All Roads lead to Oaxaca

^^Well, that’s not exactly true. Probably more accurate would be to say that there was one road that led to Oaxaca and it was filled with a mass of immobile vehicles (read: #roadblock). So, we did what any hardy college students would do and gathered our luggage (which I began regretting having packed very shortly) and disembarked along with the rest of the passengers.

“We’ll walk,” said the bus driver. “There’s another bus past the blockage that we’ll take instead.” ”“How many minutes would you estimate?” I asked. “Oh…20, nada más,” (nothing more) he said with confidence.

I like walking, I figured, let’s go.

4.5 miles later, this is how the situation looked:

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But don’t be fooled by the smiles. Mostly I was like this:

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They say that traveling should open your eyes to the world—to the possibility of meeting new places, cultures, people. I completely agree, all true. But then…where exactly does this trek fit into the experience? My eyes were practically shut because of the sweat dripping mercilessly down my forehead, the only new place I had seen was this highway and admittedly that was getting old rather fast, and the always friendly people were mostly taking this opportunity to hide from the relentless sun and take a nap within their stalled cars.

In any case, the desperation (and fear of heat stroke) were running high.

But finally, finally we made it—to the next bus that is. At least 1 hour later, I was standing on a new bus with a crowd of people waving papers, blankets, anything that might give them a bit of air. Meanwhile my face was boasting a broad smile (whether of happiness, deliriousness, or sheer gratitude I’ll never be completely sure). I was leaning forward as far as I could to allow the sweat from my face to drip onto the floor instead of down my shirt (I know, a lovely image) and all I could keep thinking was that we really had no idea what we were in for when we first boarded a night bus to Oaxaca (a state of Mexico that is as famous for its unique culture as it is for its rich cuisine) a whole 8 hours ago. I write this now from the bus—which we’re still on—but thankfully, I can also say that I’m in a much more comfortable place now. I also know that far worse could have happened and being thankful is a feeling that is possible at any temperature.

Though we haven’t arrived quite yet, Oaxaca has already gifted me with a valuable realization (and even more priceless memories). Very hot–and unexpected–circumstances can either bring out the worst in people, or the best. That is something that is always under your control. And so, at a time when we could control none of the conditions of our external environment, we chose to be happy. It may not be groundbreaking, but sometimes you need experiences like these to make what everyone has been telling you for years really resonate.

I came here many weeks ago as a student of global health, and in doing work “in the field,” I’ve quickly realized that there are a great many things that I cannot predict–from weather, to travel, to the availability of resources that I might have considered basic in any other context. But therein lies both the challenge and the thrill–such that one cannot really be “shocked” at circumstances that are out of the norm. As my professor always says:

“That’s global health, my dear.

She couldn’t be more right.

Relentless McGee

When Inesha and I started this blog 2 years ago, we had the grand ol’ idea of putting a banner at the top with the tagline “Making it happen.” We didn’t take too much time then to explain or clarify or place caveats on that statement. This was also well before the “Can women have it all?” debate really grew wings and took off. But recently, as I was sitting in a seat among Glamour Magazine’s 2014 class of Top 10 College Women (an experience that definitely hit a different level of surreal), I got to thinking about exactly what had possessed Inesha and I to use these particular words. What, exactly, was “it” that we were trying to make happen anyway? It’s a deceptively simple sounding question that is particularly terrifying to answer, especially for the soon-to-be college seniors that my sister and I now are. But, when I’m searching for answers, I find that my choice means of journeying hasn’t changed much since my Kindergarten days–even though the genre may have changed, I still look first to draw comfort, advice, inspiration, and–yes, more questions–from stories.

When I first read Professor Kathleen Donegan‘s words about stories, I thought, she gets me. I love this quote from her:

For many years, if I wasn’t actually finding a story, stories were finding me. And losing me too. Some of those stories protected me, and some surprised me. Some I clung to, and some I fought fiercely. Many were not about me. Many were not even true but, believe me, the tangle was thick with them.

And returning to my seat in New York’s Lincoln Center last week, I was reminded of a particular set of stories that have gotten as close as I think possible to answering the “what is it?” question for me. It’s called Makers and the woman who started it all was sitting just feet away from me on Glamour’s stage.

They call me relentless McGee,” Dyllan began with a broad smile.

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Greta Gerwig, Gina Keatley, Dyllan McGee, and Colleen McGuinness serving as panelists for Glamour’s “How to Get Your Dream Job in 2014: Secrets of Success from Women Who Know” event

 She was sharing a story about how Makers, the award-winning digital platform she founded,  got its start. Lesson #1:  be relentless and let the rejected ideas be the fodder for the good ones when you go back to the drawing board.

I first pitched to Gloria Steinem that we would do a documentary on her life….as if she’d never heard that before!” said Dyllan. That got the crowd laughing. Clearly this was a woman who knew how to take her work seriously without taking life too seriously.

As is evidenced by the wild success of Dyllan’s groundbreaking online video collection (which showcases the stories of women such as Oprah, Marissa Mayer, and Christiane Amanpour, just to name a few), she didn’t give up. Gloria Steinem hadn’t wanted the story to be just about her, and so Dyllan went back to the drawing board with her team. She thought bigger and broader. She would share the stories of groundbreakers in many diverse fields and walks of life, she decided, and all in an effort to excite, inspire, and celebrate women who truly make America. This was more than a story about Gloria Steinem. It was the story about legions of women who knew just that, how to be relentless in pursuing something bigger than themselves.

When Dyllan McGee first introduced herself at the panel that day, I hadn’t yet had a glimpse of the incredible amount of energy and dynamism that would spill forth from her during the conversations we shared both on and off the stage. It’s incredible to think that we first wrote about Makers on this blog nearly two years ago, and almost a week ago today, Inesha and I were sitting face-to-face with the woman who started it all.

So, I’ll be honest. I couldn’t give you any one “it” that my sister and I and the many other incredible women we met at Glamour’s event are trying to make happen (because in many cases, there is far more than one), but Makers does provide a useful guide to just how unique and incredible the definition of that one syllable word can be.

And at least one thing’s for sure–last week Dyllan McGee shared with us her story of how to make relentless happen.

And after that is when the real magic begins.

 

Addressing the Deeper Origins of Pain in the Sierra Madre

***This post was originally published on my Huffington Post Blog found here.

I had felt sure that I would recognize the face of hardship immediately. Hers would be embattled and drawn, I had decided, a confusing map marked with inequalities, misfortune, and no legend available to help untangle them all. When I first met Doña Celia, the silver-haired forty-year-old mother and grandmother with a bouncy gait and infectious smile, I was sure that she wasn’t representative of the kind of hardship I had expected before arriving here. But before long, as coffee and conversation began flowing in her small adobe home, I was given an altogether different map to ponder.

This one featured the terrain of the Sierra Madre mountains, a towering evergreen army that makes the beauty of the state of Chiapas, Mexico unmistakable. For a Harvard College student who would be spending the semester living and working here with Compañeros En Salud (CES) in the small Sierra community of Honduras, walking along its red dust-laden paths was to be a lesson in understanding the many faces of hardship that exist within the complicated healthcare landscape that has been established here.

As we watched one of Doña Celia’s many grandchildren waddle past on the cement floor between us, she began to speak about her experiences in seeking healthcare in a region that had been without reliable access to a physician for the better part of the last half-century.

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Doña Celia

Her father had died when she was very young, Doña Celia told me, and was survived by her mother and the six children whom she would now have to raise on her own. In a setting of already limited resources, this family tragedy meant additional sacrifices — ones that were often taken on by the women of the household.

“They didn’t value women,” she continued, “and they would say that only the boys should study.” Doña Celia herself would only finish primary school. Before long, adolescence too would bring new challenges. With little disposable income available to the family, she felt that she had few other options but to get married at the age of fifteen and to seek support from her new husband. Meanwhile, she had one brother who began drinking and later suffered in a brutal car crash, she said, now brushing away the shallow pools that had begun welling up in her eyes. There was no doctor at that time, only a nurse, and so seeking medical attention for him would have meant paying exorbitant costs for transportation to the nearest medical facilities that were located one to two hours away in Siltepec or Motocintla.“Before, we suffered a great deal,” she said with a striking degree of finality.

But the story was about to change.

The Compañeros En Salud/Partners in Health-run community clinic was established in Honduras two years ago, and even in those two years, Doña Celia said that she had felt the difference.

“The help was substantial because before, the nurse didn’t have many resources –nothing more than oral rehydration therapy, the ability to sew up a wound, and to give Paracetamol (a common pain reliever). Now, there are medications and the chance to receive relief with the doctor in the clinic,” she said.

But for some, like her brother, that change came too late. Without medical attention for the injuries he suffered in the accident and the pain that resulted, he couldn’t return to school. Instead, he was forced — like so many of his forebears — to dedicate his life to the land as a campesino (farmworker). However, in the current climate of poor harvests and falling coffee prices, the many Chiapanecans who are famous for their rich coffee crop are suffering immensely for the production of it.

“Here the work of the farmer is not valued anymore; nobody pays them,” said Doña Celia. She is hopeful that her children and grandchildren will not be forced to make the same choice.

In hearing Doña Celia’s story, I could begin to understand that the reliable access to healthcare provided by CES/PIH was not just about treating the consequences of physical pain, but too about addressing its deeper origins. The medications provided by the social service year physician here are not merely palliatives, but instead a kind of treatment that gives patients the chance to rethink the circumstances of the past and, in doing so, to imagine different possibilities for the future of their children and grandchildren. Doña Celia said that she thought her brother’s story might have turned out differently if there had been reliable medical care available when he suffered his accident. It would have allowed him to continue with his education and perhaps pursue a career that would have better supported his family.

Even as she wiped the now freely flowing tears from her eyes, I could see her face shining brightly at the thought. The CES/PIH doctors that I have seen administering medical care in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas have not “solved” the myriad barriers to education faced by many here, certainly, nor do I think that they will achieve this alone. But in the meantime, what they are doing is empowering people to believe that with a physically strong and healthy body, they can overcome these barriers themselves. For people like Doña Celia, this is what will make it possible to address the deeper origins of pain so that both healing and growth can follow.

Soon dusk was descending on the Sierra, and I could almost smell the myriad baskets of homemade maize tortillas that were being placed on dining tables all around me as the families of Honduras sat down for dinner. Bidding Doña Celia goodbye, I walked the short way back to my host family’s home and reflected on the conversation that we had just shared. Considering all that I had learned, there was at least one thing that I felt I had been right about from the start.

Doña’s Celia’s wasn’t the face of hardship — no, rather hers was unmistakably, and extraordinarily, the countenance of pure courage.

that question.

IMG_2562As part of our trip with Glamour’s Top 10 College Women, we got to visit a group of high school girls. Here’s a picture of us with them. It was my most favorite Glamour moment.

Gabrielle stared across the room and straight at me.

“The article says you go to Harvard,” she began.

“So, how did you get in?”

There it was again, that question. Deafening silence enveloped the room. It was awkward, uncomfortable, unbearable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been asked this question a number of times. Usually I just shrug it off. Sometimes a sarcastic remark will do. In the space of 30 seconds I figure I don’t have near enough time to explain that I have no earthly idea how I got in, how I never really planned on getting in (or for that matter, going) to Harvard, that it was all just a grand serendipitous mistake… that had changed my life forever without my even knowing it at the time. But all that is not something you can articulate in the space of 30 seconds, least of all when you have a little girl staring you down, hope glistening in her eyes as she tells you a piece of her story, how she hasn’t had the easiest family life, how all she really wants is to go to Harvard because they have the best Economics program around.

I stumbled in my response.

I still don’t know what to say when people drop the H-bomb around me. On campus, it doesn’t matter. It’s easy to forget. I’ve found that good or bad, helpful or hurtful, nearly everyone has some relationship with Harvard – whether they’ve grown up with it or read about it in Catcher in the Rye, whether they’ve seen Legally Blonde or met someone who went here.

Harvard to me was always that fictitious entity, that place in a novel that I could read about. I’ll be honest, I never really dreamed about it. At all. I knew no one who went here. It was the stuff of dreams – not good or bad dreams, just dreams. I didn’t expect that in the real world people would assume things about me based on the name of the school I go to – or maybe I expected it but just didn’t understand then how it would impact me.

There are moments when I am really really proud of the fact that I go here. When I get to take my uncle through Widener Library and show him and his friends the Gutenberg Bible. When I first met my homestay mother in Japan and her face lit up; we didn’t speak the same language but she could place where I came from on a map because she knew where Harvard was. When I walked into that classroom last Friday and met Gabrielle, when she looked at me and said I’m proud of you – no little girl has ever told me that – and when she said I inspired her.

Truth is, I’m not exactly sure how I got into Harvard. I believe in hard work – and good luck. I believe that we end up where we’re meant to be, or if we don’t, that we find ourselves back to where we should be. I am convinced that I’ve hit the lottery in many things in my life – with my parents, my friends, my family, and yes, Harvard. And I know that with all these blessings comes a responsibility not to burrow in and hide, wishing that the world would disappear when a little girl from Brooklyn, New York asks me of all things how I got to where I never thought I’d be. My responsibility is to own up to what I am responsible for – successes and failures- and to embrace them, to live in them, to share them. Gabrielle reminded me of all this that day. In the 30 seconds I had to tell her how I got in, I ambled to reframe the entire question. I wanted to tell her that she could work hard and get somewhere (even though as I get older it’s harder to believe that hard work alone is enough.)  I wanted to tell her that Harvard very well might not be where she ended up – but that too would be ok, that she would end up where she needed to be. I wanted to honor her big dreams and leave her with hope, but I also wanted to keep reality in focus.

I’m not sure if I succeeded. In any or in all of this. But on Friday a little girl in Brooklyn, New York reminded me that when that question is asked, for the sake of little girls like her who look like me, I can’t shrug it off. Because shrugging it off would mean telling her that getting here isn’t as important as maybe she thinks it is – or worse yet, that it is near impossible. Shrugging it off would mean not answering her real question. And to that question, there’s only really one answer that I want to give: you know, I did get into Harvard and maybe you will too. But more than anything I believe that if you do work hard, really hard, if you follow your passions, and if you dig in, deep, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be. Even if you don’t quite know it at the time.

My Top 10

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It is hard for me to put into words just how inspiring, therapeutic, and incredibly comforting this past weekend with GLAMOUR’s Top 10 College Women was. In celebrating each other, and sharing our struggles, I can’t help but believe that we’ve forged friendships that will last a lifetime. And for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

I have a post coming up about one of my favorite Glamour moments from last week, but till then I thought I’d leave you with these photos and a few of the big takeaways that some of the incredible women we got to meet left me with. I think they’re definitely worth the share :)

  1. IMG_2561Celebrate each other and share your struggles – All of us women talked quite a bit about how hard it is to balance
    confidence and humility and to share our accomplishments without seeming arrogant. In a conversation somewhere between Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan this is what we all kept saying. In sharing our accomplishments, we can choose to celebrate each other. But when the spotlight shines down, we also have the choice to share our struggles. We have the chance to also make clear to those around us that success, however fleeting and wonderful, has been hard won and is rarely easy. As one of my friends put it, with Facebook and social media these days, it’s easy to see everyone’s “highlight reel.” It’s not so fun to share when you’re sick or hurt or upset about something. But that means that the slice of us that is out there on the internet never captures the full story — it’s a seemingly obvious truth, but one with implications that extend beyond us to the online viewers of our profiles. In a highlight reel of tweets and Facebook feeds and Instragram pictures, it’s hard to get across that even as things might be on the upswing sometimes, we’re still far from perfect. But this last part, well it’s just as important to share.
  2. “Timelines are bad for the soul.” (Colleen McGuinness, Writer of 30 Rock)
  3. “You are your vessel. It [Failure] can feel very personal for that very reason.”  (Danielle Brooks of Orange is the New Black.) For someone who internalizes, well everything, this piece of advice was something I needed to hear. A lot of the times when you put yourself out there– as an actress, as a musician, as an interview candidate– you are the product. When you are not chosen, it’s hard not to feel defeated. I’ve been thinking a lot about this these past few weeks. I’ve been stuck on this concept of things fitting together, much like twins might be expected to. Sometimes there are failures, but sometimes things also just don’t work out because they simply aren’t meant to be together. And that’s not failure. That’s a push in a new direction, the right direction personalized just for you. As one of my friends put it — “If you’re going down a path and you figure out it’s the wrong one, you just choose another.” Exactly.
  4. IMG_2563“Where you came from does not have to be where you’re going.” (Gina Keatley, the host and chef of Healthy Soul With Gina Keatley)
  5. “Be appropriate.” – Colleen McGuinness on what she has learned from Tina Fey, with whom she is currently working on a new pilot. When asked what she’d learned from Tina, Colleen said: “Be appropriate.” It seems simple but she pointed out that it’s hard for anyone out there to say anything bad about Tina Fey. The fact is, she’s always on point. Polite. On time. She addresses people as they should be addressed. It’s a tiny detail but one worth remembering in a world where social media and the internet seem to be breaking down institutions and traditional professional codes faster than time itself.
  6. Failure is the best tool you have because failure makes you angry. And anger makes you do things.
  7. “Go where it’s warm.” (Colleen McGuinness) I really liked this piece of advice. It’s the concept that you should go where you’ll find mentorship, support, and a friendly group of people to work with — not just to the place with the biggest name or the best salary.
  8. “Read books – none of that twitter stuff.” (Samantha Power to me during our phone interview)
  9. “It turns out the real world had a whole lot more learning opportunities for me than grad school.” (Samantha Power to me during our phone interview) If you’re contemplating graduate school, consider the real world first. What do you want to learn and where do you need to learn it? The real world might just hold your answers, and at a more affordable price tag too :)
  10. “Envy is judging someone else’s outsides against your insides – it is also the only one of the seven deadly sins that isn’t any fun.”  (Greta Gerwig)

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Thank you to Glamour Magazine, Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive, Katie Sanders, and so many more for making all of this possible!

On the Phone with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Think about what makes your heart skip a beat. That’s the key to an impactful career.”

-Dr. Sanjay Gupta

And we’re together again! This week, Inesha and I are back in the same country (and city) as we spend a few days in New York courtesy of Glamour Magazine’s celebration of their Top 10 College Women Contest awardees. I suppose it goes without saying that being a part of the latest Top 10 class  has been nothing short of surreal. As Inesha and I spend a few days beings whisked around and cared for by Glamour, I still relish one day many weeks ago when Glamour made it possible for me to speak with one of my biggest inspirations from afar: Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Inesha had met Dr. Gupta previously during her work at CNN last summer, but for me, this was to be a first-time encounter and certainly my first real conversation with the medicine/media mogul himself. And so, there I was on February 5th, sweating (both from the heat and in anticipation) as I sat in a small upstairs room of the Compañeros En Salud office in Chiapas, Mexico. I was practically giddy with excitement–in just a few minutes, Sanjay Gupta would be at the other end of the phone line. I was doing all I could to pray that my little Mexican móvil (cell phone) wouldn’t die on me now.

Thankfully it all worked out well, and I know that I’ll never forget the conversation I had with someone who has long been a reminder that it really is possible to carve your own career path between seemingly disparate fields. While the “how do you manage to do it all?” question might seem hackneyed at this point, I thought Dr. Gupta put a humble and useful spin on his answer.

He told me that he doesn’t think of being part of both the worlds of medicine and media as jobs that exist in different silos. “Your job as a doctor is to educate patients,” he told me, “and that’s the same job that I have as part of the media.” Clearly, perspective matters. But he did tell me that I should focus on my pursuit of medicine now and that my love of storytelling would follow.

Here’s a snippet of our conversation that Glamour Editor Katie Sanders wrote about here:

Prioritize Your Goals
“One of the things that helps keep my life organized is remembering that being a medical journalist is largely about educating patients. Even as a neurosurgeon, I’m spending a lot of my time speaking to patients about their disease. If you’re going to be a physician and then a physician-journalist, spend this part of your life really focusing on the medicine part of it. Don’t try to do a fifty-fifty split now. You want make sure you’re top-notch and that you’ve really dedicated your mental bandwidth to this one area for a while. Just focus on one main thing, and at some point you’ll be ready to think about how to incorporate other things.”
—Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent

And now months later, I get to see Dr. Gupta’s words  in the print edition of the magazine :) To Glamour and Dr. Gupta, I couldn’t be more grateful!

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Long live.

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My guidance counselor in high school used to have this quote on her wall: Friends are the family you choose for yourselves, it said. I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote these past few weeks. If you haven’t noticed, I haven’t been posting as much. It’s been a ruff month you could say. Tumultuous. And I’ve realized – for better or worse- that with this blog, I often post a lot of the good stuff. The hard stuff isn’t so fun to right about – go figure. I’ve realized I’m an incredibly private person. Counterintuitive I know when you document your life with a very public blog. That doesn’t exactly scream introvert. But I am, an introvert that is. In the most extroverted of ways. But still, an introvert all the same.

So this past March with its wave of angst and relief and anxiety and tumult all mixed in one weren’t exactly the stuff with which I wanted to take to the blogging sphere. My friend puts it this way: Inesha, you’re a groundhog. I hate to admit it but she’s sort of right. When things get tough, I’d rather dig in and hide away. I run up my swinging mileage. I find solace in lyrics. I don’t speak. At least, not very much. I go into my hole and dig, dig, dig. I process – a lot. I internalize… everything. I wait it out. I swallow pain, I gulp down tears, I call few. It’s a coping strategy that is not the best even as it is my own and even as it is incredibly hard to admit. The last few months have taught me this much at least.

I tell you this because it creates context. Because now that I am coming up to the surface, this is what I do want to put down in words. This past month and a half has reframed in so many ways what I consider to be friendship and what I’ve found to be the fundamental values I treasure most. In a contest between honesty and loyalty, it is close, but I value loyalty so. And when it comes to friends, letting them in close, means giving them permission to hurt us, to leave their mark, to enter into our lives. But knowing all the same that it is in our power to revoke that permission at any time. It’s a power that I’d like to forget we hold sometimes, one that has made me realize just how tenuous friendship can sometimes be.

Friendship means facing my fear of disappointment in the face — my fear of being disappointed, of disappointing myself.

And it means fighting.

At the beginning of March, I don’t think I knew that last one about myself — how important it was to me. But I believe in fights. In dinner conversations that are uncomfortable. In cold wars that lead to stand offs where you have to set everything on the table and deconstruct your friendship, what it means to you, and why you won’t ever stop fighting for it. For the person who ought to give 50 some of the time but more often than not gives only 10 (and to be clear, more often than not, that person is me.)

I had someone tell me recently that he didn’t think there was anything such as fundamental values because values are always changing. It’s an interesting point, but I have to disagree. Values do indeed evolve; they are stretched; they are challenged; they come into contact with others and you eventually have to define where one value stands on the hierarchy, the spectrum of them all. But if this month and a half of digging in has taught me anything it is that in friendship, as in love and as in family, the one thing I will always value is fighting, fighting for what you believe just as much as you would for the person on the other end. Even as this month has been hard, really hard, it’s shown me again and again how many fighters there are in my life, how many people put aside minutes, hours, days of their time just for me. Who fight for me – when the chips are up, and down. And that, that means more than I can say.

Here’s to you, friends. Thank you for being a part of the family I’ve chosen for myself. I love you so.

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Will you take a moment?

Promise me this.

That you’ll stand by me forever

But if God forbid fate should step in

And force us into a goodbye

If you have children some day

When they point to the pictures

Please tell them my name

Tell them how the crowds went wild

Tell them how I hope they SHINE

Long live the walls we crashed through

I had the time of my life, with you

Long, long live the walls we crashed through

How the kingdom lights shined just for me and you

And I was screaming long live all the magic we made

And bring on all the pretenders

I’m not afraid.

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