Saturday, November 22, 2014

Badass people I know [and what they're up to]: Carolyn Rodgers

This week in "Badass People I Know [And What They're Up To]":
Carolyn Natalie Rodgers!

Carolyn and I met during AmeriCorps training in 2010, and have been long-distance friends ever since. She recently finished a two-year PeaceCorps term teaching English in Armenia, where I visited her last fall.

In this interview, Carolyn and I discuss the important things in life, like globalization, bathtime, and why it’s important to maintain a strong Long Island accent.

Shtetl Chic: Hi Carolyn! How are you? Have you done anything nice for yourself today?

Carolyn: Hey lady! I'm doing alright, pretty pumped to see you in the flesh soon. I started my morning by reading a new book - "We Are Not Ourselves" - in my parents' hot tub, so I feel positively about that.

Shtetl Chic: I never understood how people read in a bathtub. Don't the pages get all wet?

Carolyn: You definitely have to be careful. As long as you keep your hands dry, you're all set.

Shtetl Chic: Oh. Well, okay. I've been looking forward to your visit to New Orleans. I've been telling all my friends about you, and how we know each other.

I remember meeting you because we were at that AmeriCorps training conference and it was super fucking bogus, like "Cultural competency in a community that doesn't really want you there, or didn't ask you to be there, and you're probably taking jobs from the people who live there, and here's a PowerPoint on that!"

And I remember we were at lunch or something - this was in Seattle, so everyone was from California and Alaska and places like that, so I'm thinking, Why am I here? - and I hear this really brash Long Island accent from across the room, and I was like, "I need to find that person, because everything here is awful except for that person…Who is she?" And then we just hung out.

Carolyn: [Laughs] No, dude, this is what happened: You may have heard my accent, but I remember being across the room from you, and I was trying to be polite, which is fucking painful for me -

Shtetl Chic: Like with icebreakers…

Carolyn: Yeah, I think it's the worst thing ever.

Shtetl Chic: That AmeriCorps job has ruined high-fives for me. I can’t give them. I have trauma.

Carolyn: Yeah. So anyways [at AmeriCorps training], I’m like, "Oh yeah, I’m from New York." Because someone had decided to approach The Sullen Girl Against The Wall, you know? And they’re like, "That girl’s from New York too, over there." And I’m like, "Oh really? I’m gonna go over there." I actually remember sitting down next to you, and I was like, "So I’m from New York, and I heard you’re from New York, and I figured we could probably be friends."

Shtetl Chic: [Laughs] Yeah, and I was like, "Well, I don’t see why not." Anyway, I'm really excited to see you soon. Have you been cooking Armenian food since you've been home? Are you going to cook me Armenian food?

Carolyn: I'm so excited to see you too! I don't know if I'll be cooking you any Armenian dishes, though.

Shtetl Chic: Aren't you a tomato/eggplant master by now? Don't lie. 

Carolyn: I am! I am! But [since I've been back] I haven't really made any [Armenian] dishes per se, but some side vegetables here and there. The way I prepare food has been forever changed though. We didn't have large kitchen knives, and instead used the hilariously named "Fuxwell's," which were these palm-sized, extremely sharp and serrated ones. I miss those guys, because as a short person with small hands, I'm much more efficient with them. Also, I almost never use a cutting board anymore.

Shtetl Chic: Do you throw food in the air and hack at it? I used to play machete-ball with my friends that way, using rotted cantaloupe.

Carolyn: No, I'm mostly holding the fruit or vegetable in one hand, palm-sized knife in the other.

Shtetl Chic: Oh.

Carolyn in Sevan, Armenia, 2013

As part of her PeaceCorps term, Carolyn organized a national poetry recitation contest for young students.

Carolyn: [This year's] contest went swimmingly! It was easily my proudest moment in service, as well as the most successful. All the planning came together seamlessly, and it was an enjoyable event for not only the children but everyone involved, including me.

The U.S. ambassador to Armenia came. And this guy’s a ham! At the time, those viral videos of Pharrell's "Happy" song were coming out, with different cities doing it. There’s “New York Happy,” “New Orleans Happy”…So the embassy did a "Happy Yerevan" [for the Armenian capital city].

Shtetl Chic: Are you serious?

Carolyn: Yeah the ambassador's in it two, three different times. He came to our conference, and requested that he be introduced via his music video, "Happy Yerevan."

Shtetl Chic: Wow.

Carolyn: Yeah. But back to the poetry contest, which was a really great opportunity to spend unstructured learning time with my students. It allowed us to have a less formal relationship.

Working with the girls was particularly special for me because I was able to connect with them in a way I had not previously. They felt safe to be their goofy 14-year-old selves, and I could be myself. It was a source of hope to see them push themselves past their own expectations.

Last year, one of the girls was too nervous to say her poem. She practiced and she prepared, and she got to town and she never said it. This year she said her poem, and I was so happy. I was really proud of her. It was a huge moment. I'm still in touch with those girls, and that's a great reward for me.

Shtetl Chic: As an educator, what would you say is the advantage to introducing English - literary English - to Armenian children?

Carolyn: We open the door to the contest at seventh form, which is the year that many kids really begin to slack off. That’s when you can see a great difference between a seventh grader and a sixth grader. A lot of the value is in the contest itself. The result is that the students are encouraged and they can like their poem, and like English. I think that it’s a really smart thing to get them at that age where they’re on the cusp of giving a shit or not.

Shtetl Chic: I remember being in your village and all these little kids popping up out of nowhere and being like, "Hello Miss Carolyn! English!" Or they’d be like, "How are you?" and you’d be like, "I’m fine, thank you," and then they’d run away. And you’d say, "I taught them!" And that was cool because they wanted to show off to you, even though they were too shy to have a conversation.

Carolyn: Ha, yeah.

She got my mail!

Shtetl Chic: What would you say is the difference between the Carolyn who started PeaceCorps, and the Carolyn who finished PeaceCorps?

Carolyn: Oh, Lawd. Carolyn who started was not as confident or certain of herself. I've learned to trust my gut in a real way. Another big change is my acceptance of other folks, but I feel that comes hand-in-hand with acceptance of self. There are so many gifts that I've been given through this experience.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah for sure! What do you mean by acceptance of other folks - like, culturally? Linguistically?

Carolyn: Both, and then some. For example, many English-speaking Americans have a very "Learn my language!" attitude; that wouldn't have been helpful in my role as a teacher in Armenia. During interactions with others, I try to see things more compassionately, because ultimately we all need kindness and patience.

Shtetl Chic: Still doing yoga? 

Carolyn: Yes. Yoga has been a gift to me, and it has helped. It’s totally been a part of my healing process. I feel very like myself, in the purest sense of the word. It centers me, it’s important to me, and I want to elevate my practice. I'm pretty excited to experience the yoga community near you.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah, I don't know much about it. I used to be into yoga classes, like daily. Now it makes me feel bored. I think you really have to be in the right mindset for it, or have a practice/instructor that matches what you need.

Carolyn: We can practice together if you like! We'll get real fucking connected.

Shtetl Chic: What else would you recommend for the angsty 20-something white female to do about feeling out-of-sorts with the world?

Carolyn: Wow, that's difficult especially since I essentially am one. Not nearly at the level that I used to experience, but angsty nonetheless. My suggestion to young females is that they get out of their comfort zone. Do not be content with discontent. Figure out what in fact you are not okay with, realize it's okay to not be okay, then take the necessary steps to put change in motion. Do not stop searching for your place in this world.

I have the pleasure of knowing many people working through their shit and finding their path. I have the great honor of sharing hopes and fears with people like yourself, who gave me permission to be exactly who I was.

Shtetl Chic: I like that part about not being content with discontent. While acceptance is good in general, it can stymie real growth. Do you think everyone has a specific place in the world to make a contribution, or is that a more fluid concept of feeling good in your life?

Carolyn: I see life as this awesome experience and opportunity to seek happiness and fulfillment. A lot of people are completely numb, sleep-walking through life. It's the greatest tragedy of all.

If you do not like where you are - spiritually, physically, or emotionally - the expectation that one day it'll simply be better, with no effort on your part, is most likely not going to get you out of that stagnant place. Oftentimes your location and the people that surround you are obstacles to a peaceful life.

Shtetl Chic: Yeah. Maybe that sleepiness is a defense mechanism, 'cause you know the world is hard.

Carolyn: Sure is, kid.

During her return to the United States, Carolyn managed to import a pet cat she cared for in Armenia.

Carolyn: Francis Scott [Cat] is a majestic prince. I can't imagine having left him. His presence in my second year of service was a great source of comfort.

Shtetl Chic: Did he need a special visa?

Carolyn: He had a kitty passport that was handwritten in Russian, as well as an Armenian government-certified document confirming his vaccinations. All I'll say is that it's incredibly easy to bring domestic animals from Armenia into New York... maybe easier than it should be.

Shtetl Chic: I love you desperately. Don’t ever change, unless it’s for the better.

Carolyn: Alright.

Come meet Carolyn when she visits me in New Orleans for Thanksgiving!

Thank you, Carolyn, for who you are and all that you do!

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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