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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Old Me (Except the Old Me Didn’t Come With All This Guilt and Worry)

Awhile back, when asked what I would take from my apartment if there was a fire and I only had a split second to decide, I had an immediate and unequivocal answer.

My passport.

(Not the cats – sorry PETA, not the photos of my young adult wanderings, not my wallet or my credit cards, or the jewelry I inherited from my Grandmother.)

My passport.

My passport, or rather my third of what have now been four passports, was my most prized possession. That passport took me from just before my first ever trip to Africa in 1996 to my departure for Tanzania last year.

It was super-thick, which is a badge of honor in the field of international public health. Extra pages (20 of them) were added three times. And because I was such a super-duper geek, I used to “subtly” turn it on its’ side and wave it around for attention to make sure that those standing with me on line at the airline counter or at immigration could see that I – a seemingly “average Joe” - was actually a travel superstar.

Why? Because it made me feel important and accomplished.

Kind of pathetic. I know.

I was proud of both the variety of stamps it possessed – many in alphabets I cannot read, and also of the fact that some stamps appeared many many times – like Jamaica where I traveled 25 or so times over a three year period right around the turn of the century. (Woe to the Jamaican immigration official who treated me like a tourist.) After each pass through immigration I still searched through the expanding book for the new stamp, just to savor how much space it took up and reflect on its page-mates. Geek that I am, I found meaning when Macedonia shared a page with Greece, or Haiti stamps and Dominican Republic stamps appeared on the same page, shadowing the exact proportion in which they also share the island of Hispaniola.

I think it is safe to say that I loved that passport. It was a metaphor for my life, my personal interests, my diversity of friends around the world, and my work. It was my travel companion during the years that I traveled 244 out of 365 days. To loose it or have it stolen would have been devastating.

But one day in April of 2003, as I stood outside my office building waiting for the cab that was to whisk me to an airplane bound for the Ukraine, all that changed. The doctor’s office called me. I was pregnant. (With twins as it turns out.) The Ukraine was my last trip for a long time. Everything had changed. My most prized positions were now supposed to be my kids; and the passport was to be semi-retired.

In the nearly three years between that trip to the Ukraine and my move to Tanzania, my passport became like a professor alumnus who comes to campus once a year to deliver a special lecture to the senior class. I got out, but not much. And going out to the field meant that I had to make super complex child care arrangements involving up to six people and costing lots of money. For some of my trips I felt like I had to pay out more money for child care than I made in salary during the same period. It was a crazy, confusing time for me. I wanted to be a good mother, but I also wanted and needed to do the work that I loved, and that meant being overseas in a developing country.

In a post I wrote almost a year ago, Mama Wa Wili and the Battle for Independent Hally, I talked about this push-pull that so many women face between being a great mom and being a whole person – so I’m not going to expand on it here. But, in short, I found relief from my guilt, lots of help, and the ability to balance it all (well most of it) by moving to Tanzania. And for the past (nearly) two years – I have managed to find career and parental fulfillment. Mostly.

But the pull of my passport never fully went away. It is great to be based overseas where I can do my work without traveling, but the urge to travel didn’t disappear.

During the day my colleagues in Washington would pressure me to travel to Uganda, or Rwanda or Southern Sudan to do some work for them – and I have been strong and maybe even a little bit self righteous. “Oh no,” I would say to them, “I’m a single mom of young twins. There is no way I could possibly leave them and go to _____ (fill in the blank). Really, you couldn’t possibly expect me to.”

But at night, in bed, I would think obsessively about the opportunities turned down and secretly mourn. The number of stamps in my new passport has remained few. And all of them are either from Tanzania or the US.

Until this week.

Today I’m writing you from Dakar, Senegal. Hally is back on the road!

And, if I have to be honest with you, it feels really great. It is all the more wonderful because I’m in a place that I used to know well, using my (nearly retired) French (although Swahili words keep popping out of my mouth), and I’m leaning about an entirely new topic – avian influenza.

It isn’t the same as before. I left the kids with people I trust – my closest friends. But it was all drama up until the day I left. For the week before my departure my son had a bacterial infection of unknown origin with very high fevers for many days in a row. The first round of antibiotics didn’t work. He ended up needing intramuscular antibiotic shots. And he had only been fever-free for 24 hours when I had to board the airplane at 5 AM for the long flight from East to West Africa. It was really hard making the decision to go. But the doctor said he thought my son would be OK. And so, I left.

I have at least one more solo trip coming up – a visit to South Africa for the wedding of my friends, Kent and Damon, at the end of November. And there is pressure for me to go to Uganda in January. And of course, I need to hook up with my friend David in Dubai or Mumbai sometime in the next six months or so. All of these are appealing prospects, but equally scary. I worry that the children will suffer from my absences and that my close friends will have had enough of watching the kids. (Jane and Gunnar I love you and owe you big!) Being Jewish, guilt and worry are part of my cultural heritage. I can’t help it.

But for today I’m trying to push out the demons of my subconscious, in favor of savoring the new stamp in my passport.

The Senegalese immigration official placed it not on a regular page, but in the Amendments and Endorsements section at the end. (What the hell is that actually for, anyway?)

But that’s OK. I forgive him.

The “Old Me” is on the road. I’m just carrying more baggage than in the past.

And it is beautiful baggage, indeed.


Blogger Mom101 said...

Another fabulous post Hally.

I envy your passport - and the way you've come to grips with the compromises of your new life.

5:49 AM  
Blogger suburban dyke said...

Ah, yes...I understand the passport thing although mine is not so blessed. But the "baggage" is more blessed. Well cherised...

Urgh...catholicism rears its baggage when I least expect it.s

5:16 AM  
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