Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

100% Myself

I'm sitting now in a chilly cafe on Ninth Street, while Hurricane Sandy bats at our feeble human constructions and sends the ocean roiling into the living rooms of coast-hugging homes on the northeast seashore. Ben and I derailed our plans to spend our one-year-together-anniversary on Ocracoke in the Outer Banks, cruising southwest instead to the potters' community of Seagrove. It was a good decision, if perhaps an overly cautious one, as Ocracoke has been cut off from the mainland since Saturday by overwash and hurricane-swept waves. We instead ventured into the Sandhills and the southern Piedmont, learning about the history (backbreaking, especially with the advent of glass/plastic) and personalities (laid-back, detail-oriented) of North Carolina potters. We saw their kilns, met their dogs, and found out more than we ever thought we wanted to know about glazes, types of kilns, heats for firing pots, and all the useful and artistic things that people can do with clay. It is the first time I can recall in which we took off 3 days with literally nothing looming over us - deadlines, expectations or otherwise. Not once did one of us groan and say "I have so much work to do!" I was startled to find how therapeutic the trip was, how unhurried and stress-free.

On Sunday, we took a short drive through the Uwharrie National Forest, a lovely stream of rolling hills and autumnal hardwood forest. We visited one of the last remaining covered bridges, from 1911, in the area, and ran across families taking portraits in the light-strewn forest nearby. We went to the Town Creek Indian Mound, and learned about the Pee Dee culture that lived and hunted these lands in the early part of this millennium. Ben and I were most intrigued by their regular celebration of "busk," in which regrets and grievances were forgotten and forgiven through a ritual of purification and cleansing.

I also read, at last, Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem". This book of essays has been on my list since reading "The White Album." I have been searching this past month for the words to describe my transitional state. If you read the Wikipedia entry on Didion, it will tell you that "a sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work." While this is true, what struck me the most was that in Didion's work, one finds a sort of courage and depth of reflection about self that rivals nothing else I've read. When she talks about her deepest emotions, she also writes about and alludes to current events, to other works of literature and to the philosophies of the time - she engages with the world even as she delves inward.

It's been good for me to be out and about. Last week I met Shivani Bhalla, an amazing field-based conservationist who runs a lion project in Kenya called Ewaso Lions. She took a lot of time with me, talked about her project and work, and encouraged me to get in touch with one of her US-based volunteers. I found her down-to-earth, driven, kind and insightful. What has amazed me in the past few months is to find so many women around me who don't seem to struggle so much with the challenge of being a woman. The work they do is genderless, their accomplishments and challenges likewise. They are simply doing what they are passionate about - there is never any question in their minds that their work is what they should be doing. They have as much stress and self-doubt as anyone else, but they are also purposeful and eager. I also presented at a BCI meeting, at the end of which a couple students came up to me and said that after hearing me talk, they'd finally recognized the value of an MBA. I felt both triumphant and troubled by the comment, and pressed back, "It's not the MBA I think is valuable, but the recognition that business tools and theories can help conservation, that we should embrace them rather than mistrusting them."

How do these experiences tie together?

I'm not sure I know yet.

While Ben and I drove through the backroads of North Carolina, I looked at the pretty little houses in the woods and said, "It would be nice to live out here, if you didn't want to participate in the issues of the world anymore." As refreshing as it was to be on this unhurried vacation, I equated it all too fully with disengagement. This is not the life I want. I want to spend my days talking to and working with others toward a cause I believe in. I want to be fully myself, to love dancing and family and Ben and difficult times and hard questions all together at once. This is harder than one thinks, because the litany of self-doubt starts up, and the afternoon draws down, and I begin to think I must be 100% this or 100% that.  Only I can define who I want to be. Reach outward, seek inward. In this way, I will become 100% myself.
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