Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"There's life after death. and taxes."

Taxes.

Every year that I have earned enough money to qualify for paying taxes has been complicated.

One year I had ten jobs in two states. 2014 was the first year I had only one job.

But we lived and worked in different states.

Can someone please tell me how you do taxes and stay sane? And why don't they teach you how to do this in school?

If taxes give you anxiety, look at this happy green sunshine. Happy. Inhale. Exhale.
Last year, Caleb filed our taxes using one of those online programs. He was a ball of stress. I complimented him, praised him for tackling our first ever married taxes, cleaned and cooked to create a happy environment.

This year, after some pumping up and empowering from an accountant co-worker, I took on the pile of tax-y paperwork using a different online program. I flew through the federal return and was feeling awesome until 9:30 pm. "Bedtime," my wise husband said, gently guiding me away from the tax prep software.

The next day, I was back at it, ready to go. I made it through my first (of two) state returns. My back was tense. I started snapping.

[As an aside, if you have never seen me get mad or grouchy, I tend to say things like, "UGH. I AM NOT MAD AT YOU CALEB. I AM JUST MAD AT STUPID TAXES." And Caleb says, "I know. Thanks for doing our taxes. You're doing great." while he cooks and cleans. Sounds like role reversal from last year to me...]

Here is Goliath. He is peaceful. Look at Goliath and feel peaceful and warm and fuzzy.
State return one - finished. On to state return two. I am trying to deep breathe, trying to focus on the questions that I am supposed to understand. But no. I cannot. And now I have to pay for my state return number one in order to answer this question on state return number two. I pay. I go back and realized I didn't have to answer this question. It is too much. I start to cry angry "I-hate-you-taxes" tears. I realize this is ridiculous and hit the magical button that says, "Save and exit." Will try again tomorrow.

Next year, we are paying someone so that we don't have to do this. Sometimes, paying hundreds of dollars for emotional health and to avoid the pressure of being unsure if you are unintentionally lying to the government is a bargain.


Title of this blog post from a [very old] song by Relient K

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My word for 2015

Ummm, did you know that it's almost March?

As one of my yoga teacher pointed out yesterday, everyone is feeling "meh" about their New Year's resolutions right now. (But if you made resolutions and are still on track, I would love to hear about it. Very impressive.)

I don't make New Year's resolutions. I have learned that I am this weird combination of driven and spontaneous. I tend to mull things over for a long time in my subconscious. (I think it's genetic from my mom.) Then all of a sudden, the moment is right, the incubation period is over, and within two days I have signed up for a seven month yoga teacher training program or to take a French class and I am all in. Laser focus.

However...

Sometimes this causes me to overcommit. Which is part of why I don't make resolutions - at any given time, I have usually bit off more than I can chew.

This leads me to my word for 2015.

Receive.
Really, this word chose me. For the same reason I don't make resolutions, I also don't pick words. I actually have always preferred the concept to making resolutions, but for me it was too much pressure to "create" or "engage"  or etc. But in a moment of quiet reflection, I knew that I needed a word to guide the year and that word was receive. 

And to be honest, I am sort of carrying on as usual, except when I have little pauses, I remember my word. And I remember to be still. And I remember that, thank goodness, it's only February, and I have the whole year to learn how to do this. 

Receive. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why I dread telling people what I do

A few days ago, I wrote this post about where I work. If you haven't read it, it would be good to start there instead of here. Because today, I want to share what exactly I do. And if you don't read about what Unbound does, it will be complicated to understand what I do.

Sitting on my exercise ball, because exercise balls are the funnest. 
Because job titles are sort of meaningless made-up terms (in my opinion), I am going to explain some typical tasks. Unbound works in 21 countries. My tasks are limited to only eight of these countries. (Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Madagascar, Mexico, Tanzania and Uganda). 

~ I had mentioned that when you donate to Unbound, you enter into sort of an individual partnership with a kiddo, teen, or elderly person. You write and exchange letters, words of encouragement, photos. I review a sample of the letters that are coming in from around the world for a variety of criteria, including personalization, who wrote it, how long it took to arrive, and the quality of the translation (when necessary.)

~ If someone in our program passes away or has something big happen in their life, I am the first point of contact within the US. We then pass the message along to their specific donor. 

~ I provide feedback to my assigned countries for the quality of letters, photos, and other communication between us.  

~ It's my job to know and understand how Unbound's model is working in each of my assigned countries. This helps me notice ways that they can grow and improve, but also helps to inform our policies as an organization, and be able to communicate our work accurately. 

~ Unbound has an awesome scholarship program. (It's a great option if you want to help out, but not commit to anything regularly.) It's my job to collect reporting on it, know how it works in each of "my" countries, and help the staff think through potential improvements when necessary.

~ Monthly (or more frequently), we have calls with each country's staff to see how things are going. 

~ Travel - to ensure our program is actually doing what we say it's doing and also to provide training on new initiatives. 
Meeting a staff member on a work trip. Please note that I am a giant. 
These are definitely not all the things I do, but it's sort of hard to imagine writing all that out. (Have you ever tried? Tricky.) My typical day usually involves a lot of emails, Skype calls and chats, and meetings. 

It's kind of tricky writing out what you do for work without using "work jargon". Have you ever tried it? Does my explanation make sense or do you have more questions? 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

One thousand steps

I heard this saying once: "When you take one step towards God, God takes one hundred steps towards you." But I misremembered it, and have been quoting it to myself as: "When you take one step towards God, God takes one thousand steps towards you."




The past few days, I have been talking on here about my job, about discerning and committing to things  through difficult times. But today, I wanted to dive into why I think it's important.

The things we do, the way we treat each other, those things give us and the people around us messages about how the world is. Our experiences shape our beliefs. This is why God tells us so many times in the bible to love each other. This is why we we need to be in something for the long haul.

I believe that the world is teeming with God's love, and when I finally slow down enough, I can sense it, pulsing, the heartbeat of a God so alive, so radiant with love, that she/he would take one thousand steps to reach someone before they could take their second step toward God.

And in the sad/ hard/ scary/ terrible moments when I cannot sense this pulse, in those moments I take comfort that I only need to be brave enough to take the first step, and God will meet me there.

Sometimes, my first step looks exactly like a step: out my front door to go tutor or to go for a walk. Sometimes it looks like me rolling out my yoga mat. And sometimes its as simple as an internal heart shift, a whispered prayer.

I've been going to my church for almost nine years. I love it. But the past year or so, it feels like nothing really speaks to me. It seems like most of the sermons are really "heady" for lack of a better word. I used to love the music, and I still like some of it, but what I love now are hymns and chants, like the ones from the Taizé community in France.

So imagine my surprise when, Sunday, we sang a song from Taizé in church. I felt the distance closing from 1001 steps to zero. I felt the pulse of God's love. Below is the song we sang. If you aren't familiar with Taizé music, songs are very short and written in many languages. The idea is to keep them short so that you can let the words soak into your soul.

These are the words to the song we sang, painted on a rock. Photo from 2010 when I visited Taizé, France.
Today, may you take one step towards God, and may you sense God taking one thousand steps towards you.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In it for the long haul

Apart from many years of schooling, what is the longest thing you have ever done?

Here are some numbers for me:
- 2+ years working at the same organization
- almost 10 years of being friends with this awesome lady. (whaaat?!)
- about 5 months at current address
- almost 4 years with Caleb
- almost 4 years tutoring the same kids

The last one is what really gets me. 4 years ago, I was working as an ELL aide. It was one of my favorite jobs ever. 35 hours, all the school holidays, health insurance, adorable children. When it came time for summer, there was one sweet girl in my class who had made so.much.progress. I knew with summer coming, she was going to backslide. I talked to a retired teacher who was subbing in my class.

"Do you think it would be okay if I offered to tutor her for free this summer?"

She thought about it for awhile before saying she thought it would be okay.

"Besides," she said, "You never know what kind of impact that could make on her."

So I typed up a long letter about how I'd seen the student make a lot of progress and that summer was hard for kids who had gained so much, because there was no school and kids forget. I nervously gave it to her mom on the last day of school and explained myself in Spanish.

"Okay." her mom said. "Here's my number. Call me next week and you can come over."

That day was May 26, 2011. That night, Caleb and I started dating. It was an epic day for me.

Nearly five years (and four jobs) later, our routine has only altered slightly. I tutored both the girl and her brother, but I have now recruited Caleb to help. Let's face it - I am not as cool to a middle school boy as I was to an elementary school boy. We go to the library every three weeks. ("In school library time, we don't get to look at books anymore. We just do stuff on the iPads. I miss looking at books," one of the kids said to me recently. Heartbreaking.) When we aren't at the library, we are sitting together, doing homework, reading, or having jumping jack contests. We go on "field trips" to garden stores or the art museum or sometimes to my house to bake things. They have a baby sister now, and sometimes she comes with us.

Why am I sharing this story? Well, first of all, when my girl becomes a bilingual rockstar labor and delivery doctor which is what she wants to is going to be, I want to have this story ready to share with her. (At some point during this career path, I will no longer be able to help her with homework, probably starting with high school biology...)

One of our favorite outings including feeding these fish. Fish have a short attention span. Also, biology.
But secondly, I have a short attention span. I have a tendency to jump on and off bandwagons. And I don't think it's just me. We, collectively, have somewhat of a hard time being in things for thick and thin. But, on the other hand, it's my guess that many of you have things like this. Something small that you've committed to regularly. Maybe it's a habit of prayer, or exercise, or always telling your parents you love them when you get off the phone. Is there a way we can share these things with each other? What keeps you doing something when it gets hard? I don't mean unhealthy. If something gets to be unhealthy or an obsession, you should probably stop doing it.

But just as there is a physical difference between pain and being uncomfortable, there is a difference between something being unhealthy/ hurtful and something being hard. For me, I sort of just have to feel it. There is something inside me, something in my internal compass* that always finds true north and helps me to discern my course. I call that something God, or the spark of God inside me. It's love. And it helps me to know when to set my jaw and be in it for the long haul.

P.S.** For me, this post is really linked to my last post. Because I have been inspired many times by how we are really in it for the long haul at work. And many of our awesome donors are also in it for the long haul. Beautiful. It will also relate to my next post, which you will have to wait until tomorrow to see.

*My internal compass does not work for physical directions like left/ right/ north etc. It's more of an emotional/spiritual thing.

** Can someone tell me if the P.S. is supposed to go before or after the asterisk from earlier in the post? Very confusing.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why I dread telling people where I work



Inevitably, the question always comes up when you meet someone new or see an old acquaintance. “So, where do you work?”

I love my job. I love the organization I work for, Unbound.



But how do you explain all the incredible work that Unbound does? We work with families in poverty to help provide opportunities to move forward. The causes of poverty are diverse. Our program is just as diverse. We have more than 300,000 families in our program, and we know every single one. We know what they need, what is challenging for them. Once someone decides to start supporting them by sending $30 each month, the options they can receive are endless. In rural Uganda, its standard to make sure every new family receives a latrine over the first few months they receive funds. Having a latrine close to the house means not having to go into the wilderness to take care of business. In Mexico, sometimes families elect to immediately receive food or pay for education or buy their kids a new pair of shoes. Or they can save money to buy something their family might need, like a gas powered generator to be able to farm more land and raise their monthly income. In India, money goes into a personal bank account where the mother decides if she will save it or use it for more urgent needs. Our work with families to break the cycle of poverty has endless nuances because it is so individualized.

Some families choose to receive food, but that is no longer the norm
We foster relationships, friendships really, between a donor and the specific person their money supports. We encourage you to exchange photos and letters, and to learn about each other’s realities. What is a typical day like in Manila? What crops do they grow in Madagascar? People who give to Unbound enter into a relationship with a family in another country, and know exactly who is receiving their donations and for what purpose. In addition, for a teen growing up in a small town in Mexico, sometimes knowing that someone somewhere is cheering for them makes all the difference in their studies and life choices.

And to make explaining all these depths and nuances more challenging, I desperately want everyone I know to join us, to financially support an individual and their family, to give them opportunities they could not have otherwise. Because it’s life changing for you and for them. I never want anyone to feel pressure or guilt, but there is urgency. I have met the families who are waiting. Some have been waiting for two years for a helping hand.

Some of these lovelies are part of our program and some are still waiting.
As part of my job, I hear inspiring, heart-warming stories from my co-workers around the world. But to only share these stories makes light of a very difficult reality. I also hear tragic stories that are incredibly challenging every week. Because when you walk alongside 300,000 families, you hear both the beautiful and the terrible about life in a developing country.

So that is where I work. What I do there? That’s another story for another time.


A neighborhood where we work. It's precariously balanced on the side of a hill. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I love couch.

I am a big believer in listening to your body.

If you feel antsy, go for a walk. If you want to go to sleep at 8:30pm, do it. If you want to eat ice cream for dinner, you should.

That said, I typically schedule a lot of activities for myself in the evenings, without doing much listening. A typical week of post-work activities usually looks like this:

Monday: Yoga (Arrive home at 7:15)
Tuesday: Tutoring (home at 8:30)
Wednesday: Yoga and French class (home at 8:30)
Thursday: See friends, go grocery shopping, or stay home and frantically do laundry and dishes
Friday: Stay home from sheer exhaustion

But a few weeks ago, I went to Mexico on a work trip. I was gone for eleven days. It was amazing. The end was a little rough though...I came back sick and with some pulled leg muscles. So since then, all my nights have looked like this:

Come home. Sit on couch with electric blanket and watch Gilmore Girls. Feel grateful that my mom gave me throw pillows. Read books. Take baths some nights to mix it up.

My couch tonight. My mom made that blanket. And oh yes, that's a coloring book on the left.
I am a big fan. A very big fan. I feel like I am living an alternate reality, where I do nothing all the time. Is this my life? So I am learning, (for like the millionth time) that I need to schedule less things. The message I am getting, loud and clear, is that this is a season of receiving. Of not squeezing the life out of every last second of my day. Because there is something beautiful that happens when time passes slowly. You look out your window and finally see the sunset, or the clouds move across the night sky. Time turns into slow time. You stop hearing the clock ticking and start taking deep breaths.

I trust the seasons and I trust myself. Eventually, I will want to peel myself off this couch and go outside or to see friends. (Heck, I went to yoga on Monday and today.) But until then, I am going to be here, writing, resting, dreaming, and of course, watching Gilmore Girls.

Do you have couch nights? Or weeks? Or months? Do you overschedule too? 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Ode to piriformis

Dear Piriformis,

First of all, my deepest gratitude for connecting my leg to my spine. Seriously. 

I had no idea how big of a deal you were, though I'd heard rumors. When you are happy, I am happy. When you are tight and upset, you impinge on my sciatic nerve, and then I am sad. I promise to do everything possible to keep you moving and groovin'. 

You are such a teeny muscle, really, only the length of my thumb. But somehow, you can control my whole leg. Incredible. Thanks for being awesome. 

Love,

Ellen

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sanskrit + Spanish = confusing


I was looking through my photos for the best ones for this post. I think these are a nice combination.

I am in the process of becoming a yoga teacher. This has involved learning many Sanskrit terms, which, as a linguist, I LOVE. Sometimes, I get confused because some of the words look the same as Spanish, but mean very different things. Personally, I think there could be some hilarious confusions... What do you think?

Examples:
Ama
  • Spanish: he/ she/ it loves; love (command)
  • Sanskrit: toxic sludge inside your body
Tapas
  • Spanish: lids or covers; delicious small portions of food in Spain
  • Sanskrit: Can mean many things but most commonly used to talk about internal heat, fuel, fire
Tejas
  • Spanish: Texas (the state)
  • Sanskrit: Kind of complicated, but refers to inspiration, vitality and health, vision.
Hasta
  • Spanish: until
  • Sanskrit: hand
Ojas
  • Spanish: this is not really a word in Spanish, but it is similar to ojos (eyes) and ojala (to wish/ hope for)
  • Sanskrit: your internal reservoir of energy
Banda
  • Spanish: band or gang
  • Sanskrit: to lock or close off. Technically it's spelled bandha, but you pronounce it the same

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

she's the best

My mom is one of my biggest supporters. 
I know yesterday I posted about how Caleb is the best, which is true. I would now like to give a shout-out to my mom, who is the best in a different way. In a "sure I'll come over and fold laundry and wash dishes and feed you soup while you work and then nap" way.

I know - it's like we're twins!!! Except she's taller. 
If you have ever met my mom, you know she is like a ray of sunshine. She can walk into a room where she knows no one, and fill it full of joy and sparkles. She can (and does) make friends with anyone. She gives great advice about relationships, hosting parties, interior decorating, and basically everything else you can think of. She is unbelievably talented at mailing awesome packages, organizing events, and coming up with creative ideas. She will drop everything to help someone who needs her help, whether it means driving one of my friends to their kid's doctors appointments or filling in as (a very talented) photographer at the last minute for an event.

She taught me how to dance around the house while singing and hang out in my pajamas until dinner. She taught me to eat sugar peas straight off the vine in the summer, and how to cook desserts with four sticks of butter. And she's the best.

That man in the background? That's my dad. He is pretty incredible too.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

he's the best

This is my husband. He is the best.

I got back from an international trip on Sunday. The trip was great, but ended sort of roughly, in the way that some international trips can. Digestive things, pulled muscles. But all my flights went through and so, Sunday evening, Caleb picked me up in a snow storm.

He's been making me food and homemade electrolyte drinks, washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and dealing with all the little stressful things that come up. He took me to the doctor and did not mind when I forgot our address, or how to spell his middle name, or where we kept plates and glasses in our kitchen. (Seriously, I don't know what happened to my mind.)

And so this blog is for him. My best friend and husband.