it will manifest itself, how long, etc and in the end we seem to use the term “culture shock” to explain just about any emotional/psychological response to experiences in new cultures.

I so often hear things along the lines of “Wow, why do you eat at 10 o’clock at night? That’s so weird.” Or, on a similar note: “They take naps in the middle of the day. Are they lazy?” People are quick to slap the label of culture shock onto such statements, but should we really be excusing making rash conclusions about other ways/walks of life just because an individual is experiencing confusion over a new culture? Isn’t the point of travel to embrace our differences, not to excuse making a point of them?

I’ve never seen myself as a decidedly strong or weak person but through my experiences abroad I was able to learn more about the core of myself than I had ever before or have ever since. I learned how I deal with stress, what I’m capable of enduring and how well I react under pressure. While, all in all, I am proud of the trials and accomplishments of all my travels, I learned something about myself of which I was not at all familiar. When I face situational change, I am prone to clinical depression. Scientists would assert that I’m not alone in this; in fact, change is one of the most common influences in depression. According to WebMD “even positive changes — like getting married or starting a new job — can sometimes trigger depression.” I loved traveling abroad, I had always wanted the opportunity to do exactly what I was doing then, and I wasn’t disturbed by the differences in culture. I constantly repeated the mantra in my head “You wanted this, you’ve always wanted this.” But this was my first battle with a psychological disorder—one I didn’t understand and felt helpless to confront. Despite the constant reassurances from my study abroad advisor that it was just culture shock and I would get better, despite the pre-departure preparations that told me I just needed to throw myself into life in Belgium and it would get better….it didn’t—because I wasn’t experiencing “culture shock”.  I was told to not call my family too often, I was told to not reach out to friends from back home because all of these things would lend to my inability to assimilate into the Belgian culture and would just aggravate my culture shock. So I suffered two months of grueling, heart breaking depression in a foreign country, without the support I desperately needed. All of which could have easily been avoided if we recognized that not every emotion or psychological response we experience when abroad can be attributed to culture shock.

I would learn that one of my roommates had experienced this exact same uncomfortable situation. When I returned to the United States, a friend would tell me that she too had suffered depression while studying abroad. The overwhelming majority of world travelers will be between the ages of 18-39 and 40-49. Coincidentally these are also the two largest majorities of individuals suffering from depression in the US and in the world. It may be easy to say “it’s okay, it’s just culture shock, and everyone feels this way at some point” but when we consider the masses of travelers who may be suffering from depression, is it really prudent to tell them not to call their parents, not to ask for help, because it’s just culture shock?

In higher education, our function is always first and foremost the safety and wellbeing of our students. So while I imagine we’ll never manage to strike culture shock from the dictionary, we owe it to the young travelers out there to stop writing things off as culture shock, stop excusing negative perceptions of foreign cultures and stop pushing our students into places of fear. We will all experience some reaction to being immersed in foreign cultures but when we consider the negative repercussions of lumping all that into the “culture shock” bin, maybe it’s time to adjust our talking points. Instead of culture shock, let’s educate our students on HOW to assimilate into culture AND how to be safe, let’s teach them how to embrace culture without talking about the differences, and, lastly, let’s teach them that it’s okay to ask for help—no matter where you are in the world.

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