In the USA

Find the Courage to Ask

Six months ago I was miserable at work.  I hated my job and was only staying for the paycheck.

I agonized over the decision to quit.  I wasn’t feeling fulfilled or challenged.  I wanted to do something more with my life.  But I also had plans to leave in a year for grad school.

Would one year be worth it?  Would it be enough time to learn and grow in a different position if I were to leave?  Would it be too long to feel stagnant if I stayed?  I didn’t know what to do and I kept returning to these questions time and time again as the days, weeks, and months slowly went by.

Then, I attended the World Domination Summit (WDS) in July.  The speakers were inspiring, the community was supportive, and every person I met there was trying to make the world a better place by doing what they loved.  It was absolutely amazing.

Throughout the summit, I felt so connected, inspired, and creative that I felt like a different person.  I remembered what it was like to feel happy again, and it made me realize just how unhappy I had been lately.

Something needed to change.

WDS gave me the final push to recognize that I couldn’t wait any longer.  I needed to make my life more livable.  I wasn’t getting what I needed out of work and it was time I did something about it.

I approached my boss during one of our weekly one on one meetings, and explained the situation to him.  He already knew I had been considering other opportunities, but this time I let him know that I had made the decision to leave even without having another opportunity lined up first.

We had a long discussion about why and what I wanted, and it came up that I would be willing to work part time, I just couldn’t do 40+ hours per week anymore.  A few weeks later, he came back to me with an offer for a part time position that would allow me to stay on the team but work on training instead of the production work I had been doing before.   It was perfect.  My role changed, my hours decreased significantly, and I got to do work that I actually enjoyed.

Having an open dialogue with my boss was the best action I could have taken.  I am so grateful for his support, flexibility, and willingness to help find a solution that works for both of us.  I was terrified of making the wrong decision before, thinking myself in circles trying to figure it out on my own.  But opening up the discussion with my boss allowed us to find a solution that I had never considered.  The act of asking gave me an entirely new opportunity and that is a lesson I will not soon forget.

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What are you proud of?

“What are you proud of?” is one of the questions I tried to address in my writings last week.   I’m fortunate enough to have made several accomplishments in my short life and I scribbled some notes down about some of them, but looking over my responses I realize that all the really big moments I am most proud of have a unifying theme that’s somewhat unconventional.

When I started writing I didn’t think about graduating from High School as a Valedictorian, or acing 40 pages worth of papers in 3 days of college finals, or any number of other academic accomplishments I’ve had over the past 16 years in school.  Rather, the moment that first jumped into my head was when I made the decision to drop out of Honors Chemistry in college.  Yes, 17-year-old Alexandra was more proud of dropping an honors class than any of the As she had under her belt.  Truth be told, it took a lot more courage for me to drop that class than any high-level course could demand.

It was the first time I put my emotional and physical well-being and happiness before my potential academic achievement.  In high school I pushed myself to the max, but college afforded me the opportunity to change my priorities.  Why did I drop Honors Chemistry?  The schedule conflicted with a dance class I wanted to take.  I’ve done ballet my whole life and I decided that dance was more important to me than a weighted grade in a subject I didn’t love.

Making the decision was uncertain and scary but I knew that it was the right thing for me.  The moment I realized I had successfully altered my schedule and defined my own priorities was absolutely liberating.   It was hard for me to wrap my head around – but I think that’s why it made me so proud.  I had the power to define myself and decide what was important to me.

The moments that evoke the most pride for me all deal with having the courage to do something for myself.  To do what I think is right.  To step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.  To stop following the path most people have laid in front of them and to instead try something that might be good for me, even (and perhaps especially) if it breaks the mold of what I think about myself.

I am so thankful that I dropped that course all those years ago because it laid the foundation for many leaps of courage to follow.   None of them are the most impressive of accomplishments (after all, dropping out of Honors Chemistry doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment does it?), but they are the moments that have made my heart happiest and led to the most growth in my life.  It’s hard not to be proud of that.

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Systemic Epiphany

It just hit me in the shower.  I know what I’m interested in.  Not all those hobby-interests like dance, or reading, or even the career-interests like international studies, or medicine.  No, now I finally know what holds all of those little things together.  The overall component that piques my curiosity no matter the subject, the driving force behind every search for understanding within my multifarious passions:

Systems.

It sounds so simple doesn’t it?

Forget the details behind each country’s foreign policy or the historical events that led to Bashar Al-Assad’s control over Syria.  Forget languages or the intricate anatomy of the human body and mind.  All of those details, all of those huge undertakings of research and the quest for understanding were just manifestations of one larger interest: systems.  I want to know how each piece fits into the puzzle.   How individual elements come together to create something greater.   How the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and what makes those parts fit into the whole; what makes the whole tick, and how does it operate independent of its components?

This holds true for every major interest I have ever pursued:

I grew up wanting to go into medicine.  I was fascinated by the body, how each organ did it’s part to promote the health of the whole.  How billions of individual cells came together to create a person.  How the brain directed each action, both consciously and unconsciously.  How surgeons could take things apart and put people together again.

This morphed into Cognitive Science.  What is consciousness?  How do cells come together to create a body that has a mind and a personality?  How does the brain/person control all of that?

Linguistics was a big part of that as well.  How does the brain comprehend sounds as meaning?  How do languages form?  How do the individual components of language come together to form words which form sentences which can be rearranged to create different meanings?  How do societies collectively attribute specific meaning to a string of sounds?

This bled further into Anthropology and International Studies.  How do societies form?  What holds them together?  How do individual people form groups that form nation-states and governments that can align with or against each other in greater organizations (such as the UN) and ultimately make up the world?

Lately I’ve been working at an insurance company.  While the work isn’t particularly inspiring, the company does offer several opportunities for education which I am trying to make the most of.  I have no interest at staying with this company forever but I’ve recently realized a budding interest in business.  Particularly in high-level business systems.  I want to understand how the company works.  How individuals form small departments that form big divisions that make up different branches of one over-arching company.  How money from one branch fuels the activities of another and a separate bucket is held in reserve.  How assets differ from cash flow and what business decisions affect one or the other.

Now, I’ve finally realized what my underlying interest has always been.   I want to know how systems work together to create a larger whole.

What are you interested in?  What drives your passions?  Leave a note in the comments.

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Grains of Fire and the Burn of Memory

30 May 2012

Sand.   Grains orange like sunset, bright against the white fabric.  Filling the corners of my pockets and clinging to my skin, as Morocco clings to my mind.

I’ve been home for a week now.  My suitcase is unpacked, most of my gifts and souvenirs have been sorted, but I’m still finding unexpected treasures from my life in Morocco.   Like the pants I’m wearing.   I thought the pockets were bunched up after I put them on, but when I went to straighten the lumps out, my fingers encountered fine sand, as bright as a sunset over the Sahara, which is, in fact, where it came from.

I realize I must have worn these on ISA’s last excursion to Merzouga, where we visited the Sahara desert almost a month ago now.  I can’t believe it’s been so long, and at the same time so short.  Time passes strangely while in transition and re-entry into the States is definitely a big transition to make.

I admit it’s not always fun, but neither is this re-entry as difficult as some others I have faced in the past.  I miss Morocco and have some culture shock, but I’m not completely depressed.   Perhaps, like all things, the transition becomes easier with time and practice.

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The Stairwell

The troops were called in to handle an “incident” late that night.  Gearing up in the locker room, I realized I hadn’t had time to grab an extra belt.  Oh well, in this kind of situation you can only be as prepared as you come, and hope that your skills are sufficient.

None of us knew why we were there – at least not at first.  We’d been told they’d fill us in on the way.  One more experienced officer did know however, and he wanted us mentally prepared for what we were about to face.

“There’s been an 11-45,” he said.  Attempted suicide.

“And it was successful.”

I nodded, keeping my face blank as my mind flew, not to the last suicide I had dealt with, but rather, the first.

A shining light of bubbly personality, my friend Adam was as sharp and as flamboyant as they come.   Always mischievous and always with such Presence – his loss left gaping holes in our lives where something good used to be.

Missing wasn’t unusual; he’d lost his phone so many times I never knew what his number was.  But then, they found him.

Seventy-five feet high.  Hanging from an electrical tower against Merced’s March sky.

Even in death he made his presence known.

And six months later, the ripples could still be felt as I stood halfway around the world.  In Morocco I wrote:

His smile

doesn’t echo here,

His laughter

never filled these rooms,

but his presence is

as strong as the

reverberation

of my heart

against the walls

of loneliness.

A hole that only he could fill

my shrink but remain ever still

upon the tear-stained walls

of my heart.

The walls on this night were stained by something much more visceral.

Red-brown streaks on a closed grey door.

Caution tape and bookshelves serving as improvised barricades.

We weren’t meant to see the scene but not all doors were closed so tightly.

Eight stories of stairwell is a lot to keep contained and to the untrained eye I suppose that lump of pink on the step could have been a rather large wad of gum, but I knew better.

I could tell the Inferior Frontal Gyrus from the Occipital Lobe, and I know when both are staring me in the face – plastered to the wall or sliding down the steps.  Remnants left from a mind long gone.

The job had me standing there for hours.  Wind whipped up by the elevators wafting the subtle smell of raw meat into the hallway.

It was past midnight by the time we were able to leave, as the library closed, students slogging home bleary-eyed, completely unaware of the scene just on the other side of the wall from where they had sat studying for so many hours.

At the end of the night, the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing had other officers asking if there was anything we wanted to say.  But, what can you say in the face of death?

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Bird Rock

Written 1 February 2013Bird Rock

The waves lap gently against the rocks, whispering secrets beyond my grasp. The pelicans perch proudly on Bird Rock as the sun sinks slowly behind a cloud on the horizon, scattering sunlight across the still-blue sky into rays of yellow above and hints of burnt gold beneath the purpling clouds.

The smaller birds grow restless as the day drifts closer to its end, smattering over the last scraps of food in the rocks and flying low over the water to head for a place to roost.

The ebbing tide soothes my own restlessness as the salty air fills my lungs. I still haven’t made a decision but the swirling clouds that fan from the day’s descending sun, swirling around like question marks in the pool of my mind, remind me that life is always uncertain.

I’m nearing the end of this day, of this chapter in my life. But the ocean will always be there, waves lapping soothingly or crashing vehemently over the rocks depending on the tide. And as the sun sinks hidden below a cloud, my future remains shrouded in mystery, with just a few golden glimmers of possibility shining through.

I may not know what the future holds but I do know that tomorrow the sun will shine, the waves will continue, and the world will greet another day.

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Culture Crossing

It’s amazing the little things you take for granted culturally.   The way you just know how things work in your home culture.  And I do mean home culture, not home country – that’s an important distinction.   There are many different cultures in America and showing this country, or at least the beautiful state of California, to some of my Moroccan friends has helped me to once again see it through new eyes.

The city of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area are totally different from my family’s home up in the Sierra Foothills.  When we first arrived in my rural hometown, our Moroccan guests greeted the area with surprise and some trepidation.  They couldn’t believe my mom would live here alone during the week while my dad works in The City.   The deer in the bushes could have been any sort of monstrous creature until we pointed out otherwise.  And I couldn’t possibly have friends or neighbors here because, where could they possibly be?

This is my backyard – clearly no place for neighbors.

Having lived most of my life in the mountains, I found most of their reactions slightly amusing but made sure to reassure them that, yes, it is perfectly safe, the bears will not eat you, and people really do live here.  They soon came to enjoy what was certainly a new experience for them, and we all learned more about different American and Moroccan cultures.

Then it came time to get ready for bed.

In the weeks leading up to their arrival, I had grown more excited every day, working both at my job and helping my mom prepare the house and plan an itinerary for our guests.  Making the beds up for them, I decided that when they arrived I would sleep outside on the deck.  Though I’ve always loved sleeping outside, it had been a long time since I had been able to do so.  Doubting that I’d have time to go camping this summer, I wanted to jump at whatever chance I could get.

When Zakaryae, my Arabic professor, heard that I would sleep outside alone, he was incredulous.  He would never let his daughter do that, especially alone, and certainly not with all the lights off.

My reassurance that I’ve grown up sleeping outside occasionally during the summer — whether on the trampoline with my (surrogate) siblings from a very young age, or camping with friends or family,  or just for the fun of it — was enough to make his 14-year-old daughter, Marwa, willing to try it.  Zakaryae wasn’t too thrilled about that at first, but sure enough, the next night Marwa slept outside along with me and another friend of mine.  Her bravery and willingness to try new things just emphasized for me the importance and impact that going abroad can have at any age.  The entire exchange was a new experience for everyone involved.  It would never occur to me to be worried about sleeping outside in my own backyard, just as it would never occur to any of my Moroccan friends that it would be safe, let alone enjoyable, to do so.  But no matter how big or small the issue, a little understanding can go a long way towards understanding others’, as well as your own culture.

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