The Beauty of a Crazy Idea

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum.” – Sir Walter Scott.

I met Hajar on a Tuesday afternoon in 2008 in the courtyard of a hospital. A psychiatric hospital. In Azerbaijan.

A month earlier, some friends and I had this crazy idea of giving makeovers to the patients in the women’s ward of this hospital. “What if?” we said, which are two words that you should always avoid if you like to keep things simple and safe. But we weren’t in the mood for simple and safe. Instead, believing that the most absurd ideas are often the ones that make the most sense, we lifted our feet and stepped out of the box.

“What if we give the women makeovers?”

We looked around at each other – five of us on the team who were traveling to Azerbaijan the next month – as we imagined how that might work.

In Azerbaijan, the roles of most females are defined with narrow intention: marry and have babies, preferably sons. These two aspirations drive everything from superstitions to beauty regimens. When visiting Azerbaijan, I’ve been chided for sitting on bare concrete because it produces sterility and an unmarried friend was warned that her pencil thin eyebrows would cause men to mistake her for a married woman. A female who declares she desires to remain single shames the family, but a woman who marries and isn’t a good wife is worthless. Proper behavior and subjugation is required. Women who are defiant risk being swiftly diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in a government run psychiatric hospital. A humanitarian worker who coordinated the painting, music and sewing classes in the hospital estimated that 75 percent of the women who live there had no mental problems upon arrival. They were, quite literally, dumped like yesterday’s rubbish.

For two years, we had taken ten days in the month of October to visit the city of Ganje, and on each trip we spent at least one day at the psychiatric hospital. The women there were eager to see anyone from the outside world, especially other women. The first time I visited the hospital two years earlier, my camera had caused the women to swarm around me, begging to be photographed and then roughly gesturing to view the image on the LCD screen. The hospital, a soviet-era building with gray cement walls, dark rooms, had a smell that defies description.

“Maybe we should think about a do-it-yourself project or something more tangible,” one male team member said and the other men seemed to sit a little straighter in their chairs, ready to start brainstorming. But the female team members were already miles ahead.

“We can give them each a ziploc bag with make-up so they have something that belongs to them,” a female team member said. Then the ideas started popping. “We can help them apply the make-up.” “Give them mirrors so they can see themselves.” “Give them a few beauty tips.” The table was evenly divided by gender enthusiasm-level. The men looked skeptical. The women were beaming.

“And what if we finish the makeover session by taking a portrait of each woman, get the photos developed that afternoon, and deliver them to the women in small frames the next day?”

By this time, the men were beginning to look less terrified, more resigned, and the crazy idea was a now a plan.

The next month, we packed 35 Ziploc bags, each filled with lipstick, eye-shadow, mascara, a mirror, and a comb. We had frames ready to slip the photos into. I had my camera. And six days later we were standing in the courtyard of the hospital with a crowd of women handing out the bags.

Mass chaos ensued.

Hajar was the first to grab her bag, and like most of the women, she had no idea how to open it. It seems that many of the women, including Hajar, had also forgotten how to apply the make-up. Lipstick ended up on cheeks, and mascara became eyeliner. The bags were ripped open quickly – the zip-lock mechanism ignored. I watched a gleeful young girl with blistering sores on her lips smear sultry brown lipstick across her mouth. Her head had been shaved but oily black hair was growing back in sprouts and tufts that shot out in wild angles despite the colorful scarf wound around her head. I shoved a bag into the hands of another bald woman, this one almost toothless. She ripped the bag open from the bottom and held the three items of make-up. If you saw her on the street you might not recognize her as a woman. She wore a baggy green sweat suit that gave no hint of shapeliness beneath, but she clasped the makeup in her fist triumphantly, victoriously, which gave me all the evidence I needed to know that she was, indeed, a woman. Some of the women hadn’t bathed or changed their clothes for days, but it didn’t matter. As soon as they had their lips painted and their eyelids slashed with shades of blues and greens, they were ready to be photographed. Their smiles were genuine, and they seem to be lifted out the medicated haze or the shuffling gait that had been characteristic of many of the women. Hajar, along with the other women, were not the only ones who were transformed.

These days, I’m thinking about the Ziploc bags and the lipstick on the cheeks as I remember the women of the Ganje psychiatric hospital. I wonder if somewhere, along with all the other possessions tucked between the thin mattress and the metal springs of their bed, is a photo in a frame. And I wonder if they take it out every now and then and gaze into the beauty of their own eyes.

I’m thinking about risk these days. And how it stretches our faith, makes our hearts pound, and makes the craziest ideas absolutely beautiful.

Uncomfortable Places: Life Begins Here

In an unintended effort to find numerous and varied ways to waste even more time on my computer, I have entered into the world of Pinterest. I shall now ask forgiveness from my friends who are sincere about unstrapping themselves from the lure of media screens. Sheepishly, I would say to these friends that I am using this latest social media obsession for good: pinning healthy recipes, free trade products, quotes, and photos from around the world. But I know what they’re thinking: addicts justify. And that is true, so I’m limiting my pinning time to between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. And maybe 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Early mornings are pretty good too, but I’m feeling guilty enough to eliminate the 7 to 7:30 a.m. slot. See? I’m aware of my problem. However, I found a wonderful quote on someone else’s board that I repinned and it is the subject of this post. So even if no real good comes from it, Pinterest has reminded me of this:

This is not a revelatory statement for me. I’ve been giving it lip service for decades. The only problem is, I like comfort zones. Of course, I would never readily admit this, but I spend an inordinate amount of time working to make myself and the people that I love incredibly comfortable. Every day and in a hundred ways I’m creating safe places for me and mine. I fluff our stuff, organize my days, line the ducks into neat and straight rows, gather more junk, and surround myself with the illusion that my world is safe and secure. I struggle mightily against anything that might cause the boat to rock. Oh yes, I take a few risks here and there, but they’re safe risks. Nothing too out there.

Then, inevitably something happens and I’m tossed out of the boat and into deep waters that are far beyond my zone. It’s frightening, intimidating, and supremely uncomfortable. I’m treading water, praying, sputtering, cursing, and desperately trying to find my way back to safety. My heart is racing and suddenly I realize that in the midst of all this I feel completely and beautifully alive.

This has happened many times in my life, which makes me wonder why I keep running back to the comfort zone. It’s dull there. The colors are gray. The voices are muted. The air is thick and sluggish. I posted the banner photo above because I want to remind myself how wonderful it feels to be uncomfortable and alive. These are places I grow and become the person I was created to be. That will never happen when I’m playing it safe. A few times in my life I’ve taken the initiative to step into these uncomfortable places instead of being thrown into them. Which is how some friends and I ended up doing makeovers on female patients in a psychiatric hospital in the middle of Azerbaijan. Our bright idea landed us in a situation of language barriers, confusion over the purpose of the make-up, and 50 women who were overly excited at the sight of a camera. Their idea of what was about to happen and our plan of what was going to happen seemed to be moving in two different directions. Our translator couldn’t keep up. It was confusion and chaos. And I loved every moment of it.

You can real the full story here – not written in blog-post format, but in magazine format (i.e. longer and more journalistic in style, so you might want to settle in). I write to bring experiences into fuller expression, but I also write to remind myself of things easily forgotten: life begins at the end of my comfort zone.

Shop Differently: Give a Card, Make Life Better

There are certain people in my family (remaining nameless), who wouldn’t know how to do Christmas without gift cards. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one, practical hand, gift cards make sense to give to those who sit with blank, unblinking stares when you press them for wish list. They are also often good for those same people to give, since they don’t want to shop anyway. My dad falls into both of these categories. Wrapping up any gift that he must find a place for in his home is simply sinful. He doesn’t want half the stuff he already has, and he certainly doesn’t want to trek out to buy stuff for anyone else. He’s an anti-stuff guy. So, yes, it’s gift cards for Dad. But the teenagers and college kids fall into the “give ’em a gift card” category too, and so does my cousin and my uncle. They don’t like stuff either. Some years, it seems as if our family Christmas party is more of a card exchange party: “Thanks for the Visa gift card and here’s your Barnes and Noble gift card. Merry Christmas.” Watching someone reach into that tiny gift bag for that same gift card can seem a little perfunctory. But hey, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’ll take a B&N gift card any day you want to give me one, Dad.

Some things won’t change. Dad, the cousins, the college kids, and my uncle will always be the gift card people. It makes sense. But my Dad surprised me this year by saying that he really doesn’t even want a gift card. I should explain that the only gift cards he receives are those to restaurants, since anything else would be wasted on him (read: he won’t get out to use it because that would involve shopping). So I’ve been pondering what to do about this, and I think I’ve found a solution. He doesn’t read my blog (he hates computers, too), but for those family members who can’t keep a secret, spoiler alert.  I’m about to reveal my Christmas idea.

And, this is a Shop Differently idea for the gift card people in your life.

Meet Iman.

He lives in Azerbaijan, and sells milk and breeds cattle. In a country where corruption is the modus operandi, it’s tough to make an honest living. Azerbaijan is also a country where those who aren’t in government or don’t live in the quasi-glitzy capital city of Baku are reduced to scratching out a living doing whatever they can, and, often, that isn’t even enough. I’ve been there and seen it for myself. These proud people want to make a good life, but sometimes they just need a little help. Maybe a little loan? Iman needs about 1,500 AZN in order to purchase more cattle for beef and a milk cow. Demand on these products is high, and he just isn’t able to cover the cost for growing his business and making a better life for himself. I know, you don’t have 1,500 AZN. How can you (and I) help Iman? Get a gift card!

I discovered Kiva about five years ago, and it just keeps getting better and better. Now, you can purchase a gift card for your loved one for as little as $25, and give someone like Iman a loan to help him get more cattle and a milk cow so he can sell meat and milk. Genius! Here’s how it works:

You purchase a Kiva gift card from their website. You’ll be able to print an actual card to give to your recipient after check-out. Your recipient will redeem it by selecting a borrower from Kiva’s list of fundraising loans and during checkout, they will apply the code from their gift card. All loans made by the gift recipient will be credited to his or her account and, when the borrowers repay the loan (and yes, there is a 97% repayment rate) those repayments can be used by the recipient to make even more loans! Tell me of a better Christmas gift for someone like my dad than helping an entrepreneur in a developing country work his or her way out of poverty. It beats a candle or a golf sweater any day.

I have to be prepared when I go to the Kiva website, because the stories are addicting. Here are a few more to get you as excited as I am about Kiva gift cards:

Maria lives in Colombia and is trying to make a living selling clothes, perfumes, accessories, bags, and other items. She wants to improve her quality of life by expanding her business, so she needs to purchase some cabinets to put her items in. Maria, as described by Kiva, is a “tireless fighter” who has run her own business for several years now. She needs a $1,075 loan, and is 46% there.

Oybegim lives in the Rudaki region of Tajikistan. She is 23 years old, married, and lives with her parents. Oybegim has been working as a seamstress from home for the last three years. She is taking out this loan to purchase fabrics. She needs a loan of $650 and is 3% there.

So if you’ve always yawned at the thought of getting out to get that obligatory gift card, here’s the answer! I think what the recipient receives is far better than anything a traditional gift card can buy.

And as for Dad, don’t forget, “mum’s the word.”