A California native, Serena has packed an interesting variety of experiences into her short tenure in this realm. Though the pull of globetrotting has taken her many places, she has always returned to her coastal home for one reason or another, despite the longing to stake out a life abroad.
Blindness happens to be a characteristic that has made her human experience particularly unique, in some ways limiting and in some ways liberating. Early indications of the journey with blindness began with adolescence, arguably sooner, though the true reckoning didn’t begin until close to 30. So onward she persisted; she wasn’t raised as a blind child and no one ever told her, “You’re blind, you can’t do that.” She plunged into adulthood and all the life lessons it had to offer.
Her first great ambition in life was to be an actor, so she dove into theater at the first opportunity—Ms. Stave’s 8th grade drama class. She continued being a theater geek through most of high school, until the lure of graphic design and what she thought would be tangible job skills (and were) pulled her elsewhere. Her parents kept her fed on a steady diet of regular weekend trips to theater, from Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera to bus trips to LA to catch popular Broadway productions like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and even Starlight Express.
High school graduation, not a bad student, not a great student. No pressure from parents or family to aim early for college, no role models pointing the way, no funds saved for this purpose, and no one really explaining the virtues of taking on additional work like AP courses or taking the SAT. She may or may not have been on hallucinogens the day school staff guided students through FAFSA paperwork. One great role model was her friend Heather, who she ran into periodically when she went to the school cafeteria to get one of those disgusting things that passed for a burrito in those days—a stale tortilla cocoon, hard at the corners and edges, encasing a strangely poo-colored goo of beans. “You work in the cafeteria? You are getting paid to be here, right?” she asked, a little dumbfounded. “Hell yeah, I get paid!” Heather replied. Heather’s home life was not the most stellar and she smartly had an eye towards adulting long.before Serena or many of her peers. “A job! Pocket cash!” Serena realized that was something she should totally do. Technically still too young to work legally, working in the cafeteria was some kind of work experience work-around to move slacker high school students toward adult responsibility. And it worked. Serena got that same job alongside Heather for awhile, then moved on to the greatness of scooping ice cream and cleaning things with bleach at Baskin-Robbins, which she did nearly until graduation.
Following graduation, she moved down the coast with her boyfriend to Santa Barbara and quickly got a job with her high school work experience graphic arts program at a Kinko’s print & copy center, where she worked for more than three years, learning much about reprographics and graphic design, bolstered by graphic design classes at Santa Barbara City College, where she started figuring out a lot about college and came to realize that she had more than just “bad eyesight”. Feeling more and more that computers had no soul and customer service was a thankless job she wanted to move beyond, she started to thirst for something more intellectually stimulating than graphic design. She was getting into the groove of community college and liked the lifestyle—lots of lectures, thinking, and writing. She was still realizing the degree to which she really couldn’t access print, never mind the idea that she could do something about it.
It’s a good thing her boyfriend was a machinist who happened to work for a company that built camera systems for agricultural research, because it was actually other people’s observations that made her start realizing that her eyeballs really didn’t work quite like everyone else’s. So one day when the owner of the company handed her an old camera lens along with the observation that it looked like she had a hard time reading, it kind of cracked open a door. Serena would still not quite walk through that door for many years, but it started opening. She began reading everything with that old camera lens, lens to one eye, reading material pressed to the other side. Not a great solution, but a start, a beginning to the journey to confidently compensating for all the things she couldn’t see.
She and the boyfriend broke up after a good 3+ year run and went their separate ways. With an eye toward getting out of the print/copy business, and a real need for more income living single, she landed a minimum wage gig as a lackey at a radio station, a three-year wild ride where she was free to dress as weirdly as she felt, and usually did, dyed her hair just about every color of the rainbow, acquired many piercings, and rubbed elbows with musicians and rock stars. Getting onto the dole, Social Security and later a Housing Authority grant, would give her a foundation useful for focusing on school full time, sadly necessary in light of not quite yet having the skills and attitude necessary to compete with her sighted peers with some semblance of equality.
It was also around this time that Serena got a travel bug and started re-evaluating her college experience. What was the goal? How would she know when she was done? She had no real career ambitions, particularly as she lost confidence in her ability to do graphic design work. She knew for a long time that she wanted to do something good for people, and it would take years to figure out what that really meant. She knew she wanted to travel, and without much money, experience, or mentors, it was something she started puzzling out. In the meantime, her academic work began to reflect her shift in consciousness—she doubled down on humanities classes, like art, history, foreign languages, and anthropology—starting to feel painfully aware that she might be making up for things she didn’t get in her small town public education. She actively wandered for many semesters, satisfying her intellectual curiosity, finding focus in her academic purpose, and re-directing the ship of her life. Professor of American History Anthony Koeninger was the first role model in her life to truly spark a passion for social justice. Professors Peter Haslund and Manou Eskandari fostered her curiosity about the world outside American borders and the social, political, and cultural contexts that made everything move. Self-study Anthropology modules allowed her to indulge her growing interest and passion in all things Asia, having spent a few years of her adolescence in Orange County, CA, possibly one of the largest Asian expatriate communities outside of Asia. Carola Smith got to know her well across several semesters of German language instruction that picked up on her middle and high school German, and Wakita Sensei introduced her to her first Asian language, Japanese, which she would go on to specialize in throughout her higher ed. She had heard the term “development” and thought of it in an infrastructure and economic sense—urban sprawl and construction of large buildings, bridges, and freeways—development of all the things that facilitate economic growth. An aspiring socialist and skeptical of capitalism, this was not at all an appealing concept. Globalization was the buzzword of the day, and in fact, Serena had changed her major to International & Global Studies, a newly emerging field exploring the history, status, and implications of globalization through not just the traditional monoculars of economics or political science or anthropology, etc., but rather considering it from all of these perspectives and having a more multidisciplinary view of it. As for doing good things for people, international development—working with communities to identify and resolve their greatest challenges, improving livelihoods and bringing poverty rates down— looked an awful lot like the thing that would satisfy both her desire to travel and do good things for people. With a growing sense of purpose, she set her sights on transferring to UCSB to earn her BA in Global Studies and Linguistics. No sooner had she done this than she realized that a graduate degree would be necessary to even think about a career in international development, and so her academic target moved again.
So Serena spent the entirety of her twenties going to school, traveling, and playing rock star in the local music scene in Santa Barbara in the 90s. There really aren’t many better ways to spend your young adult life. The first venture outside the US was in 1998 to work abroad under the pretense of practicing her German language skills would put her in a low-budget German Disneyland, mostly staffing an ice skating show, then following a cute Indonesian boy back home to stay with his family. Things went awkwardly with the boy, though she maintained a friendship with his family and they welcomed her back for more visits in the years to follow. There was also a repeat trip to ride the rails around Europe, and a study abroad program in China and Vietnam, with a quick jaunt through Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan on the way home. There was also a return to Cambodia to evaluate a great development organization just after finishing graduate school in 2006.
Funds running low and feeling the tug of academic goals, a kid with fur, and an apartment full of possessions, Serena returned to California following that first, six-month adventure abroad. Timing was awkward to get resettled in a new apartment in time for school, so she took a semester off, a sabbatical of sorts, staying with her sister in Lompoc. This was another important milestone in the development of Serena’s attitude, skills, and identity as a blind person, for in her absence, her sister, despite her agoraphobia, had connected with the Braille Institute in Santa Barbara and couldn’t wait to take her there. A new world of resources was revealed and the glass ceiling inched up ever so slightly. Serena learned about and joined the Library of Congress and received her first accessible book—4-sided cassette tapes played in a big clunky player, but it didn’t matter—she could read more efficiently with less strain, ordering books over the phone and receiving them in the mail. The Braille Institute gave her a clunky scanner that sort of made reading print books more accessible, scrolling the text across the monitor controlled by a track ball. More importantly, it made her start thinking about the possibility that just because she could pass for a sighted person didn’t mean she had to live like one. Most important of all, an insightful staff member, knowing she was a student, enticed her with more money for textbooks, sliding the contact info for the Department of Rehabilitation across the desk to her. Serena had never heard of that agency until that day, but that encounter would establish a twelve-year love-hate relationship with it that would ultimately move her toward full employment. First, they got her set up with a CCTV for reading print and a computer with ZoomText, magnification software that enhanced her ability to use the internet and write papers for school. The glass ceiling heaved upward. The Braille Institute also suggested that there was probably an office on campus specifically for the purpose of supporting students with disabilities—her mind was blown—now she had notetaking support for her classes, CCTVs to use on campus, and extended time for difficult exams.
Now that she was thinking more consciously of herself as an actual blind person and considering all the resources and support that could come with it, her universe was rapidly expanding. Seeking more financial support, and figuring as a blind student she was doing more than most of her sighted friends and family put together, she was a shoo-in for scholarships based on blindness. Empowered with new and improved access to the internet, she searched for and found the National Federation of the Blind. It would take much more time, learning, and growing to realize she still had a ways to go in her journey as a blind person. She applied for those scholarships and never got more than what some folks call the loser box—thanks for applying, better luck next time, here’s some things about our organization to read and consider. It really didn’t matter—the connection to the community, mentors, and role models that she needed had been made. Over the next few years, she would begin to get involved, meet confident, competent blind role models, mentors, and peers. Very quickly, she’d understand that just because she could see some, didn’t mean that she didn’t need the skills of blindness, and as her best friend, role model, and for a time, boss, Lisamaria would say one day, “I’d rather be a competent blind person than an incompetent sighted person.” And Serena knew she had a lot more to learn and set her sights on getting to the training center in Louisiana where she would learn it.
In 2004, she graduated from UCSB, packed up her 11 years of young adult Santa Barbara life, including her cat, and made the move to Monterey to attend the Monterey Institute of International Studies (now the Middlebury Institute of International Studies). Life got a lot harder and a lot darker on a lot of levels—difficulties she’d not really experienced up to this point—her income was mysteriously less adequate than before and budgeting every penny became a reality for the first time—have the gas company put the pilot light out, because you can’t afford to turn the heater on anyway. Definitely no more eating out, oh, and no more picking up beverages on the go—coffees, juices, you really can’t afford that either. While we’re at it, we’ll have to start going to food banks—after rent and bills are paid, there’s really not much left for food. Also, landlords in Monterey are complete dicks and the Housing Authority doesn’t care that your roof is leaking, mushrooms are growing in your shower, and your landlord threatened you when you complained about it. By the way, graduate school isn’t actually just more undergrad—it’s actually really intensive work, and you still don’t have the blindness skills to tackle a full load, let alone the 150% load you attempted. And to completely add insult to injury, your insecurity and shrinking confidence will put you into an unhealthy four-year relationship with an egomaniacal, emotionally abusive, arrogant Korean, but you’re going to think it’s awesome, because you are obsessed with Asia. You’ll marry him, but don’t worry, you’ll grow a spine and divorce him just about as fast.
Serena came out of Monterey with a graduate degree in International Policy and (just barely) with her dignity intact. The growing of a spine and the departure from the poor life choice that was a starter husband was due significantly to the next phase of her evolution as a blind person.
In 2007, she left her possessions and her cat in the careless care of her irresponsible husband and went to Louisiana for what would be just over a year—nine months in an intensive residential sleepshade blindness training center, followed by the opportunity to serve as an instructor for their summer program for high school students following her own graduation from the Louisiana Center for the Blind—the business of learning braille, Access Technology, daily living and kitchen skills, and even playing with power tools in industrial arts, 40 hours a week entirely sleepshaded, was a full time job in not just learning, but mastering the alternative (non-visual) skills of blindness, not to mention learning to think of blindness as a characteristic, not a tragedy, and to think and learn about blindness as a civil rights movement, not a medical or social problem. This is where Serena found community and confidence; this is where she found her spine and knew that she deserved far better than the disrespectful and degrading treatment she received from her husband. She returned to California, packed up her life and cat, went back down the coast to her hometown, and filed for divorce.
By now it was 2009 and the economy was tanking. Just as she wanted nothing more than to be fully employed, her life was crumbling around her—a failed marriage, her life in a storage unit, no job, and unstable housing. It looked bleak, though she remained optimistic. After a year of quasi-homelessness, fruitless job searching, and parents and a cat with failing health, she had no idea how to be a support to anyone else if she couldn’t get her own shit together. For that entire year, she was not in the same place for more than two weeks at a time, and that was a visit to an old friend in Portland, more often it was a week or less in any given bed and then moving on to a different one—she had a bed and some drawer space at her parent’s house, at her sister’s, at a friend’s in Santa Barbara, and she did a bit of traveling that year for lack of roots—visiting Las Vegas to support the Nevada affiliate of the NFB, stopping by to visit friends in Northern California, just passing through, visiting to join a friend’s wedding. Passing several times that year through the home of Lisamaria and her soon-to-be-husband, Joe, who she met through the student division of the NFB of California, proved to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship that would change Serena’s life dramatically for the better in more ways than she knew.
As they got to know each other better, Lisamaria instinctively offered a warm and friendly hands-up at a crucial moment that Serena needed it the most. As 2009 came to a close, nearly a year after leaving an extremely unhealthy marriage, she was mentally and emotionally much more on track, though her search for employment and stable housing still felt like a hamster wheel she’d made little progress on. “Joe and I are going to buy a house and take advantage of the first-time homebuyer’s credit. You should come to the Bay Area and stay with us,” Lisamaria offered around Christmas. There really wasn’t much to think about and by January 2010, Serena was living in the Bay Area. With extensive public transportation networks and interest-specific activities happening for just about anyone at any time, it was here that she finally got a foothold to not only getting her shit together, but to growing and thriving. With at least half a dozen agencies serving blind people, it also turns out that the Bay Area is a Mecca of sorts to the blind community and it was here that her connections to the blind community would deepen and grow, nourishing and enriching her ideas about what it means to be blind.
After more than a year struggling under difficult personal circumstances and a bad economy, within just a few months of her move, Serena had two part-time jobs and started getting a taste of full employment. She enjoyed her new work teaching braille and supporting the work of a Japan-based educational non-profit, especially the relative stability it provided and the opportunity to whiz around on public transportation covering as many miles in an hour or two as would take her two days to cover back down the coast. She felt free, independent, and she was getting her mojo back.
A year passed and neither of those two jobs had gone full time. 2011 would turn out to be a life-changing year of highs and lows. Her father passed away in March, and in September, her kid with fur was just too sick with renal failure to be allowed to suffer, and September she was put to rest. In the intervening period, family relations were strained. She was still living with Lisamaria, an amazing living arrangement, though she and Joe were now married and starting their family, and what Serena truly believed would be 3, 6, or perhaps 9 months or so to get it together and get back into a place of her own, was now turning closer and closer to the two year mark. She wasn’t sure how she felt about living with babies and small children, she’d never really done that before, and she thought it right that they be able to enjoy their new home and family free of roommates.
And then it dawned on her—a thing she’d considered many times over the years, as far back as high school—the planets were aligning. No solid home of her own, most of her worldly possessions locked in a storage unit, no strong sense of attachment to her jobs, family entanglements a little less tangled, and no sign of a healthy relationship in the 5 years since she walked out on her husband. It was time to apply to the Peace Corps.
She knew the application process would take at least a year, so she gladly accepted the full time position she was offered by one of her employers just a few months later and leveraged the benefits, salary, and experience of full employment until her assignment came through. The process was long, complicated, and exhausting, and worthy of its own blog; the short version is that in April of 2014, she boarded a plane that would take her to her post in the Kyrgyz Republic, bang in the heart of Central Asia. This experience, too, could easily fill pages of blog entries. The important thing here is the life-altering lessons she’d learn about herself in the busy capital of Bishkek.
Finally soaking in the life of an expat global development professional, the dream she’d been working toward most of her adult life—community-based development work, improving livelihoods, being a change agent, living the core values, immersing in a new language and culture, and possibly going native and not coming back. Turns out she hated it.
Nearing an existential crisis, she simultaneously felt a basic mastery of her expat life in Bishkek—Kyrgyz language, transportation, resources, and how things work—and a disillusioned distaste for the whole thing. She’d finally achieved the thing she’d been pointing herself at her whole adult life and was totally miserable. Nearly 40, still painfully single with little hope in sight of a fulfilling relationship, career dead-ended, the angst really started to sink in. So she went into the kitchen.
Amongst the challenges of PCV life was the host family experience, and Serena’s was challenging enough on a variety of levels that she managed to eventually swing her own apartment. Leading up to her Peace Corps experience, Serena had a long-standing appreciation of food and how it brings people together (it started with quiche), and upon entering into her Kyrgyz homestay arrangement, she’d not really been able to get her kitchen on quite right, and in fact, lost 30 pounds in the first 6-9 months from simply not eating very much. Her host family also relentlessly wanted to practice their English skills, which did nothing for her survival in the Kyrgyz language when she left the house. Not only was she liberated into her own apartment with her own kitchen, the trolley she usually used to get home in dropped her off on one side of one of the best bazaars in Bishkek, where she could shop freely on her way home for her own food, and push her Kyrgyz language skills to better than functional bantering with all her regular vendors—the milk lady, the produce people, her grain guy, and the egg shop. With the support of the greatest language and cultural facilitator ever, Kunduz, Serena began experimenting with learning a few Kyrgyz food basics in her kitchen—kefir, using leftover milk to make homemade condensed milk to make the NesCafe more palatable, refrigerator pickles and finely shredded cabbage salads, various jams and hand processing 9 kilos of tomatoes, red bell peppers, and garlic into a pleasantly spicy condiment that is delicious on pretty much everything. Experiments with how to make buckwheat taste like something other than cardboard and just eating it anyway, because it’s cheap and nutritious. And then the realization—the long-standing appreciation for food had deepened. The kitchen is where she found herself when she needed to de-stress and/or was just avoiding adulting. It was a safe space, it was a happy place.
And it was around this time, a year into her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, that she finally noticed Sterling, like really noticed. Being a PCV with an apartment in the capital makes you suddenly very popular. One of those many occasions when a fellow volunteer wants a place to stay, a fellow PCV, very social, chatty, and phone connected, called Sterling from Serena’s kitchen just to chat. “Oh yeah, Sterling. You know, he’s super quiet, though every time I do hear him say something, it’s quite witty,” she observed, “I should totally get to know him a little better”. Not long after that, he just called Serena for no real reason other than to say hello, and to be honest, her heart raced a little. This guy she’d only had a few opportunities to really chat with during pre-service training was intriguing and she was feeling short on authentic friendships in her Peace Corps experience. Some weeks after that, he called again—his place to stay in Bishkek on his way onward to another village had fallen through at the last minute and he needed a place to stay. With the company of a couple of other volunteers, a burrito bar was cobbled together in her kitchen that night, with a few extra supplies picked up from the bazaar across the street, including the gift of a handle of Captain Morgan’s rum, an expensive treasure on a PCV budget. He was kind, gentle, thoughtful, and sweet, and when he went into her kitchen and started doing dishes, she had an electric twitterpation she’d not felt in a long time. They geeked out over music together on her little balcony and nearly went to sleep sharing the guitar-driven melodies of the Smashing Pumpkins until another volunteer killed the mood with her complaints about not being able to sleep. Sterling took the remainder of the rum for the road the next day, not before filling a plastic water bottle for Serena to enjoy later at her will. She bid her guests goodbye and poured the rum over some raisins, pondering the possibilities of how she might use them after they were plump with rum. She smiled contentedly and her heart swelled.
Serena was soon off on a vacation back to the Bay Area for a month, and they checked in morning and evening every day of that month via Facebook Messenger. She caught a glimpse of a blue moon on her flight from San Francisco to Istanbul and arrived back in Bishkek in time to prepare for a consolidation—the Kyrgyz government was continuing to play games with visas and work permits and all her peer volunteers had to gather in Bishkek and prepare to cross the border into Kazakhstan. When Sterling arrived at the hotel, he knocked on her door, bringing the gift of Yaktrax—as a Missouri boy, he didn’t really need them, and as a California girl, she broke hers wearing them wrong. And they came with a big warm hug. The volunteers didn’t have much to do except try not to get into trouble, so there was a lot of socializing and hanging out, and looking deep into his eyes a night or two later, Serena just knew, a feeling she’d never felt before, that she was going to get old with this one, and nothing had ever felt so safe or so right or so comforting.
Paperwork issues were resolved and all the volunteers went back to their posts, and Sterling and Serena changed their phone plans to get the minutes they needed to talk twice a day and Sterling made the 5 hour ride out of the mountains about every two weeks to visit her in the capital. This continued for several months, and every time he had to leave, she cried, and, staring distantly out of marshrutka windows in-between, she couldn’t stop thinking about him and smiling. Still disenchanted with her expat experience and the Kyrgyz government continuing to drag their feet in promptly issuing appropriate documents, they decided to take the leap and start their life together. Taking an offer for early closure of service, they boarded a plane for New York, a quick stop in Missouri, and finally California, where they would figure out the rest of their lives together.
They are happily married, enjoying the little townhouse they bought together and the excitement of their daily commutes to their jobs in San Francisco.
And one could say, it started with quiche, but that’s a whole different post.