Saturday, September 12, 2015

Three Years Later

Every year is a little less painful.  I've started to figure out my cycle of dealing with anniversaries.

Two days out:  constant, repetitive panic attacks.
One day out:  quiet crying, no panic attacks.
Day of:  some crying, gathering with friends to lay flowers and tell stories about the dead, laughter.
Day after:  back to relative normal.

Laying flowers at the memorial wall with friends is the most cathartic thing I've found.  There's a few moments of silence, some crying, then we split into smaller groups to catch up.  People bring their kids and compare notes on new assignments.  We meet new people who weren't able to make it in previous years.  Promises are made to get beers after work some time, though beers are rarely gotten in the coming months.  Some leave notes and photos of children whose godfather was killed that horrible day.

We took photos to send to friends who couldn't make it that day.  As we posed, someone yelled out, "Oh shit, I'm not supposed to smile, this is a sad event!"  Of course we all laughed and smiled for the next photo, which ended up being the best one of the bunch.  We recounted stories of pranks pulled, jokes told, unbelievable experiences together that are par for the course in our line of work.

Every tragedy creates a brotherhood of survivors.  Like any group of people, there's some friction and a few people we all wish would disassociate themselves from the rest of us.  There are subgroups of those who never served in Libya but knew the dead, those who knew Chris or Sean better, those who served in Libya and were not allowed to return after the attacks.  But mostly it's a group of people united by good memories of those we've lost and a shared sense of grief.  It's nice to have those safety nets around the world.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Yesterday I spoke at a panel for young professionals interested in Middle East policy.  It was an off-the-record, TED-talk style panel that really was a lot of fun.  I told a story about escorting Sen. John McCain through the 2012 Libyan election day and how that day really exercised some of the most important skills to have in the Foreign Service: flexibility, cross-cultural communication, and a sense of humor.  I came away in a good mood, feeling like I could turn my experiences into something useful and even funny for a general audience.

Last night, something incredible happened.  Clearly my dream was prompted by my discussion of Libya - but it was the first dream I've had about Libya since 2012 that wasn't a soul-crushing, sweat-soaked nightmare.  I dreamed that I went back to Tripoli, to our old compound in 2016 for a visit.  I met the new crop of embassy staff who had reopened the embassy a few miles away.  While they were concerned at first to see me wandering around the destroyed remnants of the old mission, once they realized who I was I was welcomed into the new community as a friend.  They even showed me where my old house - destroyed and cleared away in this dream-world, but with a garden planted on the site - was and told me, "This must be really good for you to come back and be welcomed here and to get closure."

It really was.  My heart feels a little lighter today.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Up, Down

Two weeks ago, at a coworker's farewell party, I found myself standing in the corner of the room, sharing stories about Ambassador Stevens with a colleague who had served with him in other posts, before he was an ambassador, when he was just Chris.  We traded stories about what a prankster he was - how he set my colleague up to end up face-to-face with a known hellraiser in the host country that we all were trying to avoid (to prevent a verbal altercation that would have ended up on the front pages of national papers), how he set me up to be stuck in a cave with 30-odd tribal leaders for lunch.  How the only thing (outside of work) that wasn't a joke was tennis.  For a brief moment, I had nothing but happy memories of Libya.

The last two weeks have been really difficult for me.  The news from Libya has been horrific - friends and acquaintances assassinated in their homes or on the street, the airport in Tripoli under sustained attack and finally destroyed, and today, the Embassy was temporarily closed since we withdrew all of our staff overland to Tunisia for their safety.  The militia clashes in Tripoli were too close to the Embassy, which had taken indirect fire a few times while armed factions fought it out for control of Libya's most valuable assets - or at least fought to deny those same assets to their enemies.

I don't know when we'll go back in to Libya.  I don't know when it will be safe to go back.  I'm thrilled that my American colleagues are safe, but I'm equally terrified for our local hires, Libyans and other nationalities, who are still there in a dangerous city.  I worry about my Libyan friends, and the future of a country that I feel irrevocably tied to.  I have hope - maybe faint, maybe misplaced - that the new council of representatives that will take office on 4 August (to replace the body that was elected in July 2012) may be able to turn things around.  I have hope that a new constitution, when it's finished, will provide a legal framework that will enable Libya's many factions to come to the table, unarmed, to rebuild their shattered country.

I don't want the sacrifices that so many Libyans have made - and, in a tiny way, those that Americans and others have made - to be forgotten or to go to waste.  I don't want Libyans to look around and say, well, it wasn't worth it.  In ten years' time, I want us all to look back and say, the price was too high to get where we are today - but aren't we glad we have made it this far?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gender at State

There are times when I look around my office and the Department and marvel at how female our workforce is.  My office skews more female than male, and our office leadership reflects that balance.  I see lots of women my age (more or less) in the workplace, and we're all at roughly the same point in our careers.  The upper levels of management are a little more skewed towards males, but it's clear that the rising ranks don't look like that at all.  Now that my closest friends are all of breeding age (seriously, four are popping out kids this year), I am more aware of how many women are pregnant at the office.  I can't speak authoritatively to how pregnancy-friendly the federal government is (though it sure would be nice to have maternity leave that doesn't count as FMLA time), but based on my nonscientific observations, the higher-ups had better start thinking about it.  There's a new generation rising through the ranks, and judging by the baby bumps they're going to want more child care options and more acknowledgement that we will not work 13-hour days every day, because we can't count on a wife being at home to make dinner and feed the kids.

The point was really driven home a few weeks back, when I was at a two-day interagency conference.  In some of my meetings, literally the only women in the room were from State, and it was clear how the tone of conversation changed as soon as we walked in.  It became less bro-y, less colloquial and derisive, and more - I hate to say it - professional.  Anyone who's ever met me knows that I have a great love of blue words and that I have no problem being saucy in my casual speech, but professionally I don't do it, and I don't appreciate it when others do it.  The stark change in the tone of the conversation really drove home to me the importance of having decision makers who represent American society - people actually stop to think about what they say before they say it.  It perhaps inhibits free-flowing speech, but only for those who were comfortable in the homogeneity of the environment that allowed them to perpetuate (even unknowingly) the stereotypical behavior that so many people are fighting to overcome.

(Reminds me of a joke: How does every racist joke start?  With a look over your shoulder to make sure the subject of your joke isn't nearby.)

State's not perfect.  The people I see at work are still overwhelmingly white, and our highest levels of management still reflect the palette that formed the bulk of the federal government for too many decades.  However, all it takes is a look at the lower levels of the bureaucracy - the people who will take over when the current management retires - to get excited about the future.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spring Is Here

The sun is back!  I haven't seen it in so long.  My office has no windows, and when you work from 8-7 most days, the sun is rarely seen from October to March.  I am so much happier now, with flowers blooming, sunshine on my way home from work, and the ability to sit on my front stoop and say hello to my neighbors.

Our outdoor entertainment cycle has started up again - barbecues on the roof, picnics in parks, and gardening in a few pots on the deck.  Our farmers' market opens up in two weeks.  Friends are rotating back to the US at the end of overseas tours, and we're convincing more and more of them to rent in our neighborhood.  We're building quite the neighborhood posse!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas for the Kids

This year, Eric and I are giving my nieces and nephew Kiva gift cards.  My mom has let them help her pick her Kiva recipients before, which involved finding countries on the map, learning a little bit about each country, then picking one at random.  Now that the kids are a little older, I hope they'll delve more deeply, finding a country that interests them and learning about it through their loans.

Part of this gift-giving goal is that I don't want to give them things they won't use, and I haven't been around them enough in recent years to know what they'd really want.  (At this point, aunt hannah and Uncle Eric are more ideas than real people, and when I do see them, they are a little shy for a bit before coming round.)  Part of it is that I want to give the gift of charity to them - they have plenty of crap, as do we all, so giving something to others is a good value to inculcate from a young age.  Eric and I asked for charitable donations instead of gifts for our wedding, and it's something I would like my nieces and nephew to understand as well.  Finally, I want to give them a little bit of wonder about the world.  As far as I know, no one in our family really ever left the country before I moved abroad (sans a trip to France or a cruise to the Bahamas), but I don't want to be an outlier.  My mom has a world map up in her house, with pins up to represent places I've lived or visited.  Some day, I want to have a map with a different color pin for each of them, showing where they've travelled and explored.  But first, we'll start with DC - I think some combination of them will come spend Spring Break with us, which is basically the most exciting thing that I can consider.  I can't wait to give them a tour.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

PTSD, part 1

It's amazing how fast time flies when you aren't miserable.  I've already been home for almost six months, and tomorrow will be four months since I started my current job.  It seems every weekend we have a plan - going to an event around town, going to a party, or hosting brunch for several friends.  Our Sunday brunch tradition is back in full swing after a year hiatus - in a switch-up of roles from Turkey, I'm now the primary cook, and Eric and friends handle the clean up.  That means I get to finish the mimosas - oh, how hard is my life.

We've settled into the neighborhood and know most of our neighbors.  We have our routines: buying vegetables at the farmers' market every Sunday, CSA delivery on Thursday after work, and baking most weekends.  Some good friends from Turkey moved in a block away from us, and my best friend from high school lives a twenty-minute walk to our east.  I didn't get furloughed, Eric has a new, more interesting job, and we're all in good health.

Things are going well.

I struggle with PTSD - I'm formally diagnosed with it now, which shouldn't surprise anyone.  I'm a lot better than I was even two months ago; I went to a crowded bar for a party on Saturday night and stayed for three hours, when over the summer I would have had a panic attack within 15 minutes.  I'm still waiting for how I feel about my PTSD to solidify into something I can write about; writing is very therapeutic for me, but when it comes to something this personal I don't think I can write about it until the time is right.  It's still too raw.  I can talk about the daily grind with people, and in fact I like to do so, because it both helps me come to terms with it and it also makes people aware that PTSD is a disease you can't see but whose effects linger for a long time.  I don't really care if others want to be educated, if someone asks, I tell them.  :)

What I can say is that everyone's PTSD is different, but that all of us who were in Libya last year are still suffering in our own way.  The biggest help for me - outside of my therapist, who specializes in treating Vietnam veterans and Holocaust survivors - has been hearing that everyone else who went through it with me are suffering too.  It sounds morbid, but sometimes it's just really, really nice to know that you're not alone.  I know that every time I have a bad day, when something triggers me that no one else would even notice, I can call a friend who was there too and who gets it.  I don't have to explain why it's traumatizing for strangers to ask me for quotes for their latest partisan rant about who's at fault.  I don't have to explain why I can't bear to watch the news in America anymore, because of the sheer idiocy of the public debate over Benghazi.

I'm tired of other people trying to fit me and my experiences into their narrative.  Any story I tell no longer becomes my story, if it's taken and used for someone else's gains, and I don't want to be used.  I live with my memories every day, and I don't want them and the memories of others who died or who continue to suffer to be disrespected.