Hey family and friends… I wanted to share my final report for the Watson Fellowship. It is a bit longer than a few of my other posts, so feel free to skim… or read with a good cup of tea. Its been difficult to write this last chapter…. But I am learning that the adventure doesnt have to be over. Ill be in Cashiers, NC for the next few months. May be building furniture for a bit and playing with pottery while making money at some of the best cafes in town. Going on walks with the family sounds good right now. Next, I might be shifting to California to see about more furniture building or more medical things. If you have friends connected to maternal and newborn health or woodworkin’ in the San Fran/Bay Area feel free to let me know. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I may start a new blog, cause it has been fun to write and take pictures… and to share with you guys. Ill let ya know.
Enjoy… and thanks thanks thanks for all the support and love along the way.
To My Dear Watson Family,
While this is my last official letter to you, I might just keep writing these quarterly reports. It has been a fantastic way to settle, reflect, reconnect and recharge. I am currently writing from the back porch of my home and soaking up the breeze that is blowing through the trees. I am living in Cashiers, North Carolina with my parents, two younger siblings, and my border collie named Henry. And while the feeling of ‘home’ is completely overpowering at times, it feels good to be in the same place for a bit. It feels good to have all five of us sitting around the dinner table at the same time.
In this last quarter, I spent significant time in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Ethiopia came as a shock as I moved overnight from an easy Italian life with many friends and friendly midwives to a dirty apartment on my own in the middle of Addis Ababa. New cultures, new people, new languages and new challenges made me feel pretty exhausted for the first few days. It took well over a week for me to get into an “African-time” mindset and took longer to adjust from “Ciao Bella” to the intense stares and sneers of Ethiopian men. I instantly dropped from feeling confident and feminine to feeling the need to hide and avoid male attention altogether.
My time in Ethiopia was spent with a variety of Maternal and Newborn Health Organizations. I worked alongside Save the Children as a sort of photojournalist, taking photos of newborns and midwives in two remote locations in exchange for assistance with transportation and translation. While the work was incredibly satisfying and a nice break from the delivery room, it was also difficult in a new way. One evening, after a long day in a very remote village with women and their newborns, I returned to my apartment and slumped down in the shower. Caked with mud and very dehydrated, I felt entirely emotionally and physically drained. Weeks later in Tanzania, I would learn that I had actually contracted Giardia (which helped to explain that drained feeling) but on an emotional level, I felt as if I had a parasite sucking energy out of me as well. I was horrified by the conditions these families were living in. I felt stunned by their reality and then shaken by my ability to remove myself from the situation in the evening, to enjoy a warm shower and clean bed, only to return to hearing their stories the next morning. The feeling of being so engaged in their world while simultaneously being entirely separate felt impossible at times to digest.
While in Ethiopia, I also worked alongside Jhpiego, an organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, and assisted with a conference to connect with the Ethiopian Midwives Association. I spent time soaking in the positive energy at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital and chatting with midwives that had trained at the Hamlin College of Midwives outside of the city. While Ethiopia felt like a place of great hopelessness in the realm of maternal and newborn health, I subsequently felt the midwives I met there were truly ‘Delivering Hope’ in a way that I had not experienced before.
In Ethiopia, I also scampered around in the ancient rock churches in Lalibela for my 22nd birthday weekend. Never before have I felt so comfortable and confident planning my own adventure for my birthday weekend, setting off on my own as a young female traveler in Ethiopia to pretend to be Indiana Jones for a bit. It was a perfect way to recharge and enjoy nature a bit before preparing to depart for Tanzania, my final project country!
Upon arriving in Tanzania, I felt a wonderful shift. The shorter flight, the fact that I was staying on the same continent, the fact that it was my last country… everything felt a bit easier. I stayed in Dar es Salaam for a majority of my time in Tanzania, staying with host families that worked for Jhpiego, USAID and Columbia University and soaking up their connections with urban hospitals, remote training centers and rural health posts. While in Tanzania, I continued to introduce myself as a ‘sort of photojournalist’ and enjoyed working closely with Jhpiego to document ‘midwifery success stories’ in a town outside of Kilimanjaro. Working closely with Jhpiego, I got to see health and midwifery from numerous angles… from the bureaucratic mess at the top level to the rural health centers staffed by one woman.
Before shifting to the base of Kilimanjaro, I shadowed a fantastic doctor from Burundi for over a week and assisted him with deliveries at two urban hospitals in Dar es Salaam. Upon entering the maternity ward on the first day of work, I was greeted by 27 women who were all in different stages of labor. Some women sat on the ground groaning when contractions would hit while others casually snacked on lunch and more women paced around the room or braided another’s hair. I was in shock, and they could all see it. In less than 4 hours, I had assisted with the delivery of 5 newborns (one of which took place on the floor because we didn’t have any extra time or any space to move her to). The sheer number of women in these centers blew me away. The hospital had an average of 60 something deliveries a day… and while the staff did their best, the conditions were quite difficult for me to endure.
While working in these facilities, I stumbled upon a ‘newborn bucket’ where deceased newborns were kept ‘until the bucket was full.’ The hard realization that I come from an entirely different world, entirely different reality when compared to the mothers in these hospitals sometimes brought me to a complete standstill. At one point, the combination of sights, heat and smells made me momentarily lose consciousness. Needless to say, I am glad that I saved my time in maternity wards in Africa till the end of my stay as I am quite convinced I would not have been able to physically or emotionally handle some of the situations I faced in those moments had it been earlier in the year.
In Tanzania, I also got into a fun routine of swimming in the Indian Ocean, kayaking at sunset with other friends and cooking with younger siblings. Without having to plan for another country (and avoiding any plan-making for next steps at home) I felt free to be even more present than before. In the last month, I also felt my emotions swing from feeling so excited to be heading home to absolutely dreading the end of this phenomenal adventure. To get my mind off the fact that the Watson year was ending and to reflect on all that I had experienced, I spent the last bit of my trip climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro has been on my list of ‘things to do and places to see’ since I was about 6 years old. For the remainder of my Watson, I pushed myself physically and emotionally further than I had before, climbing for a total of 7 days to an altitude of 19,432 feet. Being outdoors, sleeping in tents and climbing all day created the perfect environment for me to reflect and recharge before ending this journey.
For this final leg of the adventure, in both Ethiopia and Tanzania, I felt myself shift into a new mode, a new mold and a new pattern of confidence and strength that simply was not there before. Even when moments felt difficult or overwhelming, I could recognize how much I had grown from the months before, how better I handled stressful or sad or scary situations, and how much more complete I felt on my own. It felt like the default to be alone, and it felt natural for that sacred-alone-space to be a place of peace and recharging instead of a place of fear or loneliness.
In the last chapter of the Watson, I began to see for myself that I did not enjoy working with an NGO or with international organization as much as I loved being in the field. I absolutely loved working with families and collecting their stories. I also recognized how much I needed to have space from stressful delivery rooms and how I didn’t see myself doing ‘this sort of work’ for years on end. I noticed and wrote in my journal about how much I loved the education, preparation, and counseling part of delivery and birth. Better yet, in this last chapter of my Watson experience, I no longer felt the need to justify myself or my interests to others as much as I had felt before. I found myself explaining that I thought I needed a break from midwifery and birth after returning home when asked “So, what next?!” and I even found myself saying that I really wanted time to make pottery again and to learn how to build furniture instead of jumping straight ‘onto the medical track.’ I liked explaining to others that I could build my own track and that I wasn’t afraid of changing things up.
Upon reflection, I have seen that having a Watson Fellowship allowed me the opportunity to see vastly different people and contexts and situations without feeling falsely bound to their identities or held to their standards or beliefs. Once I recognized the importance of observing everything for myself, I felt more equipped to think for myself about how individuals or organizations or networks worked… and furthermore, I felt more comfortable with thinking outside of the box and going against the flow of the masses. This way of thinking, way of discerning, is something I hope to hold onto for the rest of my life.
When I begin to think of all that has changed in the last year, everything starts to feel numb. The other day, I imagined “myself now” talking with “myself from last year” over coffee, and the conversation that might have unfolded between those two girls would’ve been hilarious to have witnessed. While I might look close to how I look before I left, I know my head and heart have deepened in a fantastic way. I understand myself now, respect myself now and enjoy myself now more than I thought possible.
I now dream more than I ever thought possible too. I doodle, sketch, imagine and play on a whole new level. The ‘me’ from last year was afraid of what others might think. I felt as if I needed to justify my thoughts or stick to a track that I had set for myself. I was afraid to fail, to start over, to admit defeat, to mess up. I am the oldest child in my family and always subconsciously took pride in doing things right, setting the mark for others to follow… and now, I have realized that in order to set the best example for my younger siblings, I need to be true to my heart and shake things up when they need shaking. To demonstrate what it might be like to live without fear, or with less of it, would be the greatest example for my friends and family to see.
This year, time and time again, I have been forced to shake things up. I have hit bottom and picked myself up again. I have felt exhausted physically and emotionally and spiritually and I have slowly learned how to take better care of myself. While I have always been good at taking care of others, I am now markedly better at being kind to myself and listening to my own needs. I am no longer afraid of being alone, but instead, long for the times that I can have quiet reflection time without distractions. After such an intense year of immersion in unique situations and new cultures, the layers of ideas and experiences that shape me feel deeper and richer now. Somehow, I am now more myself. I feel more defined and whole and centered… while simultaneously feeling lighter and more open to change and challenge.
When I pause, a flood of images, sounds, voices, smells and moments rush over me. This flood of feelings and memories makes it sometimes difficult to engage in the space that I am currently sitting in as I feel so pulled into the past, into the rich moments that pushed me, grew me and changed me. I see faces, hear voices and feel this inner warmth flow through my veins. The chance to be mentored by literally hundreds of different midwives and mothers and families makes my head spin. And yet, I must write down their names next to their photos… as the memories and moments have already lost perfect clarity in my mind. I struggle now to allow the ‘Watson Year’ to fade into the past as I attempt to remain in the present, engage with those that I am sitting with, and think about the future.
This last year taught me that I can do what I put my mind to. I broke habits, made goals, learned to deliver babies, made friends, changed homes, changed countries many times and climbed mountains. I realized that I am really and truly the only one that holds me back. My own fears, my own hang ups or moments of insecurity are the only real things that keep me from doing my best. Once I realized that I was more in control of myself, things shifted on a profound level.
This last year also taught me that I am strongest when I get humble, ask for help and get real quiet. Some of my strongest moments this last year were moments were I felt completely broken and alone. It seems strange that my moments of greatest clarity and strength and openness were moments when I slid down a wall outside of a birth room and sat down in tears after experiencing my first newborn death, moments when I cried at the moon and asked difficult questions to something much bigger than myself, moments when I felt horribly sick, completely alone or entirely out of my comfort zone. Because for me, when I really admit brokenness, give up and ask for strength and clarity… things open up and things get easier. At moments this year I honestly felt as if the shell I was wearing was broken, cracked and opened up… making room for new growth and new understandings and genuine transformation.
I know that I have changed in many ways. I have a feeling that it will take many years for me to begin to understand the shifts that have taken place and I no longer feel the need to understand it all right now. This year has made me learn to enjoy the present. To enjoy ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’ and to enjoy ‘soaking things in’ instead of ‘figuring things out.’ I have learned how to be more honest with myself and subsequently, I have learned how to be more honest with others.
I think about people and social interactions differently now. After connecting with individuals of such diverse cultures and contexts, I now look at people who would be assumed to be ‘like me’ in a more careful way. For a lack of better explanation, I look at people and situations with more vivid eyes now. I assume less and listen more. I somehow believe that we are all connected, all similar…. And yet, I love getting to know the different places and perspectives that shape us to be uniquely individual.
The challenge now seems to be to return home without losing the vision and wonderful patterns and habits that I created for myself over the course of the last 12 months. At times, I feel overwhelmed by how similar things here feel, how memorable friends’ mannerisms can feel and how ‘known’ I am in this small town. The Watson provided me the space and support to grow in big ways… and my hope now is to continue on that path of growth for many years to come.
With more thanks and love than I could possibly express with words,