Determination: 2 Girls, 1 Hill, 1 Tree, and 1 Ladder

As children, my friends and I spent hours wandering the woods. We lived in rural Vermont in the middle of hills covered with sugar maples. One of my best friend’s families made maple syrup as part of their living—they collected their sap using draft horses. And it is with that friend that this adventure took place.

Far up on one of the hills behind her house, maybe a 40-minute hike across a river and bushwhacking through the sugar bush, was a monstrous tree. It was a Pippi Longstocking tree, a tree of wonder and stories. It was the most perfect tree for a tree fort you can imagine…and the branches didn’t start until 20 feet above the ground.

Those high branches spread out in such a way as to almost make a floor. My friend and I thought that if only we could reach those branches it would be the best thing in the world. We dreamed of hanging a hammock from those taunting limbs and eating a picnic up in the canopy. We thought about our future tree fortress on many occasions, staring up from the ground, until one day we contrived a plan.

Her father had a very tall ladder—one of those aluminum ones that has two sliding parts so it can get even longer than it appears at first.

We started in the morning. She took one end of the ladder and I the other. Those ladders, though hollow, are not light. We discovered this not long after crossing the river and starting up the hill. We also realized that zigzagging through trees was a lot harder when you are attached to another person by an 8-foot, stiff ladder.

We stopped occasionally. We argued about the best way to go through the trees. We sweated and got scratched by brayers.

And, after what seemed eons, we reached the tree. We lay the ladder against it, expanding it to its full length. We observed the ladder. We were scared. It was so tall and the ground wasn’t even. Surely, we’d fall if we climbed it. Surely, if we fell we’d die. We talked about climbing the ladder. About falling. About how amazing it probably was up there. “Fine, hold the ladder,” I said. And I put my foot on the first rung. I was shaky. It was high. My heart pounded. I got about 6 feet above the ground. I paused. The ladder felt wobbly. I wasn’t sure if I should keep going.

Slowly, carefully I reached the top rung. The branches were still overhead. I’d have to grab them and then swing my legs up and hang sloth-style to get up in the tree. I stood at the top of the ladder a long time. My friend first shouted up that if I wasn’t going to do it I should come down so she could. Then she suggested that we not do it at all.

I grabbed the branch and I swung up. “This is awesome!” I said, sitting and staring down at her on the ground. She joined me, with the greatest care because the ladder was unsteady, especially without someone holding it.

We sat up in the tree until we got hungry. The only reason we ever left the woods was because we were starved.

Some people will tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t bother with them. Someone else will help you carry a ladder.

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Defining Friendship

On my EMT shift the day before my birthday, the dangerous topic of religion came up for some reason while we were reviewing the ambulance (something we do at the beginning of every shift) to make sure we had all the right supplies. Like most careful Americans, we ended the religion conversation before we needed to say much about our personal beliefs. It was amusing to contrast the politically correct nature of the conversation with my experience in Paraguay. In Paraguay, religion is not a topic that’s avoided and people have no problem asking you if you’re catholic (the dominate religion there). I went to Paraguay with almost no religious experiences (and most that I had had were very negative)…but Paraguay brought me up to speed on their version of being catholic. And they changed my view of religion forever (though they didn’t convert me).

As I wrote when I was in Paraguay, the Paraguay I know is Catholic. That means that to my Paraguay friends the entire world is seen through the lens of Mary, Jesus, and the saints. A lot of what Mary and Jesus and the saints talk about is how you’re supposed to treat other people. Paraguayans put people, especially family, first.

A little after 9pm on my birthday I got a video message from one of my families in Paraguay. When I say family, I mean I spent every weekend with them. I went to church, out shopping, and to soccer games with them (in Paraguay, soccer is the equivalent of all sports in the US combined). I went dancing all night with the daughters, studied English and history for hours with the son, ate many dinners and lunches with them a week. I showered at their house when my water was out. I was in both daughters’ weddings…

My whole family was there in the video message. First they sang “Happy Birthday” in Guarani…then it was “Happy birthday Jett. May you have a blessed birthday and many blessed years ahead. I hope you’re having a wonderful time. Send us a video, Jett, so we can see you…We miss you Jett. When are you coming back Jett?”

It’s so nice when you realize that the people you think about all the time also think about you. And as my family’s familiar voices and happy words sunk in I thought about friendship. Even friendship is defined using a religious metaphor in Paraguay. And, with the topics of religion and friendship on my mind, it seemed fitting to share (again) one of my favorite stories about both:

Overheard in Paraguay: Friendship
Repost from October 19, 2015

We sat in a half circle around the grill. The men were cooking large slabs of meat, ribs and some unidentifiable cut, for the mother of the family’s birthday dinner. The husband of one of the birthday mother’s daughters sat by the grill passing one can of beer among the men there. A nephew walked up to the daughter’s husband. The husband was around 30 and the nephew was about 11.

The husband hugged his nephew first with one arm and then the other, squeezing him. The nephew squirmed, and they both smiled. The husband held the nephew at arm’s length and put on an almost serious expression. “Will we always be friends?” the husband asked.

“Yes,” the nephew said.

“Even when I am old and you are my age?” the husband asked.

“Yes, even when you are old and I have kids,” the nephew said.

The husband smiled and pulled the nephew into another hug. The nephew pulled away again and they looked at each other, the husband still squeezed the nephew’s shoulder with one hand.

“Even when you are in Heaven and I am old we will still be friends,” the nephew said earnestly.

The husband laughed. “And I will look after you from Heaven.” They hugged again. “And, when you come to Heaven, we will be friends in Heaven. We will be friends forever.”

The boy nodded and ran off to find his playmates.

Happiness Comes from the Heart

Being a pre-med post-baccalaureate student, I take a lot of classes with humans that are 8-10 years younger than me. These young people are a dichotomy of vibrant energy and self-doubt. We are on same footing as we struggle to memorize microbes and how p orbitals shape molecules, yet we are not even in adjacent life chapters.

It’s nice to be a witness, rather than a participant, of the soul searching that comes with learning how to be an adult. I once was an 18-year-old too, but I’m glad that era is behind me. I know my young colleagues will come out just fine without any help. But, there’s one thing that I wish I could tell them so they wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of discovering it themselves. It’s simple but, alas, it’s something only experience can teach us: happiness comes from within.

I think many of us get lost in the weeds when it comes to happiness. We jump from shiny thing to shiny thing. We assume the next great object we possess will fill the holes in our soul. We look to family, friends, and partners thinking they can save us. We search for other’s approval of our look. We act based on strangers’ opinions, hoping that society will label us as “cool.” And as we skip and hop between all these outward forces, our emptiness expands until our core seems more like a beach ball than a rock. Hollow.

It’s not the doldrums, the pits, where the quest for meaning beyond ourselves drives us, but to stagnant waters and ships with limp sails. And, while some of my young lab partners might learn quickly that they are the only ones who can make themselves happy, many of them will take years to realize the truth. I’m not sorry for them. I know their journey will have many fun days and explosions of wonder. But, if they are like me, they won’t find peace until they understand that joy originates inside and spreads from there. I don’t wish the restlessness of the road upon anyone, but it’s a road we all must wander at some point.

While others might make our lives brighter, we’re the only ones who can decide if we’re going to let in the sunshine or draw the curtains. I hope that when the going gets tough and the days seem dark the young folks around me take the time to look inward. There are many things beyond our control, but our emotions and how we respond to the world do not fall among them.

Are you lonely?

“Are you lonely?” is America’s version of the boyfriend question. I thought the coupling obsession was a Paraguayan thing. But, now that I’m back in the US, I realize I was mistaken. It’s also an American thing. Maybe it’s a human thing. Regardless, I’ve gotten a lot of practice justifying why I’m single. So, let me tell you…

…there is no reason why I’m single. I just am.

I know it’s hard to believe that a person can be happy just being. But, try to imagine it. Consider, for example, that I can go hiking on the fly and not wait for a soul. I could move anywhere and would only need to bargain with my future landlord and maybe the visa office. I can (and do) eat when, what, and where I want and don’t feel even a hint of obligation to coordinate with anyone.

Perhaps you’re thinking something like, “Fine, Jett, you’re busy and independent…but really you’re just waiting for the right guy. You’re lonely, but you forge on propelled by the dream of the prince who will sweep you off your feet one day.”

If something like that is on your mind, I must ask: Doesn’t that argument seem archaic? By now we should all know that princes only live in fairytales. They aren’t real, but metaphors for love and good fortune. I don’t need the metaphor. I’m not looking for someone to fend off the dragons. I do that just fine on my own.

Don’t despair, you’re partly right. I’m busy and I have great friends. But that’s the whole point. If I lived my whole life as I am—doing good work, engaging in hobbies, and enjoying friends—then I would have an awesome life. You see, my life’s not on hold. I’m not working toward finding that perfect man. I’m just living…and I also happen to be single. I’m not worried about love. Why should I? It’s spontaneous and stubborn. It will do whatever the heck it wants. Just like me.

I might one day stumble upon someone to be my partner in crime. I might uncover a person who makes me happier than I already am. If I do, I’ll marry him. I also might not find such a human. Either way, the trajectory is grand. I realize that many believe that singletons need to be saved. But let’s remember that when we, you and I, were taught about the American dream it was never said that it could only be dreamt by two.

Thanks for your concern about my emotional well-being. But, the better question is “What do you do?” I assure you the answer is interesting. I have a lot to say about me and my doings. And don’t worry, I’ll let you know if me becomes we.

Raising the Boiling Point

When I tell my grandmother all the things I’m doing she usually says something like, “Just hearing about your activities makes me tired.” This comment always makes me wonder why we all have different thresholds of activity before we become overwhelmed or burnt out and disinterested.

Hypothesis

Interest is to productivity like salt is to water.

Water on its own boils at a certain temperature, but after dissolving salt in water the temperature at which it boils is higher. This is because the intermolecular forces between the molecules are stronger when salt and water are mixed than between water molecules alone. In other words, it requires more energy to boil a pot of salt water than it does a pot of fresh water because the little bits that make up salt water are more strongly pulled toward each other than the tiny bits that make up water are pulled together.

I believe interest acts like the salt when the water is productivity. If you dump some interest into your productivity pool, you’ll achieve a higher production rate than you would if you just do things without figuring out how they are interesting. I define interesting as something that is thought-provoking, relevant to my interaction with people, useful in the activities I do, and/or helpful in reaching my goals.

So what?

Productivity is not set in time nor does each person have their own unique productivity rate. We each have varying productivity depending on zillions of factors like time of day, enjoyableness of what we’re doing, and how many things we have on our mind. But, what I’ve found as I take each step on the doctorhood quest is that if I can convince myself (or already am) interested in something I can focus on it a lot longer and accomplish a lot more in less time than I can if I’m apathetic about it. I can cut the time it takes to do something sometimes by half if I can think of a way to find it interesting.

That’s what I did with first semester physics, specifically kinetics. At the time, I’d been battling squirrels. Squirrel rapscallions were decimating my garden, and though I truly hated those rascals, there was nothing I could or would do about it. I wasn’t going to kill them–I didn’t have the heart. However, kinetics equations such as those used to describe projectile motion gave me a tidy solution. Kinetics can be used to describe how far, fast, and high you throw something. I imagined (even though I’d never, ever actually throw a squirrel) that all my projectile equations related to chucking squirrels. The metaphorical “strike back” was enough to ease my anger over my garden crops being stolen by squirrel thieves and gave me the source of interest I needed to learn and excel in physics.

Side note: Once I got started, I didn’t need the squirrel metaphor…physics is actually pretty cool all on its own.

Test

I think it’s a powerful observation and a testament to the power of the mind that you can trick yourself into being interested in something and by doing so improve your ability to learn about that thing. If you can dig deep and find a fragment of something that sparks your imagination and curiosity even the hardest and most tedious of tasks goes more smoothly. Don’t be believe me? Next time you’re doing something that absolutely must be done even though you hate it, try to find something about the task that is interesting and worthwhile. Focus on that as you do the task. My guess is that you’ll find the whole process slightly more bearable and that you’ll also finish sooner than you normally would have. Challenge: Prove me wrong.

The Do-Good High

Did I tell you I’m an EMT? I’ve been running for about 5 months. Long enough to have learned a thing, maybe two. Let me tell you about the do-good high.

There’s a certain kind of person who becomes an EMT and sticks with it. Hint: It has nothing to do with your age, background, or future.

It boils down to what I call the “do-good high.”

There are EMTs who want patient experience so they can then become nurses and doctors. There are others who like sirens and driving large vehicles with lights. Many EMTs want to give back to the community. Others like the satisfaction of saving lives. Whatever the reason, the thing that makes all EMTs the same is that they get a thrill from doing good.

Whether it’s helping a little old lady after she’s fallen or bringing a person back from the dead through CPR, the folks who stay in emergency medicine are there because they’ve caught the do-good bug. When the alarms go off at 3 a.m., waking you from a dead sleep, and the dispatcher comes over the speaker: “56-year-old male, vomiting and diarrhea…”† I think a normal person would choose to go back to sleep. Not an EMT.

The EMT answers the call. Why? Partly it’s our duty to put on our uniform and leave the station as fast as we can, but there’s also something beyond obligation that makes us go. Even in the grossest of circumstances, like when we pick up that vomiting and pooping man and sit with him during the 30-minute ride to the hospital, we helped turn a bad night for him into a slightly better night.

The feeling you have sitting in the back of an ambulance as the sirens holler and you hustle to your patient is something like that of standing on the start line of a giant race. Your heart goes just a tad bit faster and your mind zips through the possible scenarios that could unfold once you arrive at the scene. Then you reach your patient and a calm descends upon you. There’s a human in distress and what’s ailing them is your puzzle to solve. You might be the one who saves their life. But even if you aren’t called upon to be a hero, you can ease their distress by helping them breathe or reassuring them as you go to the hospital. Seeing your patient’s face relax or their color return after you help elicits an adrenaline rush that starts in your center and spreads out to every corner of your body. It’s a high like that from scoring the winning goal or beating a chess genius at their own game, but it’s better because it lingers. This rush and joy that rapidly overtake you after helping a patient is the “do-good high.” All EMTs get it. It’s what keeps us coming back.

 

†Fictional dispatch that captures the essence of a typical call. HIPAA and other privacy measure prohibit sharing patient information.

On Growing Old

The best excuse for why I’ve been silent since spring is that the sun came back to Vermont and I’ve done everything I can to enjoy it. In Vermont, you spend eight months of the year waiting for summer to return.

Many Vermont summer days seem too perfect for an imperfect human like me to be part of them. They make me feel like a hideaway who, if discovered, will be kicked out. Tossed back to a land where the sun doesn’t flicker through the trees and the birds don’t chirp so musically. When I walk on these pristine days I let my mind meander.

On one such walk, I pondered growing old. I have a very vivid memory from elementary school. I was looking at the high schoolers and I thought, “I will never live to be as old as they are.” Yet, I did grow as old as they were. Not only that, I lived through college. And now I’m just a few years from 30 and I’m still living happily.

Some people fear getting old. Others complain about it. Others dye their hair and refused to tell you their age, as if time can be stopped through censorship. Recently, old people keep bursting into my thoughts. Many of my friends in Paraguay were more than twice my age. Most of the patients I transport to the hospital (I’m an EMT) were alive during WWII. My grandfather—the one who always made me laugh and was a humble, hidden source of strength—died. He’s still in my heart.

I thought about these elderly people as I walked. A slight breeze brushed away the mosquitoes and it smelled like grass and green things. I thought, “I’ll probably be 90 one day. What the heck will I be doing when I’m 90?”

I tried to envision what it would be like to be one of the white haired, wrinkly, and wise people who are always stoically at the edges of my life. For a moment, the thought made me sad. But, the melancholy passed and I grew calm. I would likely be old one day. And when that time came, I would not be busy like I am now.

It wouldn’t be that bad being old. I’d sit on a porch somewhere watching the sun shine. Perhaps I’d still be flexible enough to lie in a hammock. I’d observe the young people zooming around and they’d wonder how I wasn’t bored sitting and staring at the world all day. I would be so occupied by memories of a lifetime and all the family, friends, and acquaintances whose stories I’d shared that sitting on a porch would be like being at a movie theater watching the best movie ever. The best movie because I was its writer, producer, star, audience, and critic.

Sometimes young people would pause long enough to talk to me. They might be my grandchildren or they might be someone else’s grandchildren. I’d talk about what I’d done, seen, and learned. My words would fall on deaf ears but, sometime later, those young people would remember something I said and it would help them.

As I walked thinking about being ancient I realized that I was content with time passing. I’d make it as far as I was supposed to go. The grandest part of the whole thing, the beauty of aging, was that my weakening state would leave me no option but to reflect. My frail bones would limit the history I could make in my last few years, and that wouldn’t be so terrible. It’s meant to be that way. It’s meant to be that we have some time to enjoy what has been and is without any need to build the future.

Pulling Up the Bootstraps

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the anxiety, anger, and sadness I’ve felt since the 45th president of the US took office. It blows my mind how quick he began attacking:

  • Women: protection against discrimination, protection against violence, access to health care, freedom of choice
  • Everyone who needs health care and isn’t floating in money (aka most people): affordable health insurance, access to health care, security for those most in need of care
  • Immigrants: melting pot
  • Native Americans: protection of their land, respect of their culture
  • Americans living abroad: ambassadors, protection of foreign service officers abroad and American expatriates
  • The media: transparency, truth
  • Science: climate change (um, like come on…must we really repeat the “Earth is round” history?)…

…the list grows with each passing hour.

I went to the Women’s March in Montpelier on January 21. It was inspiring to see so many people energized to fight for human rights. But, I wondered, “Are we too late? Where were we between August and November 2016?”

The answer came in a common phrase:

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

America has never been perfect. We were founded by people who were fleeing oppression, who in turn stole land from the people already here. We won independence proclaiming high ideals, but enslaved millions of people, conquered others, and fought dirty wars with our southern neighbors and across the globe. We ended up a world power, but we still fell short of our ideals—all people in this country do not have equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imperfect America has always strived to be better. We eliminated slavery, we changed legislation to give all citizens the right to vote, we’ve made net improvements in the rights of all minorities and women in this country, we’ve made progress protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA community; we’ve achieved many other wonderful things. But what we’ve done is not enough.

After much contemplation, I am certain that we are not too late. Perhaps Trump’s election was a necessary evil. It made me fall to dark places. And in the dark, I saw so clearly what had been easy to ignore in the gloom of modern America. In recent times, I and many people like me have been lethargic. We plodded along accepting what is even though it is not good enough.

The 2017 inauguration woke me. I saw the stars. And I’ve joined the struggle to improve this Nation. Regretfully, like a large mass starting from rest, I’m off to a slow start. I’m still not entirely sure what my role is and will be, but I know I have one.

On one hand, I’m already doing good work. I’m forging along on the Doctorhood Quest because my vision of delivering primary care services to underserved populations only becomes more vivid as the days pass. I will not let a man with disregard for the life and wellbeing of others allow millions of people to be cut off from the health care services they need and deserve. Also, in my current professional life, I help ensure that homeless young adults and at risk youth have the resources they need to build their own success. On the other hand, I know that I must do more than just study and work.

I have some ideas for action. Small stepping stones. I do not know where exactly I’ll end up or how my rejuvenated commitment to improving my country will unfold. All I know is that America has never chosen the easy path, but we are brave. I’m brave. It’s time to pull up those bootstraps, not just to elevate myself, but also as many as will come with me.

I’m proud that the momentum of the Women’s March has, thus far, translated into sustained action to fight for human rights. Let us stay together and be strong. Let us not leave anyone behind or push anyone who is part of us down. Let us continue to not only talk, but also do. As Margret Mead put it:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

So my question, what are you going to do?

Welcome 2017

You know, 2016 was a pretty awesome year. It was one of transition. My service in Paraguay ended and I returned to Vermont. As you may recall, I grew up in Vermont. I fled the state when I went to college. I swore I’d never return. But, minds and hearts change. Here I am. And, I’ll be in Vermont for a stint longer than I was in Paraguay.

So where does 2017 find me?

I’m in the midst of a post-baccalaureate, pre-med program. What does that mean? I’m taking the undergrad classes required to apply to medical school, which I didn’t take when I earned my BA in Public Relations.

The end goal? Becoming a medical doctor. But, one step at a time…

I guess we can say that 2017 officially marks the end of my Peace Corps journey and the beginning of my doctorhood quest. And it is a quest. A long, long adventure full of all kinds of tricky science and learning new things. Luckily, I gained some endurance and determination abilities while in Paraguay.

As always, I’m doing many things. I’m studying and working. I’m on the verge of becoming an EMT. Got my cert…now I just need a volunteer position. Further, I’m considering what other delights I can fit into my jammed schedule.

While I start 2017 as a busy bee, like every year I remember, this year isn’t about the work. Work is what I do, I’m just like that.

2017 is about attitude, not tasks.

We can’t know the future. Life is exciting because of tomorrow’s mystery. But, I have high hopes for 2017. And, despite some giant obstacles (not the least of which is a despicable human storming the Oval Office) I have some happy goals.

I’m expecting 2017 to be full of positive thinking and pep talks. That’s the nature of having hard professional and personal goals. But big goals aside, my main resolution for 2017 is to create moments of caring and sharing. What does that entail? Carving out time to spend with people I love. Smiling and seizing opportunities to discover new people to love. I know, it sounds wishy-washy. But it’s not. This year is simply about being happy as a human and sharing that happiness with others.

With that, let’s go 2017. I’m ready. Are you?

The Return

Ha! My Peace Corps service ended so long ago that I went back to visit. Eight months after journeying from Paraguay to the US, I traveled backward for a Paraguayan friend’s wedding.

I cried when I finished my service and left the land of the Guarani—mostly because I didn’t know when I would return. I told my Paraguay friends, many of whom are more family than friends, that I would come back. I wondered if I was lying.

Well, I was honest. I went back. Sooner than expected, but love has no timeline and I swore I’d go back for my friend’s wedding. I was a bridesmaid. The bride was a vision. If my friend’s married life is half as lovely as she was on her wedding day, she scored big time.

It takes more than a day to travel from Vermont to Paraguay. It’s a journey of planes and buses. But, it’s worth it. And, now that I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again.

I think one of the loveliest things about going back was how little things had changed. Sure, there’s some new paint here and there. Many of my students graduated high school this year. My friends continue their lives, making changes like tying the knot. But, the important things carry on the same—perhaps indefinitely. The heat engulfs you when you step out of the airport. The sun sparkles in the sky, making the colors of life dazzle. My friends laugh easily and every Paraguayan offers food or terere. The people. The people of Paraguay are so warm. That’s the best part. They are so generous. I hope they always will be.

I spent the days drinking terere and gossiping about town happenings. I took siestas when the sun was too strong. I visited. I prepared all the little things that make a party a party—the frame for taking selfies at the wedding. Packaging the guest wedding gifts.

My Paraguayan friends welcomed me like family. They made room for me. My Paraguayan sisters gave up their beds for the days I was there. I shared meals that my favorite señoras cooked.

I saw the sun shine through the mango trees. I realized that as long as my friends are there, Paraguay will be a second home. And while my soul continues to wander, it is reassuring to know that yet another place I love will always be home. They say home is where the heart is. The euphemism is a smoothing of the reality. The heart can be like an electron. More than one place at once. My heart is divided in two. I imagine that it will split more as I fall in love with other peoples and their lands. And, now that I’ve learned a bit more about the odd natures of electrons (thank you pre-med curriculum), I’m okay with the uncertainty of where my heart actually is—I, at least, know the path on which I’m most likely to find it.