What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

That’s a question I got asked recently. And then again, a couple of weeks later fear came up in conversation. I was doing my presentation as part of my placement assessment for my MA. My course leader, who is ridiculously wise, intelligent and insightful, told me that I needed to slow down and stop being so afraid. It shook me, this statement, but as the colour faded from my cheeks I felt relieved.

I realised it was something I wanted to talk about and let go of.

Those that follow this blog will know that I spent June and July in New York doing an internship for UN Women. New York and I didn’t get on at first, but eventually she drew me in (by the scruff of the neck). I worked hard, missed my family, made some great friends and learnt to value what I have over what (I thought) I wanted.

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Becoming a student later on in life brings with it different pressures. Covering the cost, taking time away from work and family to study and the perpetual reaching for something that isn’t quite yours yet all take their toll.

In my case the fear is that I won’t succeed. That all this reaching will give me nothing more than a deep ache in my arm, an empty bank account and several (more) grey hairs.

I revere women entrepreneurs and feminists the way Heat magazine does <insert name of popular reality TV based celebrity>. These women are my champions, along with the incredible stories of strength, resolve and passion that I read in blogs, on news items and in books. 

I’ve admired their resilience and fearlessness and have wished I could emulate them.

Then I went to New York, and it wasn’t what I expected. I loved the work but I never felt fearless. What I have felt, on reflection, is empowered. 

Fear can be debilitating. It stops us in our tracks. We want to wait for it to pass until we act, for the ground underneath us to feel more secure. 

Those that are brave and take leaps of faith don’t do so because they’re not afraid. It’s because they are. 

 

 

 

 

First week at UN Women and getting perpetually kicked by New York

I’ve been in New York for a week now and as with all firsts, today is pretty tough. It’s my first weekend here and even though I’ve just started to get into a groove at work the weekend has thrown me back a few feet. Two wide open, long days with no company, friends or family.

So let’s rewind to my first day at the UN. I had worked out my route the day before and arranged to meet my boss outside of the building. The United Nations is an impressive place. Flags from all over the world fly out front and beyond the intense security is a wall of glass, surrounded by white concrete. I sat there watching people from all over the world stream in waving their passes and I walked that fine line between excited and terrified.

An an hour later when the human traffic had started to wane I called my boss who told me I’d been waiting in the wrong place. My office wasn’t within the wall of glass, it was in another building further down the street affectionately referred to as the Superman building as it’s where, yes you guessed it, that Superman film was shot.

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Within just moments of getting through the doors I was ushered into the weekly updated meeting with the whole of UN Women. I’d been awake since 2am (still on UK time) so did my best to look alert. All around me voices spoke up about the work being done on gender equality. They talked events, conferences, speakers, policies and legalities. They dissected the distressing news from India, as well as countless other initiatives they were working with local governments on. When you read the news it can be easy to think that nothing is being done but that room vibrated with passion, commitment and direction.

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UN Women is like any other office. I have a desk, a computer, a phone and there are notices up in the kitchen reminding you to wash cups and throw old food away. But there’s also a shared belief in gender equality and women’s rights that is at the core of every tweet, video, image or piece of copy put up on the website or out to press.

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It takes a few days to set up my computer and email so I spend a lot of time shadowing the web editor and reviewing the content. Amidst this I’m grappling with being in a new country, in an uncomfortable room struggling to sleep and dealing with the emotional impact of being without my family, which spills down my face in tears on my very first day and each day after that.

The UN Women communications team is a group of highly educated and intelligent women. They each speak several languages fluently, can write code to build websites, are social media experts or professional videographers. It’s more than a little intimidating and I find myself shrinking inside my skin, playing down my accomplishments and skills and quietly murmuring something about understanding very basic French when asked about my language skills.

The UN Women web page is in three core language, English, French and Spanish. The editor is fluent in all three (and four other languages, y’know just for fun) and translates and edits across the entire site. She tells me I’ll be editing in French and German, as well as learning how to read and write HTML code. I have my doubts at this stage but sure enough, by Friday I’ve posted content in all three languages and edited code.

The mental capacity of working in this way is exhausting, added to the long days, walk in, heat, lack of sleep and daily heartache of missing my family and by the time I get back to my room I’m wiped.

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By Thursday I’ve started chatting to a couple of colleagues and gathered the courage to ask one out for a drink. Her name is Greta, she’s a social media intern and a similar age to me. She lives in New York with her husband. We start off at a rooftop bar and upon the lift opening we’re told there’s a waiting list to stand on the patio. I’m about to say thank you and turn away when Greta hands me a cocktail menu. At $15 each they’re a little out of my price range but before I can say anything there’s a drink in my hand and the tab has been paid. We do end up with a spot on the patio after sneaking past the hosts and I think this is my first view of New York that I really like.

We leave shortly after for an Irish pub, where the barman is free with his measures of rum and finish off with dinner at a cheap Vietnamise place. Home by 9:30pm I go to bed for the first time since I got here with a smile on my face.

The weekend is fast approaching and with it I know two long days on my own. I’ve tried to make plans but Saturday arrives and without the distraction of work my homesickness and loneliness claim my morning. I do manage a walk to Times Square, Grand Central and the library in the afternoon but slowly the heat and my heavy heart chase me back to the room I have to call home for the next six weeks.

I’m so glad that I’m getting the opportunity to work at UN Women. It’s an inspiring team to be a part of and I’m determined to do well and discover a professional path that I never could’ve dreamt was feasible for me. However it remains very hard to be here on my own. New York and I aren’t exactly on friendly terms, to be frank she’s kicking my ass. Maybe we’re not meant to get on, we just don’t suit each other. But I hope, sooner rather than later, she’ll ease up on me a bit and I may even start to like her.

 

Experiencing upper class and an ache I just can’t get rid of….

I knew that the day I flew to New York would be a difficult day. I had been dreading saying goodbye to my children at the coach station. We spent the entire day together on the Friday and my emotions were already brimming. Both my boys were utterly lovely, drawing me pictures and cards and giving me full control over the DVD selection. They seemed excited for me and not too phased at the duration we were about to spend apart. I, on the other hand, was and am still an absolute mess.

I got a nice surprise when I checked in online for my flight – Virgin had upgraded me to Upper Class. I was not expecting this, I considered the complimentary flight kind enough but, for a moment, this opportunity to see how the other half live stifles my heartache.

After sobbing on the coach for the full journey from Bristol to Heathrow I felt I had some serious maintenance to do on my face before even approaching the upper class desk. This notion was new to me, I’ve never got ready or dressed up for a flight before. Flights should be spent in as comfortable clothes as possible and wearing nominal make up so it doesn’t smudge if you happen to fall asleep crookedly whilst resting your cheek on your coat/jumper/scarf.

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So I spent a fair chunk of time trying to drag my eyeliner over my swollen lids and remove the redness from my nose with foundation (I’m not an attractive crier). The first gift upper class gave me was no queue. You have your own dedicated airport security, which means you are in, out and done in a fraction of the time. The options remaining to you as you breeze through into departures are excess shopping or visiting the upper class lounge. Heading off on an internship means I have no money so I go straight to the lounge.

Even the stairway is decadent. All red strip lighting and glass. There are several smiling faces dressed in red to greet you, they welcome me in apparently not realising that I don’t belong there. I do a quick sweep of the room as I’m given the layout. There’s a deli bar, restaurant, lounge area, hairdressers and spa. There’s also a top floor cocktail bar that’s dedicated to making grey goose martinis. Everything is complimentary and announcements for the boarding of flights will be made in due course.

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I loiter, unsure of where to sit or what to do with myself. I change my chosen spot twice until I settle in a corner booth with not too close a proximity to my neighbour so I may silently sob in peace.

I choose pasta in truffle oil for lunch (mainly because truffle oil sounds expensive and something I’d never usually have), a glass of white wine and an orange juice. The food is delicious and I wish I was in a better place so I could really enjoy it.

But I’ve just left my family for a full six weeks and six days and my heart is breaking. I knew it would happen but the waves of pain just keep on coming until there’s very little left of that shakily applied eye liner. I move to the lounge area and pull out a book. Distraction is the key here so I start reading, curl up and order a pot of tea.

Upper class passengers are given priority boarding, so when my flight is called I go straight to the gate and within minutes I’m on the plane. I’ve never been in upper class before and I find myself presented with a chair, foot rest and a large number of buttons. I’d like some sort of initiation but think perhaps you’re not supposed to draw attention to the fact that you just don’t do this kind of thing all the time, so I sit down. I’m grateful for the extra comfort. I like putting my legs up so I’m appreciative of the space. I’m also appreciative of the seclusion between each seat. It’s a very anti social way to fly (discounting the cocktail bar of course) but that suits me fine as the tears keep coming and I couldn’t cope with anyone asking me why.

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It’s by far the most comfortable flight I’ve ever had. It’s not just the seats that are upgraded, the dinner is served in courses and on plates! There are table cloths and little salt and peppers in the shape of miniature silver aeroplanes. Wine is poured from the bottle and the service is incredible.

I wrap myself in the duvet (not blanket), and prop up the pillow (an actual pillow, not like half of one) and select films that aren’t too harrowing so as not to add to my already sombre mood and whenever the tears come I attempt to drown them out with a book.

As wonderful a treat as it was, and as grateful as I am for the opportunity to fly that way it made the absence of my family even harder to bear. I would’ve loved to have shared it with them, to see their faces when they saw the seats or explored the lounge. Because sharing these things with the people you love is what elevates them to a magical place. As a parent I cherish my children’s reactions over mine and I realise that mine are considerably muted without them.

I’m in New York now. I’m currently sat on my single bed in my little room on West 34th Street. The intense heartache remains. In truth, at this moment, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can bear this ache until I get to see them again.

Distractions work, temporarily. I hope to meet some people who can help shift me out of my own head and heart long enough to actually start enjoying and embracing this opportunity because at the moment, I’d much rather be seeing it through my children’s eyes than my own.

 

Passport and visa in hand, having mammoth fun in London and fundraising gig

I’m here. I’m in the final stretch. I fly to New York on Saturday. On Friday last week I went to pick up my passport and visa from a sorting office in London after failing to pay extra for delivery to my home. At the time I thought I was being frugal, however I ended up paying over five times as much travelling back to London to pick them up and it was worth every penny.

My youngest son, Kai, had an inservice day so came with me to London via National Express. In order to make the most of the day I decided to take him to the Natural History museum to see the Ice Age exhibition after we’d collected my visa. In total that day we travelled for over seven hours, queued for 30 mins and ended up only spending around 40 mins in the museum, but I enjoyed every second.

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Because I know my trip is imminent, and with it the brief separation from my children, I am soaking up every inch of them. I’m calmer with them, more patient and more present when they’re telling me about their days or sharing their thoughts on the ultimate super power. It’s a good way to be, to treat each moment with them as precious, and I become aware that it shouldn’t take an impending absence to do this.

At the delivery office we met a jet setting pug called Harvey, who lived in LA and had just arrived. She only had twelve hours to find her London legs before she was back in the baggage hold to go to New York. My son loves animals so immediate started rolling round on the floor trying to encourage the weary jet-lagged dog to play. The owner warned us she was very tired but Kai persisted and eventually got her jumping up and her tail wagging with a new found energy.

On the tube Kai likes to stand without holding onto anything, treating it as a game to see if he can catch himself on time when the train slows down for each stop. He giggles in delight and I’m completely swept up in his unrelenting joy. At the exhibition we run around pretending to be woolly mammoths. We don’t spend time reading the information, we miss out on all the education and instead spending time in our own imaginations, interpreting everything we see as another part of our game.

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Within the hour we’re back out in the sunshine. We have ample time before our coach home but we head back to Victoria anyway, stopping in a bar for lunch where when I asked Kai what he wants he says, ‘mini cheeseburgers’ and is beside himself with excitement when he finds them actually on the menu.

I don’t remember what we talked about but our conversation flowed. By the time we got on the coach back I was starting to flag, the gentleman sitting in front of me was an invader-of-personal-space in that he reclined his seat to the maximum capacity so that the top of it was inches away from my nose and I was unable to sit straight. I shifted my body towards Kai, who looked at me and asked if I wanted to swap seats with him. Yes, at just six years old my son had more manners in his little finger than the gentleman in front so I turned my face to look at him and my discomfort gave away to an immense pride.

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On the Saturday was the fundraising event I had organised. For the past two months I’ve been badgering people on Facebook to attend and buy tickets over and over again. Even I was getting fed up with myself. It wasn’t as busy as I’d hoped, but as the night crept on the financial stress started to melt away and instead of looking at the room as half empty, I saw it as half full. All the entertainers had given up their time for free. They’d travelled to the venue, perhaps got baby sitters and they were up there doing something they enjoyed.

Getting to this point has been really tough. I know that when I say goodbye to my children on Saturday my heart is going to break, but I also know that they will be absolutely fine and, maybe, one day, they can be as proud of me as I am of them.

 

 

 

Celeb spotting at the US embassy, queuing in the rain and the freedom to move

I’m off to New York in just a few short weeks. Items are getting ticked off the ‘to do’ list, I’m getting increasingly emotional every time I think of leaving my boys and I’m starting to attempt to imagine myself actually walking the streets of New York, on my own, for nearly seven weeks.

Before I can contemplate navigating the concrete jungle I need a visa as I’ll be working in New York, so rocking up as a tourist just won’t cut it. I completed the application online, paid my fee and booked my visa interview date at the embassy. I found this whole process rather exciting and felt the lightness of possibility in my step as I approached the embassy at 8am on a deceptively sunny Wednesday morning. I’m a roll-out-of-bed-apply-mascara-and-go type when I’ve got an early doors appointment so I had every intention of stopping off for coffee and a croissant on my way, after all I was super organised and early, when I rounded the corner and spotted the queue. Well it was two queues to be exact. The first was to ‘check in’ and the second to go through security before entering the embassy. Suddenly my early start evidentially wasn’t early enough as I joined the queue looking longingly at those who had brought their Starbucks along for the ride.

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It moved quickly. There was plenty of paper shuffling in the line around me as people checked and checked again that they had everything they needed. I clutched my passport tightly and took baby steps towards the distant check in desk. The lightness in my footsteps remained though, even when the sun decided to retire behind the mounting grey clouds and those of us that were coat-less and umbrella-less took shelter under scarfs, folders and bags.

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A quarter way through the second queue I spotted Orlando Bloom leaving the embassy, and as I eventually made it to the front where I waited patiently to get called through security, Gary Barlow took my spot without even the courtesy of a nod.

Once through security I approached the reception desk where I was greeted by The Most Polite Man in the World. He called me Miss, which as a 34 year old slightly soggy mother of two I greatly appreciated, and motioned me to the visa waiting room where hundreds of people sat patiently watching the screen for their number to be called, like a doctors surgery but filled with energy, hope and excitement rather than ailments and exaggerated coughing.

The first time you approach the window is for your paperwork to get checked. The lady behind my window had dealt with Gary and Orlando that morning and filled me in on who she thought was the nicest (Orlando apparently, hands down). She gave me the OK and sent me back to sit down and wait for my interview.

As I watched the steady flow of people move between the windows and admired the fluidity and efficiency of the process I was struck by how lucky we all were. Having the freedom to move between countries and take up opportunities to travel and work is a gift and one that should be valued. It’s why my passport is one of my most treasured possessions.

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The interview itself was swift and painless. I was asked about my career goals and what I was going to be doing when I came back to the Uk. We spoke about my children and what an incredible opportunity it was to work at the UN. In mere moments it was over and I was ‘approved’ and subsequently dismissed. I looked longingly at my passport that remained inside the clear wallet that held my approved visa application.

“What happens now?,” I asked.

She advised that my visa and passport would be sent to my shipping address in roughly seven working days. So I stepped away from the interview window, visa approved but minus my passport feeling the absence of it as strongly as the absence of my morning sustenance.

Ill be watching and waiting for the post now and when it’s back in my hands, well, that’s a pretty big tick off the list.

Top Tips for visiting the US Embassy

1. Allow plenty of time to queue (at least an hour)

2. Pack snacks and drinks

3. Make sure you have all your paperwork in order and your passport!

4. Don’t take laptops or keyboards with IPads

5. Take change for the coffee and snack place in the visa waiting room

6. Ensure that the passport picture used for your application is current (apparently I’d changed a great deal in two years)

7. Place your phone, iPod, keys and wallet in a plastic bag to go through security (these get handed out in the queue)

8. Take protection from the weather!

 

Rwanda anniversary, Vietnam, Cambodia and being inspired

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Years after it happened I discovered The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz. In it she talks about one of her first projects in Africa, which was helping a group of Rwandan women set up a bakery. It was a project she invested herself heavily in and when it thrived she felt a sense of purpose, value and assured direction. Jacqueline was back in the US when she heard about the genocide and immediately took a plane to Rwanda to find the women she had worked with.

When I read that paragraph I was struck most by her incredible bravery. She purposefully and with full comprehension of the atrocities that were taking place went into Rwanda to seek out her friends. My memory lapses at the details of what she found, but I do recall that the bakery that they had toiled over for months had been ransacked and burnt to the ground, and her heart was heavy from all the wasted work that had gone into it.

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But, of course, that work wasn’t wasted. If something was built once it can be done so again and they did. They re-built.

Each of the anniversaries of the genocide have been met by press telling us the horrific stories of survivors and what they witnessed during that 100 day period. As I was researching the stories to write a news article for a charity I’m currently working for my heart ached with the level of violence. It made me think of the ‘Single Story’ video, which I’ve linked to on this blog. Yes there was horror, violence and loss but I wanted to read about hope, strength and re-building.

Rather fittingly to this momentous anniversary that was the story the press have told. In Rwandan communities women who lost their children, husbands, parents or siblings live alongside the people that murdered them. In image galleries across the press they stand, side by side. Their pain is still real but they are learning to forgive. Because they’ve seen, first hand, the danger of division and Rwanda wants to heal.

These aren’t the only stories still to be told of Rwanda though. David Smith, the Africa Correspondent for The Guardian wrote an article on the lack of intervention into Rwanda during the genocide and what that has meant for international crisis since. Case studies and interviews with Rwandan’s that I’ve read through my current job spoke about their ‘confusion’ and ‘anger’ that no-one from the outside came to help them.

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In 2012 I went to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was a guided tour that aimed to teach about the history of each country, and a fundamental part of history for both is war. The war museum in Vietnam is lined with stark imagery showing injured soldiers, weaponry and images from children and adults that have been affected by the toxin Agent Orange. I’d never heard of this before this day. I knew of the war, but not of the toxic gas that Americans sprayed into rural areas in order to flush out the combatants. Toxic gas that then became embedded into people’s genetic code, which means that children are still being born today with heavy deformities.

In Cambodia I visited the genocide museum. It was a school that had been taken over by the men under the rule of Pol Pot to take ‘prisoners’. Each room had photographs on the wall of all the inmates at different stages of their torture. I made it to the first room and immediately facing me was a picture of a young boy, no more than 10 years old. I instantly saw my son’s face and I felt like I didn’t need to see what that boy had gone through to understand the gravity of what had happened in this place. I retreated with tears in my eyes, unable to follow the tour. Instead I sat in the blistering sunshine questioning how this could have happened.

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These are questions I still have. I’m writing an essay on International Humanitarian Law at the moment, analysing the law and selecting the elements of it I’d like to change. If David Smith’s article about Rwanda is correct and we have learnt from the mistakes of our past then what about Syria? The question is how we protect and respect individual states without sacrificing human rights.

It’s a huge questions and I’m barely even scratching the surface. These questions are riddled with complexities and grey areas but I always felt strongly that if I want to advocate human rights then I must make some attempt to answer them, even if it’s only for myself.

This past week UWE put out a press release on my internship. I’ve had notes and messages from friends and strangers saying that I’ve inspired them. I feel amazed and moved by this. Inspiration for me comes from those that I meet or read about that show amazing strength against the odds, because I think, by proxy, it shows us what we are all capable of.