Sunday, October 18, 2015

Capabilities & Uncertainty

I've been back in the Netherlands for close to two weeks now and while I still have some serious adjusting to do with regards to the weather, I've been feeling so full of gratitude lately. Earlier this week I went for an evening run (in the cold) around a lovely lake and giant park near where I'm staying at the moment. Living in Somaliland and enduring the torture of randomly running laps around a hotel compound has left me lacking in my usual fitness. But this particular run I felt mentally and physically strong. I felt appreciative for simply having my mental sanity back and for having healthy legs and a beautiful green place to run.

About a month ago the usual Rachel came back. It hit me this week because I realized I only truly felt like myself when the combination of being busy with things I love, receiving email confirmation of my PhD contract finally, and booking my flights back to Holland all came together. In other words, for the first time in far, far too long some certainty. Friends started discussing plans to visit me, and I could feel comfortable buying things like a year museum pass for Dutch museums. Now I'm back to my usual flurry of activity. Working long hours, signing up for courses in my free time, attempting to continue studying French, and filling up my weekends with networking events and work on my business.

When I reflect on this last year (and really the last two years) it feels a bit like I was wandering through a maze in the dark. A maze that never seemed to end and one where I was constantly bumping into brick walls and taking wrong turns. There were numerous moments where I thought I saw the light and was out in the open heading somewhere. Like when I made the hard decision to come back to the Netherlands in February from Rwanda after the PhD funding was approved. Only to find out three weeks later that it was delayed. And delayed again. And I was left jobless and homeless with no certainty about the future. Or when after weeks of frantic applications, networking, emailing and accepting any work I could find in order to feed myself I finally got (a rather bad if I'm honest) job offer in Somaliland. Only for the process to be delayed until the last minute, having to cancel my flight while waiting for the visa and not fully being mentally prepared to live in a place that is so incredibly isolating and restricting for a western woman. Somaliland isn't actually a place that generally comes to mind when what you really need is some financial and physical stability and the support of friends and family... Which I learned halfway through the experience.

Throughout all of this, outwardly I kept my cool. In the occasional moments when I would explain what was going on to people around they would respond in shock, sympathy, confusion and admiration over my seemingly chilled and relaxed attitude. Well, truthfully this was a facade. Inside I was sad, frustrated, uncertain, tired, stressed and simply tired of all the rejection of the last two years after so much hard work and determination. Instead these feelings took root in my head, made me develop strange obsessions and worries and I suppose contributed to the fact that I have probably been sick more in the last year than in my entire life combined. Not to mention strange things like having half my face swell up from a pimple that got infected, getting an infected cyst under my armpit, unexplained tingling and swelling and too much weight loss :(. Stress and moving and uncertainty has a strong effect on the body, I learned.

It feels now like I'm looking down at the maze I just made it through. From a higher vantage point where I can see all the wrong turns I made, the stumbling in the dark, being completely alone and feeling lost. I can laugh at some of the crazy thoughts and obsessions I had, but unfortunately when you're in the midst of the maze you can't see the end or the  route you need to take. So I think I picked up a few bruises along the way from bumping into walls and dead ends.

Right now I'm swimming in theoretical abstract literature related to my PhD topic (maybe I will lose my mind again haha). But there was something that made me think during one of my readings. A famous development economist Amartya Sen has analyzed development from the perspective of "capabilities" and he defines it as "the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives". Absence of choice and opportunity was a bit how I felt this whole year. Applying to jobs I was extremely qualified for and getting no response, putting my heart into PhD applications with the full knowledge that I would be successful at the program only to get rejected, feeling obliged to stay in the Netherlands with not the best job offer due to visa issues and worry about money. You begin feeling dejected and stuck and in the end a bit like you're a puppet being strung around in different directions. I can imagine that growing up in poverty is a similar feeling. Being unable to feed your family, having your livelihood and food supply depend on unpredictable weather. Finding joy and community in the midst of uncertainty is hard, but I'm so grateful for the random people these last few months who perhaps unknowingly kept my spirits up with their unexpected comments telling me how inspiring I am. I've always known who I am and now I also know a bit more where I'm heading which is something to be extremely grateful for. :)

Friday, October 9, 2015


Pride comes before the fall. A saying that has been drilled into me from a young age but perhaps I never felt its truth until the last nearly two years. For most of my life I've managed to come across at least as a pretty capable person, enthusiastically (stubbornly?) tackling whatever challenge came my way, managing my time, and relishing in being in new environments. I recall secretly getting annoyed or laughing at people who struggled with the transition away from home to university (super mean I know). Or not understanding how someone could be homesick moving halfway across the world... Or people who struggled to manage their time and could only take on a few activities at a time without getting stressed. Well done Rachel for judging... Well I have my limits too. And now I think these people who I maybe judged a bit handled their struggles and feelings better than I have in the last nearly two years of instability. But like I blogged about before I guess for some of us stubborn members of society it takes living through what someone else might have experienced to finally have empathy. ;)

Well now I am learning to practice a little self forgiveness as well. I know I am myself again because over the last month when Rachel came back in full force, I have been overly critical of my own mistakes and decisions and stresses and insecurities over the last year. I listened to a podcast recently about forgiveness and something that really hit me was not the concept of asking someone you may have wronged for forgiveness but also forgiving yourself. More importantly how even the action of forgiving yourself can allow you to start on a clean slate even if the person you hurt doesn't necessarily forgive you. So as I welcome the old but also more empathetic and wiser Rachel back into my life, I'm practicing giving myself some grace. Whether or not I handled everything that was handed to me this last year and half perfectly A LOT did happen and even people who enjoy traveling, new places, challenges, and at least THINK they are stubborn, capable, rational (debatable after this last year), and determined have their limits. I guess I found mine.

So starting from January 2014 here are some numbers (that are allowing me to forgive myself a bit for my mistakes). Ironically enough I was lamenting how "stable" 2015 was appearing to be at the beginning of this year. Quite the opposite! I think it wins for most unstable year of my life! Be careful what you wish for...

  • Number of addresses (including times I was merely using a friend's address for mail): 4 
  • Number of times I packed and unpacked from moves or long trips: 9 (ish)
  • Number of continents visited/lived in during 2015: 3
  • Countries lived in (by lived I mean more than 3 weeks) in 2015: 4
  • Number of different beds/apartments/couches slept in during the months of April and May 2015: 11
  • Number of job applications/networking emails: way too many to count
  • Hours spent obsessing about my health and looking up diseases on webmd: too many to count
  • Number of times on antibiotics in 2015: 3 (more than my entire life combined I think) 
 Being financially independent with almost no income is hard, moving a lot is hard, not knowing your future is hard, saying goodbye is hard and all in all change and uncertainty have a strong physical and emotional effect on the body. Switching climates, countries, continents and cultures so so many times in a short amount of time is also hard even if it's something you mostly enjoy. Watching old houses where a large part of your life was spent be sold, seeing loved ones hurting and growing old, all these things are hard and put an emotional but also physical toll on the body no matter how tough you are. Yes, there are choices I have made that make my life path maybe "harder" and less certain than others but I also did my best to make choices that were best for me professionally, and practically. I chose to stay in the Netherlands because it was the only job offer I had and it meant guaranteed health insurance and at the time it seemed like the most stable choice. I chose to go to Somaliland because it was the only job offer I had and it fit well with my professional goals.

I am so fortunate in many, many ways and although I can look back on the last two years and see how I could have done things differently I also feel proud of how I came through out and what I had to deal with. And on a larger scale my heart goes out to the refugees that are flooding into Europe. I can't compare my relatively easy life to theirs but I've now had a small taste of what it feels like not to know where you will be even a few weeks in advance. To be far from family and not feel like you have a safe place to go back to. To have zero financial stability and have to depend on your sheer thriftiness to stay financially independent. I know how humiliating it must feel to know that you have skills and education yet not have any opportunities, not be able to save for the future and maybe have to depend on others. So I'm thankful that I'm through with this phase and that I came out wiser, and more empathetic and I'm forgiving myself for the mistakes I made.

Mostly importantly, I'm grateful for the generosity of friends taking me in when I couldn't afford to stay in my apartment (just writing that is humiliating for me :( ), for encouraging me, and for the few people who took the time to notice that although I was smiling and optimistic on the outside, inside I wasn't holding things together as well. Thanks!