Wearing two coats: writing, vulnerability and preparing for Cambodia

Antique Compass and Map

I’m going to Cambodia next week. On Monday I’ll board a plane and head east, far beyond anywhere east I have been before. I have been south, to Africa a couple of times, and West to the US and Canada on one trip. That may make me well travelled, especially when I add in the multiplicity of European destinations I’ve clocked up, but I feel like a novice.

I’m heading to a new part of the world, a place I am unfamiliar with, a place new sights and sounds. But also a place that is not as far away as I might imagine. It took me 12 hours to drive to the Highlands of Scotland, in less time I’ll have flown from Heathrow to Bangkok. I’m not planning on working while I’m away, but I could. It’s a cliché to say that the internet has made the world smaller, it has in that I can travel far away and maintain contact, but the world is as large as ever when I think about the differences I am sure I will encounter.

The thing that has made the world smaller is why I’m going to Cambodia. And the fact that the other side of the world is still far away from the life I inhabit, the places I walk, the people I meet, the work I do, that’s why I’m going there to write about what I see.

And I am more uncertain about writing than I’ve ever been before. I’ve written vulnerable posts I’ve had to wince as hitting post, I’ve written complicated pieces where I have struggled to articulate clearly the points I want to make. But recently I’ve struggled to write at all. Yesterday I reminded myself I can write to demand when a piece needs conjuring up at minimal notice.

But this morning, as so many recently, the words won’t flow.

I’m travelling across the world to write, to tell of what I see, to be a story teller, and I switch between three different devices as though that will make the writing any easier. The irony of a wealth of technology to communicate the effects of poverty and the need for assistance does not escape me. But it is also a distraction. I could probably write eloquently about the digital divide, I could postulate about the rise of technology in a country still haunted by poverty. And maybe I will.

But that would be to avoid admitting that I am afraid of not having the words.

Vulnerability come in layers, there are the ones we are willing for the world to see, and those we wear and disclose in order to avoid having to expose the vulnerabilities that are closer to our skin.

It struck me recently as the clouds rent and the rain poured, I went into my bag and pulled out the waterproof I stash there semi permanently, at least these past few months I have. I was only going to get some lunch but the coat I already had on wasn’t made for this job. It stops the wind and keeps me warm, and it can cope with a little rain. But this wasn’t a little rain. It was a torrential downpour, and anyway, my regular coat doesn’t have a hood.

I didn’t go to the trouble of taking off my coat and replacing it with the waterproof, also, I would have had to cram the bulk into my bag. So I pulled one coat on top of the other. And yet I realised this was a silly thing to do, so as I approached the office on my return I took the waterproof off once again as the wind howled and the rain fell so fast it hit me twice – on the way down and as it bounced off the pavement. I returned it to the pouch in the bottom of my bag so I only had one coat to take off, the normal thing to do, the usual shield of protection we are happy for the world to see.

There’s respectable Christian Sin. The sort of things you’re happy to confess at small group, where you’re willing to accept you don’t always live up to the standards, you, or God, would have you live by. You don’t read your Bible often enough (disguising the fact you don’t read it at all). I don’t have a regular prayer slot in my day (disguising that the last time I prayed with any passion was when one of my family was ill). You struggle with greed, I suffer with control freak tendencies. I work too hard, you’re too busy with church activities.

These sorts of things, the sort of confessions and vulnerabilities it is useful to have up your sleeve and combined with sufficient empathy to engender openness from others following demonstration of your own.

It’s when vulnerability is a fraud, when it is a device. Even writing this, about my fears of going to Cambodia as a writer, could be seen as an exercise in expectation management. Like when Leo McGarry is worried he’ll crash and burn in the Vice Presidential debate in the final season of the West Wing, he lets it be known how bad the prep is going, and that takes the pressure of him, and when he does well he wins all the plaudits.

And yet. And yet taking off that next skin is not easy. I almost wrote final skin, but I could not be arrogant enough to think there are no more layers I still shield behind. This is a skin that I wear because it protects me. I am precious about my writing and when it provides affirmation it reinforces its importance. When it seems hard that affirmation seems missing.

When writing is a side-line, a hobby, an extra, it is dispensable, if I struggle I leave it to one side for a couple of months. But with this trip, this bloggers trip, writing is integral, and the expectation mounts.

While I’m out there, I’ll be posting here and in various other places, but you can follow my and my fellow travellers’ writings all at www.tearfund.org/bloggers

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