My Word For 2017

Friday, December 30, 2016

I like the idea of having a word or short phrase that guides the year. I remember that at the end of 2008 I listened to a song called “Walk by Faith” and thought that 2009 would be guided by that -and it was! Since then though I haven’t really had anything I kept front and center. I chose words such as “glorify” or “strong” but much like my resolutions, nothing has stuck. This year however, I want to be intentional and one word came to my mind: steady.

Next year, I want to build healthy habits. I want to take it slow and see positive changes in the way I do life. I do not want fast answers or miracle solutions in any areas of my life. Well that’s not true. I do want miracles! I do want to lose weight in 3 weeks and get my finances in order before taxes hit. But the reality is: I know myself and what I need most is discipline and perseverance (my secondary words, in a sense). I know how to build a plan. I’m a master planner! But I am not so good at following through. I really suck at it actually. So whether we’re talking about parenting, cooking, health, finances, spirituality or advocacy, I want to be steady in 2017. Steady in my tone and in my attention with the boys and with Joe; in making dinners at home and having people over to build community; in keeping a budget and paying off debt; in spending time in silence and reflection; and in being faithful to my values at work and in my life. Steady. It’s not glamorous but it’s essential if I want these changes to last and become part of my life -part of who I am.

What about you? Do you have resolutions? Do you have one word or phrase that will guide 2017?

The Rough Parts of 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 was quite important for our family. We moved to a new (rental) house -a real house, with stairs and a “garden”, which is actually a small front yard, that left Léo in awe for a good month! Leo started Kindergarten at our neighborhood public school -no more French school, which made me a bit sad- and Jude entered a new daycare at the end of the summer. We’re able to walk to both schools and enjoy our friendly neighbors. We spend a lot of time with family as we live about 20 minutes from every one of Joe’s core family members. I really love where we live!

On a personal level, the year has been good but tough in 2 areas: I turned 36 and the November presidential elections left me reeling and depressed for weeks.

Turning 36 has been harder than I thought it would be. When I was just about to turn 12 my dad died at almost 36. When you’re 12, 36 seemed like a big ol’ age and even though everybody said he died “so young” I thought it was old, period. Because of that I have always thought that 35-36 was it -an appropriate age to die. So now I’m 36 and it’s been so hard to imagine the future, to make plans, to be excited about anything because… I don’t really know how to explain this but 36 feels like the end. My brain knows that 36 is young indeed but my heart hasn’t quite caught on to that yet. So I’m left in this weird space between what I know and what I feel. I’m working on it, developing small goals for myself to prove that hey, 36 (and beyond) is a good age!

And the second thing… November and Hillary Clinton’s loss… I felt sad and sick and furious and dumbfounded. I was part of the liberal bubble who frankly didn’t see that coming. I was expecting to celebrate until about 8 PM when I understood that the man who had insulted every single minority population and had flaunted his brash ignorance of facts had won the election. What a disastrous moment that was. Like many people, I cried. But, like many people, I vowed that instead of posting rants and memes on Facebook, I would do something. I have become an active member in 2 social justice groups I had joined before the election and I will be a strong ally to ensure that human rights are not taken away, whether we’re talking about marriage, reproductive health or religious freedom. Now is the time to advocate and let our voices be heard. Now is not the time to normalize the rejection of the “other.” The next four years might be tough -will be tough- but we can be united to show love, compassion, and active solidarity with those who fear for their very lives and liberties.

What about you? What are the main events that shaped how you felt and acted this past year -good or bad?

Best Moments of 2016 in Pictures

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

This year has been good! Here are the main highlights.

Vacation in Cabo (March)

Birth of our niece and the boy's cousin, Isla (June). Look at the look on Jude's face!

Moving into our new home! (June)

Stopping in France on the way to Lebanon (August)

Work trip to Lebanon (August)

My brother Vladimir and his girlfriend Audrey's visit (October). I saw them twice this year!

Finally, seeing the boys grow as individuals and brothers throughout the year has been my biggest joy (and sometimes challenge!):

2016 in Review: My Favorite Books

Friday, December 16, 2016

What do I love more than podcasts? (My kids you say? Ha, you’re cute). BOOKS! I love books!!! I’ve read about 45 this year (well 42 according to GoodReads but I’m reading 3 right now, so 45 it is). I’ve taken personality tests where I could answer all questions with books: what makes you relax, what is your ideal vacation, what are you passionate about? I’m kind of boring this way -but, also, easy to give gifts to. This year was good for books. I had time to read -lately thanks to Jude, since I lay with him and read whatever in on my Kindle App while he’s trying to fall asleep, which usually takes about 1-2 hours. Yes, I know, this is not the way to go. Shush. But hey, maybe it is. Who knows! 

I read some good and some terrible books this year. Here are my favorites (by the way, these may not have been published in  2016 but I read them this year):

Non Fiction

Bread and Wine,  by Shauna Niequist. Oh I love LOVE this book. In this series of essays, Shauna reflect on some moments of her life, from births to friendships to career highs and lows to traumatic life moments, -and all are bonded with food (she includes some awesome-sounding recipes at the end of each essay), the act of preparation, the act of eating. Some images remain with me. She starts everything with sizzling onions while having a glass of wine. This image brings serenity to my mind. I can just imagine slowing down, chopping these onions, sipping wine, and letting the worries of the world leave my mind. Other tips are more concrete, such as cooking scrambled eggs on the slow fire setting -which I don’t have the patience to try! But most of all, she’s talking about community in such deep and relatable ways. Feeding her people, sharing life’s joys and sadness around a table. You can see -the laughter, the tears, the food, the deep communion of souls. One of my goal since we’ve moved to our new rental is to have more of these life-giving meals, to have people over (crappydinner style) and just do life together. I crave warm community and I love bread (food) and wine. This book was so inspiring and I will come back to it times and times again.

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. Another book about community (feel a theme?). This relatively small book (less than 200 pages) explores why people are attracted to the idea of a bonded community. He explains why European settlers were leaving their friends and families to live with Native Americans (because everyone has a role and communities were equal in terms of income and protecting their tribe). He also explains why people bond together in moments of deep trauma (wars for instance) and are happier during trauma than once the trauma is gone and life resumes, with its individualism and lack of connectedness. He also talks about the ways different people experience trauma (in West African countries for instance people who had gone through terrible times felt ok until the international community came along and classified them as “victims” that needed support. I don’t know how I feel about that but I can see the validity of this point somehow). This made so much sense to me. First, I do understand how people need to bond together, feel like they belong to a group of like-minded people who will understand them and support them. I feel this way! A lot of people do -that’s why there are so many moms groups, book clubs, etc. And this is also so relevant to my work: to identifying trauma and supporting survivors however they need it (not the way we in the US or the “West” understand trauma but in the way other communities do), to understanding that some people who have bonded together during traumatic times are so lonely post-trauma that they seek that community again (which we see when survivors of trafficking go back to their group or soldiers go back to war). Overall a really interesting and eye opening book!

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. This year I’ve read quite a bit about relationships between races (gosh I hate that term. Race? Who are we- Nazis? In France teachers tell us there is only one race: the human race. But here “race” is used every day so I’ll go with that word). This book was really instrumental in explaining how we come to understand race for ourselves and for others. I’ll just give one example: the author says that in college people of color are generally more inclined to identify strongly with their “race” and reject the rest -especially white people, for clear and understandable reasons. I remember that when I was at UCLA I tried to volunteer as a tutor for a group of Black students -I didn’t know that it was such a group at the time. They straight told me that they didn’t want me there because they didn’t want oppressors to feel they were superior to students who needed help. That left me completely frustrated and flabbergasted frankly. But then I read this book and understood how normal this reaction was and how naïve I was to not understand that -also at that time I didn’t understand the history of “race” relationships in the US, so… The book was great to walk one through one’s understanding and identification with one or plural “races” and how one can be an ally for people of color. This is especially relevant to his post-election atmosphere.
Bonus #1: In the same vein, I enjoyed Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates -though that one was challenging because I felt almost personally attacked, but I know this is not about MOI so I got over it and kept on reading and boy, was that a deep, serious, and important book.
Bonus #2: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson explores the justice system in the US. I knew of injustices but this was really eye-opening on a racial and economic level.
Bonus to the Bonuses: watch the documentary 13th on Netflix. Really well done and the end was chilling before November 8th, and downright scary since.


Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mue. We follow a family of migrants from Cameroon (Jonde Jonga, his wife Neni and their son) who apply for asylum in the US. This book tackles immigration obviously but also marriage, the 2008 economic crisis (as the employer of Jende Jonga works for a Big Bank), cultural differences, and the idea of the “American dream.” This was an enthralling and easy read. I really wanted to know what happened to their legal case and whether their relationship would survive the whole legal and economic ordeal. Some of my family members are from Cameroon, so the fact that this story had Cameroonians definitely added to the book’s appeal. Also the cover is splendid, which is almost never a factor in my decision to read books -but hey, it doesn’t hurt right!
Bonus: I’m now reading Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, which explores the lives of 2 Ghanaian half-sisters and their descendants as one was sold to slavery and the other stayed in Ghana. So far so excellent!

I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh. What a great mystery book! This is not a simple whodunit. It deals with… well, telling you what it deals with would be a major spoiler, so let me just tell you this is gripping and absolutely engrossing. The story starts with a mom, who, on her way back from picking her young son up from school non a rainy day, lets go of his hand for a split second, only to see him run over by a car, and killed. I kid you not, that’s the first scene. I was bawling. Because dead boy. Are you kidding me? Then we follow both the investigative team and the woman we learn is the one who was in the car -who has fled the town to a coastal small town. I loved this book. It kept me interested to the end and, unlike most mystery book, didn’t disappoint at the end.

What about you? Did you read a lot this year? If so, what did you enjoy?

2016 In Review: My Favorite Podcasts

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

It’s that time of year again: the time to reflect on the year passed and recap the best and worst of 2016. Without further ado, here is the first of a few posts about 2016. Let’s start with podcasts.

I love podcasts! I listen to episodes while walking back from Leo's school in the morning, walking the dog, or doing email filing at work. I learn so much from podcasts. They’re mini documentaries for my ears. This year, I’ve especially enjoyed these:

Mama Bear Dares. The hosts, Tesi and Leslie, are sisters-in-law and friends. The podcast is focused on the mama bear instinct inside every mom -the protective and fierce bear that can move mountains for their cubs. This podcast is also hugely focused on social justice, health, and moms’ well-being (“the mother self and the other self”). The hosts either interview a mom who has done “something” (started a business, write a blog, etc) or have a mini-session where they talk about current topics (some serious, such as politics or racial issues in the US, and some much lighter, such as moms’ addiction to wine and coffee!). They’re pretty much what my soul yearns for: motherhood and friendship in a caring community of local and global citizens who want to do what is right for their children and the world. That’s pretty much why I started this blog! And now a podcast is giving voice to my deep desires. I wish these two were my neighbors and BFFs. They’re so funny but also serious and really want social justice to be something all moms embrace (there are a few people like that I’d love to BFF. Jen Hatmaker, I’m looking straight at you). I’d love to drop by their house and have discussions with them around a glass of wine or cup of (fair trade) coffee -which I’m hoping to do one day since one of my very close friends is friend with Tesi -that is, if I don’t fangirl stupidly! 

Undisclosed: A strong repeat from 2015. Have you listened to Serial? If not, please go and subscribe right now -and then listen to all 1 episodes of season 1 in a row. Serial focused on the case of Adnan Syed, convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000. Serial questioned the case. Undisclosed, led by 3 genius lawyers (one of whom has known Adnan for many years and has claimed his innocence since day 1), went through all aspects of the case in season 1. In Season 2, they chose a new case, State vs. Joey Watkins, and are again explaining how the case was built and why there are serious reasons to believe Joey is innocent. This is the one podcast I cannot listen to if I’m not completely focused. If I stop listening for even one minute, I’ll be lost -that’s how much crucial information is packed in each episode!

What Should I Read Next: Literary match making at its best! The concept is simple. The host, Anne Bogel, who blogs at Modern Mrs. Darcy, invites one guest each week. She asks them to tell her 3 books they love, 1 book they hate, and what they want to change in their reading life (and she always asks what they’re reading now). Then she gives them 3 recommendations. I’ve built a strong “To Be read” list from her recommendations.

Death, Sex, and Money: This podcasts discusses things that no one talks about but everyone thinks about. They’ve tackled issues such as infidelity, prostitution, immigration, addictions, porn, and of course death, sex, and money. We hear from listeners or famous people. The stories featured are really fascinating.

Hidden Brain. This NPR podcast seeks to scientifically explain hidden patterns in everyday life. Episodes have focused on the Ebola crisis, the elections results, which I’m not even going to talk about right now (look at my self-control!), or the way chaos is actually good for us. I like how the host conducts interviews. His tone and the depth of his questions always make for thought-provoking podcasts.

Bonus! Everyday Emergencies: this is a podcast put together by Doctors Without Borders / Medecins Sans frontieres (MSF) UK. Each episode features (featured? There doesn’t seem to be any new episode right now) a MSF staffer in one of the organization’s project. While the podcast only features the point of view of Westerners put into quite dramatic situations (they’re faced with malnutrition, war, Ebola), I found the podcast interesting. After all, I am a westerner working for a humanitarian organization, too -so I related to what the staffers were saying.

Other podcasts I’m listening to include Global Dispatches, Her Money Matters, and the podcasts featured in the best of 2015 last year.

Do you listen to podcasts? Which would you recommend?

My Trip to Uganda and Our Project to End Child Sacrifice

Monday, February 8, 2016

I spent a week in Uganda at the end of January. The traveling-parent curse struck once again and Jude got sick with Hand, Mouth, and Foot disease. Fun times for Joe, but he managed like a rock star. He allowed me to focus on my trip, and my time there was good. Pretty great actually.

I was a bit reluctant to go to Uganda. Last time I traveled to the region was 2008 when I volunteered in Eastern DR Congo and that left quite a few bitter memories. Mind you, not bitter memories of the people there but of my and other NGOs’ presence and lack of relevance. You can read more about this time here. I was afraid Uganda feel the same, where locals resent NGOs, resent their staff and their presence. But I was surprised to see that, despite the huge amount of white people in the capital, there were no aggressiveness or outward disdain –I’m not saying it isn’t there. I’m saying I didn’t feel it.

My boss was to arrive on the same flight as mine but he got stuck on the East Coast for an extra day due to the snow storm. So I spent the first day in the office. I read about the situation of children in the country. And my mind was blown! I should have done my research before departure but I didn’t, and in a way it was more shocking and heart wrenching to read the statistics in country. A few examples: Out of the 90% of children who enter primary school only 30% finish. Most children drop out between grade 5 and 7. Boys drop off mainly because of boredom. But girls… girls leave because they’re married early, are pregnant, or are afraid to go to school. More than 70% of pupils report being physically and sexually assaulted and the vast majority of perpetrators is male teachers. Most children also report not being fed enough and being beaten or emotionally abused at home. And a lot of children report living in fear of kidnapping. That’s the main focus of our project: preventing kidnapping leading to ritual murders, also called child sacrifice.

You read that right. Child sacrifice. A child –usually very young, usually male- is snatched from his or her home, driven away in the bush, brutally wacked by machetes (depending on the situation, witch doctors can request fingers, genitals, or a head), and left to die. It’s gruesome and traumatic. Survivors and their families have terrible scars –physical and emotional- and some grieving families completely fall apart. Our project has put in place a sort of Amber Alert so that kidnapped children can be found and rescued before they are hurt. We also hold community discussions and training on positive parenting, child rights and child protection, and on debunking myths that allow the demand for body parts to remain or increase. Our project manager there has done miracles engaging community members, including perpetrators, and on changing what we call “social norms”, what people consider normal but is actually detrimental to children –think beating a child as a way to discipline him or her.

My boss and I were directly confronted with these issues twice in the same day: in the morning while visiting the local office, a phone call came in notifying the project manager that the body of a 13-year old girl had been found that morning. She was missing fingers and other body parts and was left in a sugar cane plantation. We later learnt that her family didn’t report her disappearance. In the afternoon we met a child survivor, a little girl of 4 who was kidnapped when she was 2 but was rescued without a scratch because her amazing 4-year old brother, whom we believe was the child they actually wanted to get, ran from home to home until he found someone who triggered the Amber Alert. While walking to the child’s home, we heard a child scream and cry and we all witnessed a mom violently beating her daughter with a cane –the cane actually broke. The little girl was sobbing and her ear was bleeding. In our organization we are mandated reporters so the Ugandan staff talked to the mom, took pictures, and reported the abuse to the local authorities. On our way back from the survivor’s home, we walked past that home again. The mom had left to fetch water and the little girl, who was 6, was taking care of her baby sister, who couldn’t be older than 2 months old, along with a few of her siblings. She said her mom beat her up because she woke up the baby from her nap. There were 9 children in the family, all rather young. It was heartbreaking to know that the mom didn’t have the proper resources to care for her children –neither material nor emotional- or moral barriers preventing her from beating her child –she did this when her door was open! As a matter of fact the daughter’s ear bled because she had an injury from a previous beating that never healed. This happens all the time.

(I took this picture from the car. These children are representative of the children I'm talking about.)

As outsider it’s so hard to know how to stop these practices –from beating a child as a means to discipline them to the terrible crime of murdering children for rituals supposed to bring good fortune and wealth. Fortunately, our Ugandan colleagues are leading the charge and are changing the way children are treated. I’m so proud of our organization for tackling these issues and for supporting these projects. On a personal level I’m so lucky to be involved in this work with the most vulnerable children. We’re doing amazing work slowly changing minds and hearts, attitudes and behaviors. We are allowing children to have a childhood filled with play, school, and love -and, most importantly, to live a childhood free from fear. 

Body Revelation

Friday, January 15, 2016

A couple days ago, while browsing Pinterest I discovered an image that stopped me in my track. I thought "Wow, this is my body!" It's called broad-shouldered pear.

(Illustration by Anna Sudit for Refinery 29)
I kid you not. That is me to a T!

I have given quite some thoughts to my body and the clothes I wear lately (mainly in the form of "wahwah I have no style") and all of a sudden Pinterest opened a door of great ideas for my wardrobe. Also it gives me ideas on how to work out for my body type. I'm motivated! The down side is that this body type is prone to gaining weight quickly and hanging on to fat (um, yeah I noticed!). But wrap dresses and anything that cinches the waist and darkens the bottom part of my body should do the trick.

I know this sounds so superficial, but I'm so relieved to have found ideas for what to wear and how to wear it. I have felt so unmotivated to wear normal clothes (I work from home. Yoga pants and I are tight) and have felt so bad about my body and the way I look. Now I'm thinking I can have self confidence again in this area and that's really something nice.

What a day!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

 2016 has started rather well. Jude has been sleeping through the night, going to bed by 7 and waking up by 630 or so. Leo has also been sleeping through the night –in our bed, because he doesn’t want to share a room with his brother. We’ve been watching good shows on TV (see how I put that right after sleep? Priorities!): Making a Murderer, Broadchurch. I’ve read good books (Boys in the Boat, Between the World and Me) and listening to great podcasts (Serial, Undisclosed. Yes, there is a bit of a murder theme in what I watch and listen to it appears). Good, good.

But today was a mess of a day! Joe has been gone on a business trip to Costa Rica. And by business trip I mean all inclusive resort because his travel agency always gets massive deals on great places. He's golfing and spending along time in a beach resort. I'm so not jealous. Not at all. So yeah, I’m alone with the boys. No problem. I’ve done that a few times. I know the routine. But this morning, right after coming home from dropping off the boys to their respective schools (it takes me about 1h15 in the morning) and arriving late to my desk, I realized that I purchased a gift for my (quasi) sister-in-law from a scam site. Off I called my bank and file a claim. Not even an hour later, I had to leave for an appointment to the travel clinic to get shots for my upcoming trip to Uganda. Then back to work for a few hours (thankfully busy and quite productive time, yay) and off again to pick up the boys (which takes me a good 1h30 in the evening). I tried to sign up Leo for a cooking class at school but was too late and was told the class was full. Fortunately Leo didn’t care much (“I can go when I’m more growned up.”) When I arrived at daycare, Jude immediately started crying for his pacifier, which they try not to give at daycare. Big hot tears. The teachers are lovely but I often look like a deer about to get hit by a car in the night when I pick up Jude. I don’t know how the other moms do it. They’re all super happy, energetic, and well put together. I’m lucky if my sweat pants don’t have Jude’s breakfast all over and if my socks match. Then I got home and it was go-go-prevent baby from falling from table on which he's climbed-prevent baby from coloring his ear or our couch-oh right, make dinner-go until cranky Jude went to bed –thankfully early- and Leo went to, earlier than usual because he has not taken naps at school this week (woot!). 

Now I’m relaxing with a glass of wine and have just realized I have a call with Zambia at 10:40p. Whoops.

I realize that it was not such a bad day. I was just all over the place and felt a bit weary. But I also felt like I was getting stuff done at work and that was a nice feeling. Now if I could play with Leo more instead of relying on the TV and the Ipad (yes, on the same evening. What!) and get Jude to be in a better mood, I’d feel better as a mom. That’ll be next!

What do you do after an exhausting day? How do you relax? How do you cope?

2015 in Review - Top 5 Overall and a Look Ahead

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 was a bit of a gut-kicker but there were very good times, too. Here are my top 5 from last year, in chronological order:

April: 10-year anniversary. I mean, achievement right there!

July: Family vacation in Seattle. We lived in Seattle for 7 years before moving back to Southern California and it was so good to reconnect with friends and show Leo all that he used to do. He didn't remember any of it!

September: Work trip to Armenia with Jude followed by a vacation with the family in France. Joe and Leo met us in Paris and we spent a few days in Normandy with my mom's side of the family and then a few days with my dad and his family. I saw my brother a ton, which is always a highlight.

November: My dad spent about 10 days with us and had his first Thanksgiving celebration -which he enjoyed. It was great to have him with us. Leo remembered him from September and Jude really liked him, too. We had nice dinner and great conversations.

December: A very successful Christmas, and for once one I didn't dread. I really got into the spirit this year thanks to Leo's excitement and anticipation. We shopped ahead of time. We had a great time!

So, now... 2016... I usually make big time resolutions, but this year I will let these 5 adjectives carry me:

Of course I also want to lose weight, meal plan, budget better, spend less time on my phone and tv. But really if the new year could provide rest / calm, if I could make good decisions and hold on to my beliefs and values, be generous in my givings, and if my family knew I loved them the most, 2016 would be a good year!

Cheers to 2016!

What were your highs in 2015? What do you hope for this new year?