Tuesday, November 30, 2010

on art, street children and altruism (or christmas shopping)

I lived in Cambodia for three years.
I became a mother in Cambodia.
I am writing a book, and Phnom Penh is one of the characters.

It will always have a special place in my heart, in my story.

So whenever I am approached for fundraising initiatives in Cambodia I inevitably respond:


Last year I donated (and sold) two photographs for the 'Ray of Light' initiative, which raised money to support children living in prison with their incarcerated mothers.

This year I was approached by Camille to help her raise funds to finish the documentary 'The Altruist", which focuses on John McGinley's and the establishment of M’Lop Tapang , an organization that serves street-children and young people ‘at risk’ of abuse, both violent and sexual.

Some amazing award winning photographers have donated to this cause. I'm humbled to be among them. A beautiful signed print would make a wonderful holiday present, and the fact that it helped to pay for the last leg of this documentary, a great story to go with it. So why not check it out?

Click here to check the photographers out

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It's official, I lack sufficient vanity

I'm the sort of person that often dresses "informal- casual" with a twist of "I got out of bed and did not have time for anything better"

This style becomes apparent after noon, when I have to go pick up the monkeys from school. Before noon I am normally in my pijamas.

In the eighties it was so much easier. I could call it "grunge" and feel cool about it.

Bottom line is: most of the time, I really don't give a damn.

I have been trying to work on it. I go for the more feminine tops when shopping, and then continue wearing the old ones on a daily basis.... but I figure that somewhere down the line I will only have the "fancy ones" left, and my style will improve by sheer force of will.

But this week it becomes official: I clearly lack some sort of "vanity" self control monitor.

A few weeks ago the Body Blogger Calendar asked for people to submit photographs on the theme of body image. I sent one from early on in my first pregnancy. It is -in my view- a beautiful photograph that depicts not only the enlarged tummy, but also the blue veins running through my body. Those veins had me mesmerized and I made many attempts at photographing them. The photograph has been treated with high contrast, and it is in red and black. Quite poetic and beautiful.

But of course, when they asked me to do a guest blog on it, I could not help myself and proceeded to attach another one that, on anyone's books, makes it official: I lack sufficient vanity.

But...if you want to see it, you are going to have to go and read my guest post on @BBC2011.

Monday, November 22, 2010

catching up with life

I'm generally feeling better, but I'm trying to take this warning seriously, so I have not started working again, I have not been writing my book, I have even cut down on the number of posts I write a week.

I am using this time to reconnect with "empty time". I am letting the days drift away, spending afternoons with the kids doing not much at all. Yesterday I spent the whole afternoon cycling around town trying to locate a large Lightning McQueen image because I decided that this year I was going to make my son's piƱata, (as opposed to pay 50 euros for something you buy and then proceed to destroy…), and it’s silly, and there is a small part inside of me that is screaming “work on your book! You’ll never get this time back!”, but….it’s doctor’s orders.

I now realize I needed to slow down, and in doing so, it has become evident to me how much I had been running. How little time I had to spend with the kids doing “not much at all”: to sit down and paint, or make cookies, or read a story. I was always in a hurry to get somewhere, to get something done.

I’ve met up for coffee dates that had been pending for months, and then had to fight my almost innate tendency to keep watching the time… having to remind myself I didn’t need to be anywhere, I didn’t need to do anything.

As much as I fear I might regret that I am not writing now, It’s a different kind of gift I suppose.

I have also started going back to yoga again, but instead of dragging myself to the old place, I found a new one that really inspires me. It’s more alternative, spiritual, and awkward if you like. But it fits better, so instead of dreading it I look forward to going. I try to look at cycling around town in search of the perfect candles or round candies for the cake decoration (yes, I am doing the cake as well, with the help of Kukis) I try to look at it as time for myself, as exercise, as fresh air for the mind, the heart and the brain.

I know that all too soon this empty time will end, and I will be running and running again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Bullying ~ I need your help, seriously

So this is not some marketing tactic to get more comments (although that would be nice… you shy shy people), but I’m actually concerned and lost.

It appears my 4 year old is being bullied by a six year old. And I don’t know how or what I can do about it. And since it’s STOP BULLYING week, I thought I’d reach out to other moms.


- she has been talking about “the bad boy” on and off since week one of her new school for big kids.

- I did not think much of it. Kids sometimes push, shove, take a shoe... it’s part of life

- Until last week when I saw him screaming at her to stop her from climbing on one of the playground toys until she backed down and broke into tears

(coincidentally you should know that my daughter is pretty fierce less and does not even back down when me or her father get pissed at her)

- When I politely told the boy –in absence of his mom- that was not nice and if he did it again I would have to talk to his mom, his response was “you don’t know who my mom is. You don’t even know who my teacher is!”~ nice

- Soon after his mom approached and I thought it was fair to tell her what had just happened: if someone talked/ disciplined my kid I would want to know. Her response was “I tell my youngest not to play where the boys are. They play rough.” i.e. tell you kid to play wherever my kid is not.

- Next day I was informed –by two other moms- that this kid is trouble, has been causing trouble, and has been known to bite, punch and hit with sticks in the past (sleepless night #1)

- Next day my daughter told me that “bad boy” had pushed her and she scratched her knee. So I spoke with the teacher and said I was concerned. They told me they had had problems before and would pass it along to the playground caretakers.

That was last week. Yesterday during pick up, as my child played on the school grounds I noticed the kid would stop whatever he was doing if mine tried to get on the slide, and stare at her menacingly until she backed down. This happened a couple of times. Standing right next to them I told my daughter to go up, that I would defend her. In the end the fear of the 6 year old won, she walked away, so I went up to him to tell him it was not nice, and then his mother intervened and we had a very public and loud fight –to the entertainment of other moms- where she said that he was “just looking at her”, that he had explained that what had happened last week was that her kid had tried to protect mine from getting hurt, that is why he did not let her climb on the games… and that it was both of them and I should also look at what my child is doing. (denial?)

I told her I would not let her kid bully mine.

(sleepless night #2)

I get she wants to defend her kid. But if it is hard getting testimony out of an adult, try getting a straight story out of a 4 year old. I don’t know what has happened during lunch hour (the only time they coincide) for her to be so afraid of him. I don’t know if he is or isn’t responsible for her scratches. I don’t know if he is or isn’t responsible for the fact that she no longer wants to go to school. That she is coming to sleep in my room every night, something she never did before.

I spoke to the teachers again, I don’t want her to feel it’s a big deal, yet I want her to feel backed up.

Am I over reacting? Can I afford not to? I want to be there for her. I want to make sure this does not get out of control, but am not sure how.

Friday, November 12, 2010

on veterans day

I don't like war. If it were up to me, anyone who did anything hostile would be sent to the corner for time out. But I know it doesn't work that way.

There are just wars and unjust wars. But regardless of that, regardless of the politics, there are people willing to put themselves in harms way to protect us: you & me.

"Protect our freedom and our way of life" is a phrase that has been so over used that to me it means nothing anymore. But there is truth behind it. There is the fact that I don't want to live in a country where I can't vote or ride a car without my husband's permission. I don't want to live in a country where the results of elections are ignored, or where the people who speak up and disagree are "put away".

And someone has to be willing to stand in harms way to protect me and my children from that.....someone has to be willing to die for Danzing.

so a toast: may your fight be fair and just, may you win, and may you come home to your loved ones, and reap the benefits of your struggles.

Can you capture motherhood on film?- updated

This photo is part of a personal project I started after M the princess was born.

I've been obsessively trying to capture that je ne sais quoi that happens between the body of a child and his/ her caretakers. There are no inhibitions, there are no boundaries. It's like the two bodies can speak to each other directly. This is generally more evident when they are babies, but it carries on until adolescence brings out all the self awareness and breaks that bond.

Little things almost invisible to the eye: the placement of the hands, using the mother's leg as a barrier for protection from the world, a protective hand that has made it's way to the child while the mother's awareness lies entirely somewhere else.

I'm trying to find physical evidence of that bond that is so often discussed and talked about.

Have you seen it? do you have ideas as to where or how I can find it?

PS you can find more photos from the series here 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Burned out ~ If only I could be as good a friend to myself as I am to others....

Years ago, when I was working in Colombia and in charge of monitoring feeding programs for people who had been internally displaced by the conflict, I realized that every time I went from Bogota to the small field offices, the staff took it as an opportunity to unload emotionally.

We did feeding programs: feeding in schools, especially so that girls would attend; feeding in health centers for malnourished children; food for work programs, so that schools and other community buildings would get built… so really, it was food delivery, not human rights violations or anything of the sort….

Yet, these people, our beneficiaries, for the most part would never get to see the human rights activists, let alone tell their stories. Stories of how they had lost everything over night, being made to choose between everything they owned or their lives, they had walked out one day with whatever they could carry.

Contrary to what most people think, internally displaced in Colombia are not poor, at least they weren’t before the displacement. On the contrary, they are usually land owners in fertile areas of the country were the famous coffee or bananas grow. The guerrillas and paramilitaries know what they are doing….

So, in lack of a better audience, they told their stories to those who were there to bear witness: our staff, the ones delivering the rice and corn. Our staff, in turn, were unprepared to handle this emotionally, and often lived far from their own support system, so they unloaded on me.

I noticed most of them were over worked and stressed. The emotional responsibility of doing something for these people, all hundreds of them, fell on their shoulders, so they were never too tired or too sick to stop working. HQ would proudly announce to donors how overhead was the smallest in any UN agency, but that translated into poor resources, no support, and sometimes our staff had to hitchhike their way back after a delivery (I kid you not).

Someone needs to explain to donors and the public that overheads have a purpose, and lack-of a human cost….. but that will be another day.

Back then I decided to use my training as a clinical psychologist to prepare a presentation for the field staff on burn out. I wanted them to understand what they were feeling, to recognize the symptoms, and also to be able to take some preventative measures. I could not do much for them, but knowing what you have is already one big step. Understanding that feeling emotionally drained, unsocial, unable to sleep or focus are your body’s signals that you need to stop. Understanding that getting sick all the time is an alarm, like smoke coming out from under the hood of a car. And although I could not provide all of them with sufficient support in the form of one on one counselling, I could give them some tools to help themselves. Some simple strategies like:

- eat well (yes, when you are tired and can’t be bothered to cook. When all you want is comfort food, fatty warm stuff after a long hard day, that is when you need to remember that what you body wants and what your body needs are different things. And like a loving mother to a child, you must say “no, no chocolate, you have to eat your vegetables first”.

- That you must sleep 6-8 hours, especially if you are having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. That is already a warning sign.

- That you must exercise. Even if you are tired, because even though you are exhausted, your body has been accumulating stress, and because of it glucose is hanging around in your system, and if you don't burn it it will keep you tossing and turning all night, and might even give you heart problems down the line.

- You must find a support system. Especially when you are at your most unsocial, when you can’t be bothered cause you are too tired, or just don’t care to go out. You must find people that you can talk to.

So why was it so hard to see the signs when it happened to me?

Why did I keep postponing going back to yoga? Why did I never have time to stop for a lazy coffee?

Because being a mom is NOT dealing with human tragedy. Because all the parents in the world do it, everyday, in much worse circumstances than I do. Because I love my job, and my kids, and on top of everything I am doing what I love, and making time to write, for my blog, for my book, for the occasional article…..

Because I thought I did not deserve to burn out, and even though my body was screaming at me, I did not listen. Not until the pain was too much to bear. Not until it put me in bed for nearly three weeks, with doctors doing all sorts of tests, fearing the worse.

So the upside is that I’ve learned I have a chronic condition that I will have to manage. But the only explanation they can give me for how bad it got is “stress”, and really, I should have know better. I should have listened to myself. Had any of my friends been in my position, I would have known what to say: “slow down, listen to your body, take yourself seriously, take your health seriously.”

So I learned two lessons:

1) your body is your friend, and if it's getting in the way, it might be trying to tell you something

2) if you don’t have time for exercise and the other things you know you should be doing now, make sure to make time for being sick later.

And now to the hard job of making these lessons stick once I manage to get the pain under control…..

Monday, November 1, 2010

I’ve used up all my sick days, so I’m calling in dead….

I know I haven’t talked about my health before, but there have been some mentions here and there. References to my getting amoebas “again” and things like this. Bottom line is, if some people have the constitution of an Ox, I have the constitution of a disorganized antique china ware store ran by an old lady; move something and you are likely to end up paying for it.

Most people that have known me for some time are bewildered by the fact that I do development work because, lets face it, the image we have in our head is of a person roughing it in some far flung disease ridden place. And yeah, that would be me, with my huge black back pack which always includes antihistamines (I’m allergic to most things), my inhaler, (yeah, also asthmatic and have a chronic rhinitis), pain relievers (I get regular stomach pains which until recently I put down to period pains), and some foodstuff because I have a tendency to get hypoglycemic and faint.

I also get car sick, which is not a disease, but pretty uncool when you are on the road.

I’m the sort of person that wont wash her hair if it’s too cold because I know it might lead to my being bed bound.

You probably think I’m exaggerating. In the last twenty four months I’ve had whooping cough (yes, that still exists), parasites and currently an ulcer. January I was in Egypt vomiting; March in Uganda doing hundreds of kilometers a day on no food because of parasites; in May I had a UTI; June I had both ears leaking puss in Colombia; September I developed an ulcer in Brazil. Apparently even diseases take August off, but there are still two months to go, and I’m leaving out the small stuff, like colds and tooth ache (at one point I thought I would need a root canal, but alas, it was not so).

On top of that I have no energy, and there is such a thing as inherent energy level, I can see it in my children, both toddlers, both manic, but still, one takes after her father, the other one is normal. Seriously, even my mom can usually out do me. I wake up tired and pretty much stay like that for the rest of the day.

I claim that I’m an old soul.

So yeah, I’m not the most obvious person to be stuck in the bush hours away from the nearest hospital. I’ve had to be medically evacuated at least once, and have visited many a dodgy clinics. Ironically though, the closest I’ve been to death was in NY, where the hospital lab made an error and left me bleeding internally overnight.

I’ve seen just about every specialist there is. Had pneumonia, and been biopsied twice. In my frustration and despair I’ve learned to do Reiki and am currently seeing a world renown homeopath. It can’t hurt.

Why am I telling you all this? I suppose for a couple of reasons: one is that this damn ulcer has ruined the first of the six weeks I had set aside for finishing my book, and I’m mighty pissed off. Incidentally, it flared up when I was on holidays in Spain, which meant I could not eat any of my favorite things. (I am currently in fear of food and only consume white, bland things).

Secondly, because a dear friend who has recently left the development sector to start a business on holistic healing in Bali (and yes, I want to be her too), was taking the piss and making me wonder if it’s just me, or if there is something that I am doing wrong. If maybe I am no cut out for this job, if only for biological reasons, or if in the long run it’s just going to be too high a price to pay.

And lastly, because as I laid in absolute agony last night tossing and turning in my bed, unable to take some milk (which helps) or pain killers given that I was scheduled to have an endoscopy this morning, I thought again what always comes to mind when I am sick: what would this feel like if I didn’t have the means to see a doctor? If I didn’t know that I was getting all these tests, that I can buy pain killers and antibiotics and kill this. What would it mean to bear this pain knowing there is no cure, not because there isn’t one, but because I can’t afford it. Or even worse, what would it mean if I had to watch a loved one go through that. God forbid, to watch my own child.

And that is probably why I wont stop doing what I do. Because even if I got unlucky on the constitution roulette, I know that I’ve been blessed on every other front.

PS on my next post I promise to tone down the alleluia and tune up the humour...