Blissed out on Banana trees

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There is something about banana trees that makes me weirdly emotional. Riding in a van through the Peruvian rainforest, listening to shitty, dated pop music, I found myself laughing hysterically as we drove through grove after grove of banana trees. Something about how I’d never seen them before coming to South America, and how I don’t know when I’ll next see them. Something about how I used them to clean my house, and cook on instead of cookie sheets, and how funny they look when they fruit and how abuela used to bring me bunches every two weeks even if they had already started rotting, and something about how everyone else in that dilapidated bus thought this ride was so incredibly dangerous, but it felt so incredibly normal to me… I found myself sitting among a bunch of strangers laughing to myself to avoid crying, because in that moment it hit me that in just two short weeks, I’m leaving South America.

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I needed Peru so badly. I needed this time to get back to the girl who finds frisson in banana trees and rickety vans and “despacito” on repeat, to rediscover parts of myself I’ve neglected for the past two years, parts that I really like. I start conversations by teasing you for drinking shitty beer. I love really, really hard and I’m not afraid of getting messy and I revel in mud puddles. I like mate in the morning and I have a problem with my backpack exploding on hostel floors. And I really like the person I’ve become over the past two years in South America.

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Peru has given me the time and space to really think about what I’m going to miss about South America. I look at people riding in the back of a truck down the mountain with an empathetic envy — when will I next stand in a truck bed, wind whipping my baseball cap off my head, hitchhiking into site as the sun goes down? When will I next pull mint leaves from the side of the mountain and add them to my tea? Will I still dream in Spanish? The night before we left on our trek it rained. We looked up at the sky light, a hole cut in the zinc roof and fell asleep to the familiar sound that sooner rather than later will no longer be familiar. I miss these things as they happen, in the way you miss your best friend when you’re sitting next to them after a long time apart, through a lens of overwhelming gratitude — for how I’ve lived the past two years and the people who’ve shaped my life along the way and for everything, everything, absolutely everything.

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The people we’ve met in Peru are the type of people I hope stay in my life for a long time. People who travel the way we do, slowly and deliberately, people who’ve made me nostalgic for home in a way I’ve never been, people who asked the right kind of questions, who have stories of their own, who get just as excited about silly things like banana trees as I do…I am refreshed and inspired and my heart is full.

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In the middle of the mountains, during the Santa Cruz trek, a girl in our group asked everyone in the tent: When do you feel most free?

If someone asked me that again, I’d reply with a big goofy smile and maybe a tear and say “Right fucking now.” I’d scream it from the top of a mountain. I want the whole world to know how good it feels to exist in my body right now. I am the luckiest person on the planet.

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A month ago, when I was in Buenos Aires, I was scared and edgy and hadn’t yet processed how I felt about my service. I was asked a lot of questions I didn’t know the answers to.

What are you going to miss?

What was the best part?

What was the hardest part?

Answers: all of it, none of it. I don’t know yet. I need time. It was an unfinished story. The shitty first draft that Ann Lammott talks about. And I wasn’t ready to share any of it yet. It was raw and messy and not in a good way. But right now, I get it. I know what stories I want to tell and how to tell them. I know what Paraguay means to me now.

Every day I am both more excited and more scared to go home. Excited, because the next adventure is going to be a good one. Because I can hear Avila Beach calling me and because I feel whole. I feel full. I feel ready. But scared, because I know how easily I’m influenced by my environment. Will I lose these contentment that is so clearly a product of South America when I get back to the land of consumption and excess? Or will I be able to maintain, and have a favorite vendor at the farmers’ market, and take time for morning mate, and drop everything to be a good neighbor or sister or whatever? Will my stories resonate in the way I want them to?

Slowly but surely I’m realizing that my reality is about to be incredibly different. In two weeks, Lance will pick me up at the airport (hopefully wearing exclusively American flag apparel), and I’ll get in the front seat of his truck, instead of the bed of it. We’ll drive down the road listening to Beyonce, not Reggaeton, and we’ll eat In-n-Out, not empanadas. Hot showers. Dishwashers. Whole Foods.

At the end of this week I head to Colombia with my best friend. After that, this adventure comes to a close. What a long strange trip it’s been. Thank you, Peru, for helping me return to that blissed-out baseline I have missed so deeply over the past two years. Thank you every single person I’ve met who has asked questions and let me word vomit. Thank you to the Pachamama. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

The post-GLOW effect post-election

One of the toughest parts of my work here is sustainability. The idea that when I leave, my friends and allies still have someone who makes them feel empowered, gives them a space to be themselves, encourages them to keep the work going.

This is especially true in the context of camp GLOW, which is probably my favorite part of my service. We give girls the opportunity to leave their communities, travel to a new place, and spend the week feeling empowered and surrounded by other empowered and empowering people. They arrive at camp timid and leave sassy and determined to affect change in their communities.

But then, so many of them return home only to find that the environment couldn’t be more different from camp. In their own homes, they are actively disempowered. They are faced with machismo culture, from both men and women, so harshly and heavily that what they learned at camp, what they hoped to teach their peers, takes a back seat. What was supposed to be unifying at camp has now become isolating.

They leave camp thinking “I can,” and come home only to be told “You can’t.”

I had never related to their struggle until this week.

On most days, I feel empowered to speak my mind. On most days, I am not afraid to be myself. On most days, I feel safe, knowing that the US has my back. In the past few months, that has been nearly every day. I felt better about myself knowing that people around me were going to help me elect the first female president. I felt less alone in my “crazy feminist ideology.” I felt like I was seeing what I teach here in Paraguay being carried out in the U.S. Gender equality was one step closer to feeling real…one step closer to shattering the ceiling.

But this week, I felt like the girls in the campo. This whole election cycle, despite its insanity, has made me feel more empowered and unified in my hope and faith in Hillary Clinton. While Donald Trump’s attempts to knock me (and all women, and all POC, and all immigrants, and all people with disabilities, and all LGBT people, and all Muslim people) down, I took stock in the goodness and love that I found in my liberal bubble — youth, PCVs, my family — and trusted that the racist/sexist/homophobic/islamophobic cheeto would be defeated.

But apparently we were all away at summer camp, while the rest of the U.S. (ok only 49%…) accepted bigotry and hatred.

I am coming back to the states knowing that enough people to decide a presidency do not see me or many of my loved ones as valid human beings who deserve basic human rights.

I have been dealing with a lot of machismo and sexism being thrown my way lately — most recently yesterday when I was waiting for the bus — I was watching Hillary’s concession speech and crying behind my baseball hat and sunglasses when a man drove by me, told me to smile more and threw a carton of juice at my head. So this loss hits me even harder knowing that so many people just threw juice cartons at the heads of every non-white, non-male human in the U.S.

I know that in April I will come home and join the fight and fight harder than I ever have before. But for now, I am so deeply saddened by what happened this week.

I took a walk this morning, after hiding in my house for more than 24 hours, and felt weak, carrying the burden of being the Token White Person in my community — “How did he win?” “Is everyone in the U.S. racist?” “Will I ever be able to visit my sister again?” “Is he going to get rid of Peace Corps?” are just some of the questions I’ve been asked so far today. Being an ambassador of the U.S. is hard enough…this makes it near impossible.

I know when I go home I won’t really feel like a Paraguayan girl post-camp. I know I am more privileged than that — I will be surrounded by allies; I am privileged enough that this presidency likely won’t impact my day-to-day. I am, theoretically, one of the lucky ones (not nearly as lucky as white straight men but luckier than most).

In feeling absolutely terrible, literally sick, I have been playing my most recent conversation with my dad over and over in my head. He kept it together on election night to talk to his kids about how we’re going to be ok, how he is on our side, and how we should feel empowered to get out there and advocate and fight for change. He took our hysterics (ok that was probably just me) and helped us to remember that we aren’t lame ducks and that we are probably now more needed than ever. (Although I hope he knows we’re never gonna make any money…)

It made me feel incredibly grateful for having an ally in my house. For having someone who understands how much this election hurt me personally. As much as I love my Girl Gang and talking about these issues among my peers, hearing these words coming from someone who could easily NOT relate, NOT understand, and NOT give a shit (not as my dad but as a white dude) made me feel so fucking lucky. I am so grateful not to live in a house divided by political ideology.

I hope other white men like my dad speak up and tell their daughters that they aren’t alone. Tell their sons that they need to step up to the advocacy plate. I hope for a culture of change and for the most privileged among us to help the less-so.

I hope that this wave of anger and hurt and passionate activism is sustainable, like a good Peace Corps project, and that in the face on the most severe adversity we may have ever seen, we don’t fall in line and become complacent.

I hope summer camp lasts year round.

To the Bad Hombres of Paraguay

 

 

Note: I’ve been really angry lately. At men, mostly, and the culture that makes it ok for them to treat my friends and me like total garbage. So I’m breaking my hiatus to get this out of my system.

If you have to start a sentence with “I don’t know much about this but…” and close it with “sorry for being condescending,” you probably shouldn’t have started the sentence in the first place. We will talk about your mansplaining behind your back for the next week.

Most of us don’t really give a shit what you think…so when you tell us that we’d look prettier if we grew our hair out/got contact lenses/wore more/less makeup, we don’t think “Oh I’ll get right on that because I want to please my man,” we think “go fuck yourself, I don’t do any of this for you.”

We’re curious — when was the last time cat calling got you laid? Does it ever work? Do you ever say “Oh man, I’m so glad I invaded that pretty blonde’s personal space and made her feel unsafe on the street while she was walking home because she totally took the bait and now we’re gonna start a family!” Never? That’s what we thought. Fuck your machismo. The street is just as much yours as it is ours, and we would like to go to the grocery store without being asked to “darte un beso por abajo” and being run off the road when we say NO.

We are capable of getting on the bus ourselves so please stop grabbing our asses to pull us up the last step. Speaking of buses please stop sitting so close next to us, since when is whipping it out in the seat next to me supposed to be sexy? It’s not. Stop doing that.

If you are a male gynecologist we didn’t have a choice but to see because the female gyn is on vacation, you don’t get to ask us about our love lives. We’re in a very vulnerable place, up in the stirrups as you’re placing our IUDs…but you asking if we’re getting said IUD because we’re “sexually adventurous” is really asking to get kicked in the face and we’re in prime position for that so I’d watch out if I were you. And maybe also, as a medical professional, recognize that a woman’s choice of contraceptive method generally has nothing to do with men?? Just a suggestion.

Stop cheating on your girlfriends. Break up with them. And when you do, be honest. Don’t pull any of that “I’m messed up and you deserve better” bullshit. Tell us you can’t be trusted to keep it in your pants. Your douchebaggery-disguised-as-nobility is not actually very well disguised so you might as well just own up to it.

If we see you every day for three months, two years, however long, make a goddamn effort to learn our names. We probably know yours because we pay attention. Names are a whole lot more helpful in explaining who you’re looking for than “la gorda” or “The pretty one.” WE ARE HUMANS TOO OK?

Our benevolently sexist friends might “try to help” and tell us to fight back or ask “well why don’t you tell Gustavo?” Remember that we don’t fight back because everyone knows where we live. Remember that if we called Gustavo every time this happened, we’d be on the phone every day. Remember that we’ve accepted aggressive street harassment, blatant sexism and machismo culture as the norm, and unfortunately, we need YOUR help to make it stop. So if you wanna be an ally, by all means, be our guest, but don’t tell US how to manage the situation we’ve been navigating since before we all got boobs.

XOXO,

The Nasty Women

 

14 down 12 to go

Today marks one year in site. I swore in 12 months ago, with an awkward hairdo by my aunt (Ok it was a chola braid and frizzy flat iron job) and hopped a bus to arroyos with literally no idea what was going on. Most days I still don’t know what’s going on, to be perfectly honest. 

But I think I know myself a little better. Or at least, I know myself in the context of my service. So in the spirit of self development I’m setting a few goals for the 365 days I have left in my service. 

1. Go with my gut. My mama always says if you don’t listen to your gut, it stops talking to you. I’m not gonna let that happen. So that means I won’t be letting other people get in the way of my gut feelings. Lately my gut has told me to re-invest in other volunteers, that the people are more important than the places, that it’s ok to spend time alone. So I’m honoring said gut feelings by visiting gmates, going Home for Christmas, and watching all four seasons of The OC in 10 days. Sometimes you gotta treat yoself. 

2. Stop apologizing (when it’s not warranted). I hate being a burden on people…especially other volunteers. I find myself constantly apologizing for being a person who occupies a space. But people need people and I’m a person so screw it. 

3. Run. I’ve spent the past year afraid to run in site because of the catcalling. But isn’t that letting the gross dudes win? Screw that. I have too much free time not to run. I have legs and lungs that need to be used. So I’m done letting other people scare me out of doing what I want.

4. No more bullshit. I’ve been a pushover for the past year. Ok strike that I’ve been a pushover for the past 24 years. But no more of this letting 14 year olds walk all over me crap. Today is the day I get a handle on classroom management. It’s also the day I start pushing my own agenda. If my community doesn’t have the drive to do projects, maybe it’s time I adopt the “if you build it they will come” motto instead of the “I won’t do this alone” motto. 

5. Document it all. Take more pictures. Take videos. Write it all down. Be a good journalist. 

6. This pretty much sums up goals 1-5 but the big deal here can be simplified by Steve Carrell in little miss sunshine 

Do what you love, and fuck the rest

Oh. And get into Berkeley. Above all else, get into Berkeley. 

The time traveler’s PC service

It was sunset. We were fulfilling the promise we made to each other to swim in the ocean once a week. We drove out to Avila, took a leap off the pier, paddled around, briefly entertaining the idea that this wouldn’t be normal in just a few short months when Kerry left that July, when I left in September. An hour before, I had run up the stairs, grinned at my roommate and tossed her a towel. There were no words exchanged. It was just part of the routine. It was what we did. Ten minutes later we were in the car, singing, windows rolled down, full on movie montage of life on the central coast. Kerry said she was getting cold and I would never admit it but I was too so we made our way to the sand where we’d thrown the few belongings we brought — a towel (just one), my car keys, sunglasses, our clothes. A woman and her contraband dog walked past us.

“Did you just get out of the ocean?”

“Yeah! The water’s great.”

“Thank you.”

“What?”

“Thank you. For swimming. For using your bodies for what they’re made to do. For not taking this place for granted.”

We smiled. We walked back to the car. Got thai food. Not quite sure what to think of the conversation. Months later we’d talk about it.

***

I awoke from my daydream and returned to shredding cabbage, half expecting to be in the kitchen of the apartment Kerry and I shared. But I’m here. In my “kitchen” in Paraguay.

But this has been happening a lot lately. I’ve always been easily distracted, I’ll give you that, but I’ve never been such a vivid daydreamer. But lately I’ve been capable of time travel. One minute I’m sitting on my porch reading and the next some song comes on and Haley and I are in my room, eating brownies and listening to the breakup mix she made me.

It makes me crazy homesick. These vivid flashbacks to days I didn’t spend stumbling over verb conjugations or begging kids to participate in my activities, but instead spent scream-singing “stand by me” with 35 of my best friends and getting yelled at by park rangers or at concerts with my brother — finding god in guitar solos. 

But it also makes me unreasonably happy. On my birthday, I cried for the first time in front of my Paraguayan family. (this is not to say this is the first time I’ve cried. We all know I cry all the damn time) This marvelous networks of humans I’ve met throughout the past 24 years shared with me photos and sweet words and my heart exploded, trying to tell my sister the story of each photo that popped up that day. Wishing she could time travel with me. Feeling beyond lucky to have such fucking wonderful friends who find a way to wrap me in love from 5,000 miles away, lucky to have a sister who tries so ardently to understand stories of things she’s never seen just because she loves me. I told her about the hike on my last day in town with my best friends. How we used to watch the sunset between Bishop and Madonna from my balcony. The time that my dad cried at Impossible Germany.

And in a weird Inception moment I realized that in a year, I’ll tell this story and I’ll time travel back to this place. Back to spending every afternoon with my hermana de mi corazon gossiping and making weird faces at each other and trying to make sense of each others’ childhoods. Back to the cobblestone roads where a gang of barefoot nine year olds follows me on every run which inevitably turns into a race, which I always lose and pretend I did on purpose. In 13 months I’ll leave here and find myself in my apartment kitchen, wherever that may be, and the sting under my fingernails from chopping hot peppers will transport me to my makeshift kitchen here, making salsa with the locote ky’yi Stephen gives me from his garden. I’ll find some food truck that makes yucca fries and laugh and cry because despite how adamantly I avoid mandioca here, I’ll have to get them, and the taste will remind me of lunch at Ña Elsa’s with the princesakuera.

It’s comforting to know, it’s reassuring to know, especially as I’ve fallen into a routine and things have stopped being shiny and new in month 13 of my service, that I’ll want to time travel back to these days when they’re over. Because if it’s not worth time traveling back to, if you won’t happycry thinking about it, then why do a thing? But I’ll definitely be happycrying about Paraguay for a long, long time after I leave this place.

Trust your gut, figure it out later

Mba’eichapa!

I’m still here, melting in Paraguay, despite what my silence on this blog might connote. The summer is a funky time in Paraguay because no one wants to do anything, so if I were to update my blog as often as I used to, it would say things like “here are all of the books I’ve read in the past week!” and “highlight of today: I left the house!” And I don’t think those things are very exciting. (Though I do have a “recommended reading” tab if you’re interested in the books I’ve been inhaling of late)

So I turned to (a month late) the Blogging Abroad Challenge, which a couple of my friends are doing. Prompts are kinda frustrating sometimes, but they’re way more interesting than my one-word book reviews: Station Eleven was good. My Brilliant Friend was boring.

So the first prompt, which I think is appropriate seeing as I’ve been here nearly a year and I’ve never really addressed it, is WHY AND HOW I got to this point. So without further adieu, I’m gonna talk about that now.

January 2014. I am a senior who, like most liberal arts seniors, has no idea what the hell she’s doing come June, and who, like most “live in the moment” hippie millennials, has decided “it’ll happen when it happens” about my future. What I knew I wanted was to be scared. To do something that strayed from the status quo that I had been following since I became a human being. “If you’re 22 and not doing something that scares the shit out of you,” my favorite professor had told me, “You’re not doing it right.”

Peace Corps, like pretty much every major decision I’ve ever made, hit me like a ton of bricks. I went from thinking I’d go try my hand at making coffee in San Francisco or heaven forbid, ask my dad about his connections, to being nominated to serve in Peace Corps Paraguay.

I spent the next four months waiting to know if it was for real.

I graduated. I worked my same old summer job and moved home and worked at my same old rec department. I got a new bed because the same old twin day bed wasn’t gonna cut it for the six months I’d be home. I painted my room and helped my brother with college applications. During the first week of September of 2014 I got my invitation, made doctors’ appointments, and celebrated the six-months-til-I-leave countdown beginning with my dear friends at a Head and the Heart concert where Down in the Valley made us all cry extra because suddenly it meant a little more.

I was admittedly a shithead when I first moved home, but the six months I spent living in Santa Rosa before I left are some of the most important and cherished days I’ve had. I learned to appreciate my town through the lens of a half-way grown-up human (aka I got to drink the beer and the wine), I spent my Thursday evenings on movie dates with my mom and Friday mornings walking the dog around the lake. I went on accidental 20-mile hikes with breathtaking views, sent my friends off to faraway places like Scotland and India and Philadelphia, welcomed one back home, and knew exactly where to go on bad days when my brother and I needed to go on a long drive. All the while grappling with one question: WHY was I doing this?

“You’ll find out when you get there,” a friend finally said. “That’s how you’ve always done it.”

So there it was. I was going because my gut told me to. I’d figure out the details along the way. True to form, my why was more of a “why the hell not?”

Now I can tell you, it’s because I needed to be scared. To figure out what I wanted. To be on the frontlines of something, not just behind the camera or asking the questions. It’s because I’m teaching kids things I didn’t even get to learn in California schools. It’s because I secretly not-so-secretly love chipa. Because my neighbors come over for Frisbee Fridays and cooking classes. Because busting myths about condoms is crazy fun. And helping high schoolers recognize the fact that they’re leaders is even more fun (actually nothing is more fun than proving to a bunch of schoolkids how tough condoms are). It’s because I get to know South America in a way that not very many people get to. It’s because I needed to pick something off the fig tree instead of letting all those ideas and opportunities and results of the “what career should you pursue?” buzzfeed quizzes rot. And while I’m not going to be a career Peace Corps Volunteer, I have never been more excited about the vision I have for my future than I am right now. Could I have known that Peace Corps was going to make my path from here on out so clear? Of course not. But that’s part of what makes it scary.

And if you’re 22 (holy shit I’m almost 24) and you’re not doing something that scares the shit out of you (like approaching your mid-twenties in a foreign country), then you’re not doing it right.

Does that answer the question?

How to: Get out of the trough.

Step 1. Cry.

Cry your face off. Into your pillow. Into your dog. Into the popcorn you just made for dinner. Give into the vulnerability. Dive into the wave that’s about to crash all over you and whine about how you want your mommy/brother/best friend to come bring you curry and coffee ice cream. Let yourself listen to that sad playlist you made when you got dumped in college and listened to way too much Elliott Smith. Angry cry. Sad cry. Whatever it is, get it the fuck out of your system.

Step 2. Admit it. Admit that you feel like shit. That you’re being taken advantage of, or being stonewalled by someone in your community, or feeling like you aren’t doing what you really want to. Admit that you lack passion for your current activities or that the fact that people don’t hold themselves accountable makes you want to stick needles in your eyes and pull all your hair out and throw rocks through windows and drop watermelons off the top of tall parking structures all at once.

Step 3. Feel guilty. Think about how selfish and ungrateful you are — you are special because you are serving. Thing of all the people who’ve already gone home, who didn’t get out of the trough, who were slide-tackled out of country and onto an operating table in Ohio, who never made it to the airport because their dentist forgot to sign the right paperwork, who didn’t make it past the interview. Realize that you are a shithead for complaining and force yourself to stop because what kind of asshole complains about spending their days in a hammock reading a book with a puppy.

Step 4. Realize that step 3 was stupid. You’re not a shithead. You may be acting like a shithead, you may feel like a shithead, but don’t let comparison be the reason why.

Step 5. Admit it to someone else. Tell them you are in a trough, in which you are human garbage, they will say something along the lines of dude me too or dude i feel you I was there last week in that same trash pit. You will commiserate. It will feel good to know you are not alone, but it will not make you feel better. The problem with other en-troughed humans is they let you stay there. You can stay there as long as you need, but don’t let other humans tell you how long you should or shouldn’t stay there. Don’t stay in the pit just because there are friends down there. Though company sure is nice.

Step 6. Get out of the bubble. Getting bathed in empathy from someone who gets it is great, but it doesn’t change anything. Call your mom, your best friend, your best friend who happens to be your mom, whatever, and talk about things that have nothing to do with the trough, your site, your service. Hometown gossip, Bernie Sanders, Larry David as Bernie Sanders, your friend’s new girlfriend…allow yourself to free up some space in your head for things that aren’t confined to the 3km radius of your site or even the country in which you currently reside. Note: Binge watching Master of None, however good it may feel, does not count as getting out of the bubble. You didn’t have a conversation with Aziz Ansari, even if you did answer “yeah boo?” every time he said “hey boo.”

Step 7. Treat yoself. Eat some chocolate. Make caramel popcorn. use a little extra sriracha on your stir fry tonight. Binge watch Master of None. Put off your CNA another night and read a book instead. Self care, yo, it’s a big deal.

Step 8. Leave your house. Visit that family that likes you when you’re unapologetically yourself. Say hi to the woman who always gives you goodies from her garden, or the one that lets you in on community gossip. Pick out the things that haven’t put you in the trough and seek them out.

Step 9. Cry some more if you need to. It’s ok.

Step 10. When a wave comes, dive deep. Embrace the funk. You’ll come out the other side. You’ll figure it out. Take solace in the fact that everyone else is just as angsty as you are. No one else’s world map is done, no one’s eradicated teen pregnancy or eliminated the use of excessive oil in their community’s cooking. Get to know your trough well. So that the next time you find yourself in it, maybe you can spend less time crying and complaining to your mom, and more time treating yourself and finding a way to climb out. It only takes a little to find a foothold.

***Step 11. Ask for help. Sometimes it’s muddy in the trough. Sometimes the comedic stylings of Amy Schumer coupled with excessive hot chocolate are not enough. In that case, drop everything and ask for help. Pull out all the stops before you call it quits.