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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Home?

I just reread my Home post from a few weeks ago.  I still believe it's all true, but a few hours ago, I faced an unexpected emotion related to the idea of home.  Heck, maybe what I experienced today confirms ideas from the other post, I just didn't quite understand the ramifications of saying my home is people and not one, but many, many places...until today.

Since I arrived in Louisville two weeks ago today, I have been staying at my parents' house because renters were living in mine.  Thankfully, the renters took excellent care of the house.  They just bought their own place and last night I got a text from them saying they are all moved out of my house, so I could now move back in.  This is what I had been waiting for and excited about.  I'd get my stuff back!  I'd have my books and new (old) selection of clothes and garden and my house!  I'd be home again, really home!!!

When I walked into my house today, I encountered something I hadn't foreseen.  I had the distinct feeling that it's not my home anymore.  My furniture and a lot of my stuff are still there, but it's not mine.  OK, technically, it's mine.  But it's not home. As my stomach was churning with this idea, I was reasoning with myself (and my mom did the same when I told her this feeling) that maybe I just need to get settled, get my pictures back up and my things back out and it'll feel like it's mine again.

I'm sure I'll get comfortable in the space again.  It'll help when I have my cats back, two of the three anyhow.  My parents, who only begrudgingly agreed to take the third, now don't want to give him up and I won't ask them to.  I'll get the other two, who have been lovingly cared for by a former student, who I might better refer to as a friend, back soon.  However, I know that even when my cats and I are moved back in, boxes are unpacked, and pictures are back up, we will only be in the house temporarily and that the space I previously inhabited is not mine anymore.  It's not home.

Besides my parents' house, I have lived in 2 other places in Louisville, an apartment and my current house.  When I walked into each space for the very first time, while looking for a new place to live, I knew immediately, even before seeing the entire space, that that particular place would be my new home.  It's the gut thing.  My gut knows when it's home.

I've never had the sensation I had today, the distinct feeling that I am not home, or if I have, I didn't recognize it and couldn't articulate it at the time.  It is an uncomfortable feeling, especially for someone who has too great an attachment to stuff.  I think my grieving process, the one I delayed by not getting rid of a lot of stuff before I left in August, is about to begin in earnest.  It's time to let go in a new and bigger way.

From talking to other people who left a "normal life" and detached themselves from stuff to do so, I know (well, I'm trying to convince myself) that ultimately, when I've let go of most of what I own, I will feel liberated, perhaps in the same way I find "I don't know" exhilarating.  But I'm not there yet.

My plans for the future are still in progress (I'll let you know them when they are a little more solid), but I know I have more amazing things ahead of me.  Truly, I know this.  If I really believe what I wrote a few weeks ago about home, then I must also believe that giving up this physical security will not leave me homeless.  That last sentence was a hard one to write.  I guess I need some time to get myself to the point of believing it or settling into its implications.  If you see me crying, you'll know why.  That's all I can write right now.    


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Finding my voice

I knew it was happening, but I think today has confirmed that I have found my voice, at least my writing voice.  My speaking voice is still shaky.  I'm not sure I'll ever be good at speaking, but I don't mind.  Writing's always been my preferred mode of communication.  Words don't slide easily off my tongue, but my fingers seem to release them pretty well.

It's funny because as I sit here looking at the screen, I realize how accurate it is to use the word "find."  "Finding" is an even more appropriate description.  Every time I start to write a new blog post or any other piece of writing that I care about, it's the beginning of a search, an exploration of my mind or actually of the depth from which (I hope) the best of me comes.  I often start with vague notions of what I want to say, not quite seeing where those notions will take me.  Curious, I keep writing.  And the reality, whatever reality it is I need to see, begins to take shape, to crystallize before me.  I step forward (equally inward and outward), a new phrase or sentence, and the blur becomes a little clearer.  Another step, the colors before me brighten.  Funny, since I'm looking at a mostly black and white screen.  More steps, paragraphs, the focus sharpens.  When I'm finished writing, the picture, or at least the piece of the picture I'm meant to see for the moment, is ever so much clearer.

I wish I could say I am writing for you, but the truth is, this thing I am doing is about getting me to wherever I need to go.  I am only grateful that my process seems to help you take a step or two in the right direction, too.  Mine is a selfish pursuit that appears to be generous.  Thanks for indulging me...

I see today as a milestone because the post I wrote just yesterday, you know, that light and fluffy one about how people can kill other people, has reached more readers than any other post I've written.  It also made its way to a whole bunch of you more quickly than anything else I've posted.  I know because I can keep track of my blog stats and I do so more than I should probably admit (remember how before I was talking about selfish pursuits... maybe egotistical is a better description).  My second most-read post is from August of last year, if that tells you anything.

As I keep writing, I'm getting better at reaching the depths.  Every time I find what I didn't know I was looking for, I just want to keep reaching, keep exploring some more.   Again, I'm grateful that you're here to do it with me.

It is a little scary to think about today's milestone.  On the one hand, I desperately want my voice to be heard.  On the other, I don't want to disappoint and I know that what I need to see may be something that's already crystallized for you.  I guess I wrote about my fear of disappointing a few posts ago.  I've always held myself to a high standard and I don't like to fail, whatever that might mean in this context.  

As I write, I wonder where your voice is strongest.  What is it that helps you tap into your depths?  I hope what I am about to say is accurate.  For my dad, his art speaks his truth. For my brother it's science.  (I wish I shared my brother's passion for science, so that I could better honor his desire to talk about it.)  For my brother-in-law, it's music.  I make these claims because it is when they are immersed in those pursuits that their passion is clear.  It is from our passion that our voices emerge.

We all have a place (or places) we can go to explore and to find our voice, constantly and continually, allowing the picture we need to see to become clearer and bigger.  Some of us may be afraid to look...some may not know where to start.  All I can say is this: if you're not looking, start!  If you don't know what direction to turn, take a step in front of you and see what happens.  If you're unwilling to take a step, well, I don't know what to tell you. Today someone posted this Buddhist saying on Facebook: "If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking."   Is it possible you're not facing in the right direction?  Maybe.  But you can't know until you take a few steps.  If the picture before you remains blurry and distorted, maybe you need to make a turn.  Maybe your voice is waiting to be found around a different bend.

I only hope you'll keep searching, because the reward will be great.  I hope that even after you've found your voice, you'll keep exploring the nuances of it, so you can attune it to the voices around you and create beautiful and previously impossible harmonies, impossible because your voice was not a part of them.  I've always been a fan of beautiful harmonies...  Let's unite our voices, each one unique and absolutely necessary to this world, and SING!



Monday, May 28, 2012

Forgetting they're people...warning: this is not pretty

"The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, [killing them] will be no different at all." The Hunger Games

As I was on my way to meet a friend a couple days ago, I was listening to NPR, This American Life, the entirety of which was devoted to a particular massacre that happened in Guatemala in 1982.  It was one of the many massacres that happened in Guatemala during that time.  Similar horrors were also going on in El Salvador.  The last thing I heard before I got out of my car was about how this particular massacre happened to be the first one (that declassified documents show) the U.S. government knew about...after which it, my government, continued supporting the Guatemalan government in the bloodbath against its own people for many years.

I am thankful that, beyond your average mosquito or cockroach, I've never purposely killed anything.  Many years ago, I accidentally hit a raccoon.  I killed a teeny frog in India when I was trying to scoot it out of my room.  I felt pretty bad about both incidents.

I have no desire to kill.  I hope I never will.  I hope I will never have to seriously think about the possibility of taking someone's life.  When I have talked to my students (or anyone else, for that matter) about my attempted commitment to nonviolence (how many times do I fail in word and thought?), I explain that I think it is very different to be willing to die for something or someone and to be willing to kill for something or someone.  I'm not sure I'm willing to die for a cause, though I guess I've been in situations where there was a remote possibility of it.  I can confidently say that I am not willing to kill.  Maybe that confidence would be shattered if I were caught in a violent situation.  Maybe that commitment would vanish if the life of a loved one were in jeopardy.  I don't know and couldn't possibly know unless I were in that situation.  I hope I never am.

When I think about how someone can kill someone else, or maybe many others, it seems that distance, sometimes physical, but certainly spiritual and emotional, is key.  Someone who participated in the Guatemalan massacre came forward many years later and told in great detail what happened.  Mind you, what he described was not unique.  My sister who lived in Guatemala after the war and was present for exhumations of mass graves can tell you that.  Anyone who knows anything about the war in Guatemala can tell you that.  It was a scorched earth policy- the routine for the massacres was to go into a village, destroy all buildings, kill livestock, put most of the  people in one place (like a church), rape the women and girls, torture the men, and ultimately kill them all.  I remember hearing a story in El Salvador about how soldiers in one massacre threw babies up in the air and shot them.  It was a game for them.  In the case described on the radio, the bodies of some villagers, sometimes still with breath in them, were thrown in a well.  If I remember correctly, there were remains of 63 people recovered from the well.  Sixty-three.  Clearly, the soldiers did not see the villagers as brothers and sisters. The soldiers conveniently forgot the villagers were people.

Any time I hear about these things, I wonder how people create enough distance between themselves and another human to be able to kill.  The process may start innocently enough.  Simple steps to separate me from you.  You're different because _________________.  Therefore you're inferior.  You're an animal.   You're worse than an animal.  Your life is worthless. In fact, your life is harmful, so I must take it to preserve the well-being of others.  I think it goes something like that.  I hope I never walk far down that road, though I know I've taken steps on it and probably will again.

A few years ago after admiring a T-shirt, I made a poster with the theme "Love The Neighbor," the same theme of this blog.  I made it because I wanted it in my classroom as a constant reminder of that imperative for me and my students. I had my creation professionally photographed and then printed posters of it.  I figured if I needed and wanted the reminder, others might also benefit by having it around.  (As a sidebar, though I am not writing this to sell posters, I still have them for sale if you're interested.  Just let me know.)  I have needed the reminder more than I knew I would.  For a long time, the blank line at the bottom was the one that helped me most, as I'd fill the blank in with whomever was testing my resolve to love.  Of late it's been the "thy Jewish neighbor" line.  It shames me to admit it, maybe it comes as no surprise to anyone who's been keeping up with this blog, but after being in Palestine and seeing what Israelis do to Palestinians on a daily basis, it's been hard for me to feel loving towards Israelis and sadly, sometimes those negative feelings broaden beyond the small Israeli perimeter to those who I fear may support them, namely other Jews.


In an attempt to release some of those feelings, I visited the Jewish history museums in both Girona, Spain, and Amsterdam, Holland.  In both places I was reminded of the atrocities Jews have faced at various points in history.  I was saddened and sickened... In so many places and during too many different historical periods Jews were the people who others "forgot" were people and were treated accordingly, often to the point of death.  I learned that World War II was not the first time Jews had to wear a symbol to set them apart.  It was done in Spain centuries before.  And so the dehumanization process began, one that ultimately led to the expulsion of the Jews and the Inquisition.  Learning about this and reminding myself of the scope of the Holocaust only deepened my sadness over what is currently going on in Israel and Palestine.

How can people who have suffered so deeply now cause the profound suffering, sometimes mirroring their own experience, of others?  I don't know.  Israelis, let me correct myself, many but not all Israelis, have created distance- physical, spiritual, emotional- from their Palestinian neighbors.  The distance makes it easier to think of Palestinians as nothing, leading to horrible abuses, and, in some cases, to killing them.  (If I'm being honest, I could say the same for Palestinians.  The difference is that Palestinians don't have the power; Israelis do.)  Thankfully, because of my experiences with groups like Ta'ayush and Breaking the Silence, I cannot write off all Israelis.  I also know there are many Jews in the U.S. and around the world who recognize Palestinians as their brothers and sisters.  I also have to believe that if others (and I don't only limit this to Jews) knew what I know, then maybe they, maybe you, would be as outraged as I am.  So I continue to write my thoughts that sometimes connect easily and sometimes come together with ragged edges like a mosaic made from broken pottery.

Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor those who have died defending our country.  I believe it is noble to serve one's country.  My grandfather and uncle, friends, and students have done so.  It is admirable to be willing to give up one's life for it.  I wonder how many also had to surrender a little of their humanity as they were trained to kill, as they were taught that the "enemy" was comprised of sub-human better-off-dead beings. That is also a huge sacrifice.  I wonder how many soldiers today suffer from giving up that piece of humanity. Each week at mass, one of my friends prays for men and women serving in the military and prays that someday in our lifetime we will see peace in our world.  This Memorial Day I also fervently pray for peace in our world, so that on future Memorial Days there will be no new names that we must memorialize, so that no one else will have to choose to forget that people are people, relinquishing some of their humanity in order extinguish the life of another.   

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Dog and a Boy

I was sitting at a traffic light yesterday and saw a boy sitting under a tree with a dog.  The dog reminded me of a picture I'd seen of a stray dog a friend has fallen in love with.  The boy reminded me of a former student.  I kept looking at the pair until the light turned green, staring as I passed by.  Seeing them got me thinking about my friend's dog, my former student, and what they might have in common.

The stray, ears in tatters, teeth missing, and a few other signs of a rough life I can't quite remember, has not yet surrendered to the kindness of my friend.  My student never fully surrendered to mine, either.

My student was...trying...to say the least, but I absolutely adored him.  He did his best to push my buttons, sometimes succeeding, and yet I was and still am so glad he graced my classroom with his presence.  He was one of the kids I taught two years in a row and he (and probably many other people) might be surprised that I would use a phrase like "graced my classroom with his presence" in reference to him.  When he chose to engage (as opposed to simply checking out) in class, he was often abrasive and offensive, sometimes disdainful, and could get under the skin of his classmates if he chose to.  He and I had a number of...interesting...dialogues on paper...when he chose to do my assignments.  He often challenged what I said in class and I'm pretty sure he did it for the sheer sake of arguing, rather than (at least in some cases) because he actually believed what he was writing or saying. A skeptic for sure.  Thankfully, I was up for the challenge.  I like having skeptics in my class because they help me to step up my own game and articulate my points better than I would if I had a class of complacent unquestioning kids. Thankfully, I've never had a class of all complacent unquestioning kids.

I am reading The Hunger Games right now. The stray and my student remind me of Katniss at the beginning of the novel as she tries to figure out why Peeta is being kind to her.  She says, "Kind people have a way of working their way inside me and rooting there.  And I can't let Peeta do this."  Given the scars and pieces of flesh missing from the dog, I'd venture to say the dog might take some time to accept the kindness of my friend, to let it root.  Accepting kindness leads to vulnerability.  Vulnerability is a luxury, one the streetwise, whether they be dogs or people, cannot easily afford.

My kindness, though I'm not even sure I can call it that, was something my student didn't want to let root.  I think he interpreted my tolerance of him, my reaching out to him, my refusal to give up on him, as weakness.  I suppose his interpretation was correct.  I allowed myself to care for him, knowing full well that I probably wouldn't receive much back. Caring for a kid like that can sometimes hurt.  I tried to hold him accountable, to ask for the best he had.  He didn't give it to me.  He was a smart kid.  That was obvious when he chose to speak up.  Of course, he bragged about how good he was at manipulating me.  He failed my class, so I guess he didn't manipulate a passing grade out of me...  When I read his final exam, I saw him let down his guard a little, maybe because he knew we wouldn't see each other again, when he admitted, "The only truthful answer there is is that I’m still not sure about anything I believe."  Not an admission made by the tough and impermeable.  Maybe my kindness seeped in just a little...

My friend has been giving food to the stray, trying to win him over, trying to plant a seed of kindness. I hope he'll succeed.  I haven't seen my student since he was last in my classroom a year or so ago.  I'm not sure what or how he's doing now, but I think about him a lot.  I hope someone has been patiently feeding him love and confidence, helping him to figure out what he believes. I hope some kind person has worked through his tough exterior, gotten inside, and taken root. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Blissful Ambiguity

I've been home a week and it's been a surprisingly easy transition.  I think spending a week alone in Montenegro with nothing but beautiful surroundings and my thoughts was the best thing I could have done to prepare myself for the homecoming...

I came home to a flurry of graduation activities and have been seeing friends and family (and will continue to do so) since I arrived, one week ago today.  As I feared, it's been difficult to verbalize all that's happened.  Certainly, I can give a play by play of where I've been, but then someone asks the question, "How have you changed?", a vitally important question, and I am at a loss for words.  Maybe not a total loss, but it's hard to explain something that is still mid-process.  I don't think I'm finished growing or changing from the last 8 1/2 months. I know I've changed and I think I am still in evolution, moving forward.  I hope so, or my time away was wasted.

Of course, many people (understandably) have asked me what's next on the horizon.  My answer...I don't know.  This is an answer many people are not comfortable with.  However I am comfortable with it.  They will usually respond in what I think is meant to be a comforting tone (but really feels condescending) that I'll figure it out, that something will come along, that it'll all work out.  I KNOW.  If I didn't know that, I never would have left in the first place.  If I were scared or really didn't know that I'll figure it out, their answer would probably only prompt me to think about all the reasons they're wrong.  Luckily, I'm in too good of a place to hijack my own blissful ambiguity right now.

Some people have made comments alluding to how I can go back to life now that I have that out of my system. Well, let me tell you, that is not out of my system.  If it were, I may as well have never done that.  I don't want it out of my system.  I want it firmly lodged in my system.  Systemic change happens from the inside out, right?  I might have a small system compared to what people usually mean when they talk about systemic change, but I want my small system to keep changing... The more I can change it, the more I can maybe help a big system or two move an inch, a millimeter, a hair closer to its best embodiment, the way I hope I'm moving towards mine.

I know I am writing from a unique position.  I know that the vast majority of people do not have the luxury of "I don't know."  Some people may have the possibility of living comfortably in "I don't know," but are terrified of it.  It would not be blissful ambiguity for them, but gut-wrenching, insomnia-inducing, freak-out ambiguity, so they make hasty decisions, for better or for worse, just to escape the possibility of uncertainty.  It's likely I'll have some moments of panic as my funds deplete and answers take their time in coming to me, but right now, the answer fits me like a perfect pair of jeans (something that's hard to come by for most women, definitely for me).

But then as I think about "I don't know," I am reminded that none of us really knows anything about what's ahead.  Sure, we make plans, long-term and short-term, and I'll be doing the same, but none of those plans are a guarantee of anything.  Our lives can change...or end... in a moment.  When I left for India, I was prepared to die. OK, maybe I wasn't exactly prepared for it, but OK with the idea of it  (http://trulylovethyneighbor.blogspot.com/2011/09/to-be-light.html).

Let me tell you, I came home alive, Alive, ALIVE. I feel connected to the world, to my friends, to my family, to myself.  I came out of a hole I had burrowed into over a number of years and I came out flying! I guess I needed those previous years to bring about my metamorphosis...  Maybe I did die and now I've come back to life.  I haven't felt this way in a long, long time. It feels good and I think it's because I've slipped into those jeans, into the "I don't know," into blissful ambiguity, into openness to whatever will be, into trusting God or the Universe or whatever other name you might give to that larger Force that moves around, among, and within us.

Because of my extraordinary fortune, I feel like I'm bragging as I write all of this.  I don't mean to.  I hope with every cell, molecule, atom, of my being that you feel as alive, as comfortable, as blissful as I do right now.  Or maybe you're in your hole now.  Though being in a hole tends not to be particularly fun, we need those times, too.  You'll come out when you're ready.  Wherever you happen to be in your journey, I hope you can let go of whatever scares you and settle into the joy of realizing that you don't have control over everything and you're not supposed to. I hope you can slip into knowing that whatever happens will ultimately bring you to your own low-level systemic change...if you let it...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What Education Looks Like...photos

The following are photos I took in India and Palestine that may provide insight into education in each place.  The pictures are not necessarily representative of how things are in the entire country, but rather what I saw as I was working and traveling.  They are not in any sort of order, except that they are grouped by country...


Taking a test, Hunterganj ashram, Jharkhand, India

Seventh grade boys, Chatra SCN English Medium school, Jharkhand, India


Ceremony during the SCN high school Sports Day, Chatra, Jharkhand, India

Chetna Bharati girls working hard on mini-posters, Chatra ashram, Jharkhand, India
Sports Day race, SCN high school, Chatra, Jharkhand, India
Cooking, cleaning, and organic gardening are examples of the skills (along with basic "school" skills) children learn at the Hunterganj ashram.  Children live there for several months to several years. Jharkhand, India
A tae kwon do demostration (running through fluorescent light bulbs) was part of Sports Day, SCN high school, Chatra, Jharkhand, India
Morning chores, Hunterganj ashram, Jharkhand, India

My Chetna Bharati girls showing off the mini-posters they're making.  Chatra, Jharkhand, India






Children's Walk, Pretapur.  The children walked through the village demanding a good education (or education period) ...an exercise in empowerment at a young age... Jharkhand, India


If I could read Hindi, I'd tell you what their sign says... Pretapur, Jharkhand, India


Village non-formal school near Pretapur.  Yep, that's the school you see there, outside on a small stretch of concrete.  The teacher often has to go to students' houses to get them to come to class. Jharkhand, India
First graders, Chatra SCN English Medium school, Jharkhand, India

Sixth grade girls, Chatra SCN English Medium school, Jharkhand, India

Girls at Pretapur ashram getting ready for classes, Jharkhand, India
No Indian celebration is complete without song...or dance... or both...Annual Day, Chatra English Medium school, Jhanrkhand, India
In Nablus there are many community centers that offer extracurricular activities.  This was one of my English classes at Al-Manhal Community Center.  We were singing a song...rock star-style, Nablus, Palestine
Excited to answer...probably some ridiculous question that allowed them to make up a ridiculous answer (as long as they answered in English).  I'm told my style was a bit unconventional... Al-Manhal Center, Nablus, Palestine
When the class at Al-Manhal ended, I started teaching at a center the Al-Ein Refugee Camp, all young girls.  We had some good fun!  Nablus, Palestine
Some of my fabulous teenagers!  We had after-school classes at the Hamdi Manko Community Center, Nablus, Palestine
A few of the girls from the Hamdi Manko class, Nablus, Palestine
One day a Hamdi Manko student invited his rapper friend to come speak to our class, Nablus, Palestine
Drama created by students at one of the centers in Balata Refugee Camp.  Their teacher was another Project Hope volunteer, Nablus, Palestine


Project Hope offers (primarily) English classes for adults.  This is my "man class." Nablus, Palestine
Balata Girls School, Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus, Palestine


Again, access to education and school quality vary from place to place...these are simply the places I visited or volunteered as I was traveling...





Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trinity High School Class of 2012: This is for you

"Where do I get one?"  "Is that for me?"

I'll get to explaining the above in a little bit, don't worry.  Last night I went to Baccalaureate mass for the 2012 Trinity High School graduating class. This senior class is the class that I have claimed, more than any other, as "my boys." This class is the only reason I considered staying in Louisville when I was preparing for the year I've just finished.

I'm glad I didn't stay, not because I wouldn't have loved to have been with them for their successes and struggles (though the successes seemed to outnumber the struggles); I would have treasured that. I'm glad I didn't stay, because, honestly, they didn't need me. I say this in a proud mama sort of way. The lessons I tried to teach them when they were in my classes, the heart lessons, the most important lessons, seemed to stick... or maybe they already knew them all and just learned to practice them better.  Who's to say?  My point is that I don't think I could have offered them any more than I already had.  It seems that these guys had it pretty well together.  From everything I've seen from them and heard about them, they did a pretty fine job of taking care of each other, of living out the school year's theme, "Together as One." In fact, the school president even described them as "the best" last night, a compliment I hope they didn't take lightly.

I taught many of these young men as both sophomores and juniors and in those two years, I saw so much growing up happen.  I also witnessed their coming together process develop.  The death of one of their own sophomore year certainly bonded them.  Amazing how grief can bring people together.  Good blossoms out of the hardship, the dirt, the muck, that we live...

I taught Catholic Social Teaching (CST) to one hundred thirty or so of this class their junior year. CST is one of my favorite classes to teach because we get to dig into complex social issues, learn about them from an "insider's perspective", discuss them, write about them, and, in many cases, be changed by the process.  I asked the boys to write a lot for me, something many were not used to doing.  In their journals, I asked them be honest with me and with themselves.  It wouldn't do them or anyone else any good if they spewed what they thought I wanted to read.  In their journals, I didn't grade them for content, so that they would truly feel free to be honest.  Sometimes I wrote back to them as much as they wrote to me, but their grades never suffered because they disagreed with what I was teaching.  They trusted me and they were honest.  Sometimes I think they surprised themselves as the words they wrote poured forth freely, words they didn't even know were there or theirs until they were written down.

I asked them to be open to new ideas and new people. They were. They read essays by and about prisoners, immigrants, abused women, homeless people, gang members, and, eventually, even their own classmates... And as they read, they paid attention.  They were open to the notion that these people, the ones they may not have thought much about before, had something to say to them, had something to teach them, had more in common with them than they may have ever considered.  And my boys, they learned.  They opened their minds.  More importantly, they opened their hearts.  How amazing it was for me to witness this happening and to think that I may have played even a small role in that opening.

As we studied various social issues, we read Freedom Writers Diary, a collection of diary entries written by teens in east Los Angeles that gives a teenage perspective on just about any social issue you can think of. We then created our own collection of writing and even had it published, thanks to the generosity of Bill Fust, a Trinity alumnus.  We didn't finish putting the collection together until late in the summer and I got my copy of the book only hours before I boarded my plane to set off for India.  Let me say, while acknowledging that I am just a wee bit biased when I write this, that the book they created turned out pretty awesome.  They submitted pieces that were heartfelt and honest, that showed their growth or the growth process.  A group of them worked during the summer to put everything together. They did an outstanding job.  Again, a proud mama moment.  Some of the sisters in India read the book.  Some of the folks at Project Hope read it.  They, like my students, had some revelations, some discoveries that life "over there" isn't quite what they imagined it to be.  Through their honest writing, my students became teachers.  We never know whose or how many lives we touch...

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many of the boys didn't get their book copies and the books sat in boxes for most of the school year.  I arrived in Louisville on Thursday and Friday went to Trinity for senior awards day.  I got a box of the books, so that I could try to pass them out to as many guys as possible over the weekend.  Last night I handed out 40.  Today as the young men walked out of their graduation, I handed out 25 more.  I'll try to track down the rest so they have their copies, too.

Some students had forgotten about the project, some were so grateful to finally have a copy in their hands.  I think all were impressed by the professional look of the book (with good reason).  They had in their hands a real bound book that they helped to create. As I put them in their hands and asked, "Do you have one of these yet?" and they answered, "No," they asked how to get a copy and/or looked in awe as I told them the very one in their hands was theirs.  "Really?  This is for me? I don't have to pay for it?"  Nope, they were given to us.  The boys thanked me, but really, they were the ones who did the work... They deserve the thanks.

I watched my boys graduate today.  I think I had about two thirds of them in class at some point.  As their names were called and they walked across the stage, many thoughts crossed my mind... "Wow, I'm so proud he made it." "He's come such a long way." "What a great kid."  "I can't wait to see what he does."  "I'll really miss him."  "I hope he keeps in touch."

I don't know how many of the boys read this.  One told me he's been following it.  What an enormous compliment. Many probably don't even know this exists and that's OK.  Over the last few days, some of my boys, not just the ones I taught last year, have made a point to find me, give me a hug, thank me for a retreat letter, thank me in general, ask about my travels, tell me I was missed. It's humbling. It's affirming.  It's testament to their goodness, their thoughtfulness, their commitment to living right (or living the fourth, for those who know what that means).

And to share the my wealth of blessings, I want to acknowledge a few, even if they never see this...I'll stick to first names...yes, there will be some repeated names, but I'm talking to different people. Stephen- you told me about some of your God moments; in doing so, you gave me a God moment.  Ernie- you wrote me a wonderful message.  I can't thank you enough.  I think you've taught me at least as much as I taught you.  Danny- what you said to me meant so much.  Thank you.  Stephen- you thanked me for my service.  I think you matched or even surpassed my hours by serving in so many ways.  Elliott, Keaton, Anthony, Tyler, Will, Shane, Matt, Ben, Brendan, Chris, Luke, Riley, Louie- thanks for keeping in touch and checking in every once in awhile.  I hope you continue to do so as you move onto bigger and better.  Wilson- you told me you couldn't find the words to write a reply.  That's OK.  Seeing you was a joy, knowing that you care is enough even if the words are never put on paper.  Nate- I have thought of you often and am so happy to see you again.  I hope we'll connect before the summer's over. Blake- you about knocked me over with a hug and were one of the first to welcome me home.  Thanks for that.  Joey- the utter joy you showed in seeing me makes me smile even now.  Ricky- thanks for what you said to me.  It means a lot.  Will- thanks for thinking of someone else when you asked for a second book.  Nate- thanks for taking an interest in my trip.  Jonah- thanks for your affirmation.  It was good to see you.  Travis, Riley, and Tyler- wow, what a special addition to mass.  Jaime- love your honesty.  Max- look me up and we'll talk travel when you have the money, but let me say again, you don't need a lot of money to travel.  Will- I love that you are not taking the conventional path.  It shows you have a good handle on what works for you.  Brandon- you have a heart of gold and I am so glad I got to see into it, not only right before I left, but right when I got home.   Jordan and Scott- thanks for asking about my journey. Damon and Isaac- how cool is it to have seen you grow so much over so many years.

I'm sure if I continued to sit here, more and more...and more names and reasons to be grateful would spring to mind.  I hope no one will feel slighted by a name not being here.  But I think I will stop here and conclude with this:

Trinity High School Class of 2012- You are and forever will be my boys.  I'm proud of you and I love you.  Thanks for all you've done for me, for each other, and for the world.  Keep on livin' it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Rude Guy Challenge

I've said this a few times in the last few months, but I have felt enveloped in love for the last...long time.  This has translated into a feeling of protection and of comfort while I've been traveling.  I arrived home Thursday morning, finally able to physically feel the loving embrace of my family.  Thursday night and Friday I was at Trinity functions, seeing students and teachers.  I also saw some of my good friends Thursday.  On my first days back, I have been so warmly embraced, literally and figuratively.  I wonder how I have come to be so incredibly blessed...I say this with a sense of awe and gratitude...

The other day I was in the airport shuttle in Istanbul.  There was a guy in the shuttle who clearly wasn't happy.  I'd seen him the day before as we were getting our hotel vouchers for the night.  He was incredibly rude to the guy passing out the hotel vouchers.  I wonder how often the vouchers guys are verbally assaulted for things over which they have no control...

Now, in all fairness, Rude Guy had apparently been having a rough time of it, so his bad mood was maybe understandable.  I gathered from the cell phone conversation which was impossible not to hear in the shuttle that he wasn't supposed to have spent the night in Istanbul and that his luggage had been lost.  When his friend asked, "How are you?"  his answer was, "Arrogant. Pissed off.  My usual self."  He also said he was nursing a hangover from the night before.

What a sad life.  Hearing him just made me sad.  I wondered what had happened in his life to make "arrogant and pissed off" his norm.  Were there not other people in the shuttle, I may have tried to strike up a conversation, saying something to try to make him feel just a little less pissed off.  But I didn't.  I did, however, try to channel good energy and good thoughts his way, knowing that if he felt a little better, the people he encountered may fare better than the voucher guy the day before.  Our emotions and actions tend to have a ripple effect, after all.

I don't know what happened with Rude Guy after we got out of the shuttle.  I don't know if he felt the vibes I was trying to send him.  I hope he did.  Seeing him got me thinking, though.  Being tired and hungry often turns me into a person about as pleasant as Rude Guy, though I managed to hold it together during my long journey from Montenegro to Louisville. Now, despite exhaustion, I am riding on a wave of love. How could I not feel contented and joyful?  I hope that people around me are feeling the loving energy that is radiating around me.  I can't imagine that it can be contained within me, nor do I want it to.  That would be a waste of a gift.  I hope you feel it, as you have most definitely contributed to it.

Now here's the challenge... Believe me, this is a challenge I am issuing to myself, too.  We all meet a lot of different people as we go through our days.  Sometimes we are the ones radiating warmth and love, sometimes we are Rude Guy.  The challenge is to practice sending out good vibes even when we may not be feeling them so strongly. This doesn't mean we always have to be in a good mood.  It just means we don't take our mood out on others, in particular others who have nothing to do with the mood.  The challenge is to emit calm and peace, even when we're dealing with Rude Guy.  The challenge is to remember that none of us really deserves to be treated badly...even when maybe it feels like we do...or they do.  This doesn't mean evil shouldn't be confronted, it should.  But we can do it while maintaining our own dignity and respecting that of others.  The challenge is to remember that we all, ALL, ALL deserve, need, thrive on love...even when it feels like we don't...or they don't.

Now let me be a little more specific about my little challenge.  Some time in the next few days, or y'know, if you really want to, every day (soon it'll become a habit), I challenge you to be very deliberate in sending some positive vibes out, in whatever way you want, doing it obviously or not, to someone you don't know or someone you know, to someone who clearly needs the boost.  Maybe the guy who just cut you off, the girl at the grocery store, just anyone... Wish them peace, give them a smile, offer them a hand, something, anything, that reminds both you and them that they are deserving of all good things that come to them.  I think you'll find your own day change from the effort and maybe, just maybe it'll change someone else's day, too, rippling out farther than you can imagine.  Up for it?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Out the car window...photos from India

The title pretty much sums it up.  Months ago, many months ago, I thought I'd post pictures that I took from the car as we were driving through India.  Because of 1) lack of Internet access while in India and 2) other things to post about once I'd left India, these pictures are only now being posted.  These are from the states of Jharkhand and Bihar.  Some are a little blurry, as the car was often moving while I was shooting.  I included them anyway... They are in no particular order. I will probably have many photo-only or photo-dominant posts in the near future.

Mmmmm...fruit!


Don't forget to decorate your tractor. 

Waiting...

Anyone need some chickens?






I think we can fit a few more.

River bed, even after a good rainy season...

Carrying on the head leaves hands free. 

Construction

Sweets for sale!

This road belongs to us, too, you know!
Here we come!



Strong legs

Monday, May 14, 2012

Perfect last day

Thankfully, I'd been watching the forecast, so I knew it was going to be a rainy day. And, oh boy, was it, is it, a rainy day! Last night I could hear the weather changing as the wind gusts brought in cooler temperatures and cloudy, soon to be rainy, skies.  When I woke up it was already raining. The town, at least what I could see of it from my balcony, seemed to be deserted.

I knew I didn't want to spend all day inside. There was one little island town, Sveti Stefan- actually an island hotel complex, I wanted to see. After lying comfortably in bed for awhile listening to the rain, I got myself ready to face the elements.  I went to get information from the hotel owners, who at 10 AM offered me some local wine. Figuring it was my last day of vacation, I accepted, though I declined a second glass when a new full 2-liter Coke bottle of local wine was brought out.  After drinking my wine and getting directions to the proper bus station, I set off. It wasn't raining too hard and I had my umbrella anyway.

When I was dropped at the Sveti Stefan bus station above the actual town, I took stairs, a lot of stairs, all the way down to the beach. "These will be fun going back up!"

Arriving at the beach, I took what could be my last Lightning and Finn pictures.  I walked along the beach and tried to make my way to the island (a causeway to it has been built), but was told that I wasn't allowed because I'm not a guest at the hotel. "Whatever," was my reply as I walked away, not too concerned since I saw a path through some cypress trees ahead of me. I took the path, which led me up through trees overlooking the water and then back down towards another beach or... an olive grove. The rain had been coming down off and on. Conveniently, when I arrived at the grove, it was off.

This morning I had put cards and letters I  received from friends and family before and while I was away in my purse. As I walked through the grove, I read each one. As I'd decided to do yesterday, I also apologized to the trees, though I didn't hug them. They were a little too wet for that.

After reading my letters, I knew I was ready to go home. I put the letters back in my bag, thanked God for my friends, my family, the experiences of the last 8 1/2 months, the peace of the present moment, and asked God to keep us all mindful of the gift of Grace, a gift we too often forget that we, all of us, have been given.

 I retraced my steps back to the beach and up the many stairs.  The rain was coming down pretty hard as I waited for the bus to go back, but I stood there waiting with a smile on my face, knowing that if it had been a sunny day or if I'd been allowed on the island I wouldn't have had my going-home ritual in the olive grove.

By the time I arrived back in Petrovac, the rain was, well, it was enough to keep the streets flooded. I stopped at the first restaurant on the side of the street I happened to be on, got a bite to eat, and walked back to my hotel in the still heavy rain.

"This is like Nablus rain, but not as cold. This is like Indian rain, but not as hot," I thought to myself, thinking I sounded a little like Goldilocks.  Rain like this would bother me on other days, but today it reminded me of the places I've been and I was perfectly content to walk in it, drenching my shoes and my clothes, despite my umbrella.

I have spent the rest of the afternoon, much of it snuggled in a blanket to warm up, listening to the rain outside. I'm not bothered because I can't be out and about. I've had a wonderful last day. I've had a wonderful journey. I'm ready to go home.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Grieving for trees...

I love olive trees. You don't see olive trees in the U.S., but I've had the pleasure of checking out a lot of olive trees as I've wandered around the Mediterranean. I don't like olives, much to my mother's dismay, but I can't get enough of gazing at olive trees. I first became fascinated by them (I first became aware of them) during my first trip to Jerusalem in 2009 in the Garden of Gethsemane. I don't know how anyone could not think those trees, those two- or three-thousand year old trees, are not impressive. They're gnarled and twisted and have cool holes that I'm pretty sure have a special name, but I don't know what that name is. I love the color of the leaves and the way light plays off them. I just think they're cool.

When I left Spain a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure I was done seeing olive trees, much to my dismay. But, lo and behold, here at my last stop, there are olive trees everywhere, casually growing by the side of the road, beneath my balcony, in a grove just behind the building... On my way to this town (Petrovac), there was a sign for an "old olive tree." I was on a bus, so I couldn't check out the old tree, but I was imagining the amazing trees at Gethsemane.

Today I was looking at Facebook and saw, among other disheartening news related to Palestine, that last night 19 olive trees were snapped low on their trunks, broken, killed. It makes me cry. It makes me cry for the trees that are innocent bystanders in a conflict between humans. I imagine the trees are in pain, crying out as they slowly die, wondering why they, who could live and provide for thousands of years, have been chosen to die. They weren't even cut, but snapped, left with their tops still hanging down from where they once were connected, alive, producing. Now not only are the trees dead, but so probably is a Palestinian family's livelihood...

I've always sort of been a tree-hugger, though not in the literal sense, or at least have felt some affinity to tree-huggers. Tomorrow I may go into the olive grove and hug some trees and apologize to them for the way we humans involve them in affairs that really are best dealt with human to human... Then I'll thank them for the joy they give me and I'll gaze a little more, taking them in before I have to say good-bye to them for a long time.

A few of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem...not in peril...



Relating to Paulo

I don't generally read books more than once. I bought Aleph by Paulo Coelho in the airport in Spain in January. I finished the book within days and told myself I'd re-read it. I didn't open it while in Palestine or as I travelled through Turkey. I still carried it with me to Italy, but ended up giving it to my Couchsurfing host in Assisi because of a conversation we'd had. However, after giving it away, every time I saw the book in a store window, I'd pause and consider buying it again. At the Paris airport a few days ago, I did.  I've already re-read it and may very well read it a third time before I come home.  We shall see...

Many things struck a chord with me as I read the book...and re-read the book. There are a lot of dog-eared pages and there would be highlighted passages if I'd had a highlighter. Rather than quoting everything that struck me (that'd make for a very long post), I'll share just one, as it seems so perfectly true in my life at this particular moment:

"I am not a foreigner because I haven't been praying to return safely home, I haven't wasted my time imagining my house, my desk, my side of the bed. I am not a foreigner because we are all travelling, we are all full of the same questions, the same tiredness, the same fears, the same selfishness and the same generosity. I am not a foreigner because when I asked, I received. When I knocked, the door opened. When I looked, I found."

Amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A letter to Mom

Again, shared with permission...

Dear Mom,

It's your turn. I've been looking for the right words to say. We'll see how I do. Let me start with this: You are an incredible woman. I'm not sure you always believe this, but it is true. No, you're not perfect, but who of us is?

As I grow older (and you do, too), I discover more things about you that impress me. First, you have an incredible thirst for knowledge, as well as a stunning wealth of knowledge. You are constantly reading, whether it be from the National Catholic Reporter, Time magazine, or a guidebook on France. What is even more amazing is what you already have stored away. I am certain my brain does not hold as much as yours. I'll admit I didn't appreciate all you had to offer in France, because my poor brain was already on overload and unprepared to listen to the many gems of knowledge you had to share with me. Sorry for that.

I think it is amazing that you are still challenging yourself to try new things, whether it be yoga, bike riding, or meditation. It's cool to see you exploring your own depth by pushing yourself in new ways.

You have a passion for justice and the fortitude to speak when others are too afraid to. While I've succeeded speaking my truth a few times, you seem to have the strength to speak up any time it is necessary, something I cannot say about myself. You are hard on yourself, which is great, because it means you keep moving forward. At the same time, I think you need to cut yourself some slack sometimes. That's a battle I face, too...finding the balance between both accepting who I am (the good and the bad) and striving to be my best self. I'll say again that you're not perfect, not because I want you to feel bad, but because I want you to know that you're not meant to be and all of us who love you love you in your entirety.  If you were perfect, you wouldn't need anyone else and that would make for a lonely existence. It's OK to get frustrated sometimes and it's OK to be weak sometimes. Neither makes you any less incredible...

I feel like I haven't said things as perfectly as I'd like to. Sorry for the limitations of my words. Just know that even if I didn't seem appreciative last week or in general, I am very thankful that you are my mom.

Happy Mother's Day!

Love,
Cor

How to tell...

Thank God I've already told you some of my stories here, but there are so many more to tell and so many more people I hope will want to listen.  However, when I get home, I fear I'll be asked so many questions that all I'll be able to do is look with a blank stare and say, "I don't know."

My mom told me that lots of people want me to come speak about my experiences. I expected that. I look forward to it. I dread it. Yes, I know I've just contradicted myself.

Here's the deal: I am pretty good at sharing stories, at least in writing. I can't speak a story nearly as well as I can write one.  I am also not good at reciting the cold hard facts: statistics, figures, dates. This has become increasingly clear as I've been around people who are good at remembering such things or who want to know them.  This is clear when I read my guidebook and promptly forget what I've just read. On top of this deficit, I have not done a great job in keeping notes about everything I've seen, heard, experienced...

I know the "objective" facts are important (of course, the "facts" may change depending on who's reporting them; so much for objective), but I don't care about them as much as I care about the stories behind them and here's why:  I think sometimes people get so focused on the numbers that they...we...forget that each of those facts and statistics is a person, an animal, a tree, a life-giving water source, or something else real, tangible, beautiful in its own unique way.

I like to focus on the small pictures, sometimes to the detriment of the larger one... I want to see the reality of one or two, to feel the reality as well as I can when I'm not living it myself.  At the same time, sometimes the reality is so awful that I want to put my hands over my ears, close my eyes, and scream. Even when I witness or hear about some horrors, I find them hard to believe... I hope my accounts will feel real to whoever chooses to listen, because some stories are begging to be told.

I hope my audience is as concerned with the stories, the real ones about real people, as I am. I fear some will only want to know the easy stuff: the cities, monuments, and museums I've visited, the foods I've tried, the souvenirs I've bought. While it will be nice to share those things, I have to admit, they're not the stories I'm most eager to tell. I want to show people (you?) pictures of my seventh graders, the ones who learned the words to "Siyahamba" and then created their own version of it for my going away. I want you to see the dry rivers we crossed over, the ones that were dry even after a good rainy season. I want to tell you about my "man class" and my teens who are struggling to find their place in the world, all of whom continue to shower me with love, despite our increasing physical distance.  I want to tell you about checkpoints (a blog about which has been months in the making and still isn't quite right) and protests. Most of what I want to share is not the easy stuff, but it's the stuff that matters.

The first challenge  in preparing my presentations will be this: to  use the small pictures to exemplify the big picture, trying to make clear complexities I'm not even sure I fully understand.

There is so much I didn't learn, so much I may have seen and not fully understood or absorbed, so much more to know... As I think about trying to put these months into concise informative presentations, I fear that I will disappoint by not being able to answer questions, disappoint by not focusing on what others want to know, disappoint because this journey was so deeply personal that I can't possibly make an "objective" presentation, disappoint because the lessons I learned were not the ones I was "supposed to" learn.

As I think about the lessons I've learned, some are laughable in their simplicity.  Make my bed (This won't make the cut for any presentations). Conserve water (a lesson I find easy to forget when I don't face its immediate repercussions). Share (still learning to live it). Let the little things go (a lesson I needed to be reminded of just today when my perfect equilibrium was upset over a few Euros on a restaurant bill). Sure, there are many others. They're still unfolding.  I hope I'll find the words to express them. I'm struggling right now to do so.  I hope I will not disappoint you with what I have to share. All I can say is I've done my best to soak in what I could. I'll do my best to pour it out, too. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Montenegro

If you had asked me two weeks ago where I'd be right now, my answer would have been, "I'm not sure, because I haven't bought my ticket home, but I'll probably be in the U.S. because I've left with my mom, France, (because I've stayed a little longer), or the Netherlands, because I'm almost certainly flying out of Amsterdam. It's cheaper to fly from there than from anywhere else."

I'm in Montenegro. My answer two weeks ago most definitely didn't include Montenegro. In fact, if you'd asked me 2 weeks ago where Montenegro is, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. I know now. It's in the Balkans, bordered by Albania,  Croatia, Serbia, and a few other countries.

Life is a funny creature, because though I never planned to be here, I am certain that this is the perfect place for me to be right now.  I wanted to end my journey (the current traveling part of it) in a place that required nothing of me but being. Yes, Montenegro has things to see and do, but many people just come to hang out on its beaches and soak in the sun and natural beauty. My plan is to hang out on its beaches, soak in the sun and natural beauty, and let my mind take me wherever I need to go to prepare to go back to the U.S.  While I'm here, I want as little new information as possible to enter my brain.  I want the thoughts already there that are swimming around like ducks to put themselves in a row, or two, or three...I have a lot of swimming thoughts; they'll probably have to make a lot of rows for any kind of order to manifest itself.  (Unrelated side note: due to some great luck, I took some awesome pictures of ducks and swans, leading my cousin's husband to remark, "Maybe you should specialize in pictures of waterfowl.")  I hope that this will be a time when I am writing like a crazy fiend. I guess we'll all find out.

Here's how being in Montenegro came about: I had been watching fares for awhile and Amsterdam was always by far the cheapest place in Europe to fly home from. I didn't buy a ticket because, well, I'm a procrastinator. And then the fare went up by several hundred dollars. So I started looking at fares from just about everywhere on this side of the world, using a map to come up with new possible departure points. After exhaustive searching, I had two options: flying from Prague or flying from Sofia, Bulgaria.  As it happened, flying from Sofia was hundreds of dollars cheaper than the original Amsterdam flight and a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the Prague flight.  I started looking more around Bulgaria, wondering where I could go to mostly just be, so that I could process things.  Montenegro's beaches seemed like a good option...I hadn't done any beach lounging during my trip and hadn't even once worn the bathing suit I'd carried for 8 months. With the two options in mind, I decided to sleep on it (still procrastinating...) As I thought about it, a beach was sounding more and more appealing (and I'm not usually a beach kind of girl), so I decided on Montenegro/Bulgaria. I booked the ticket to Montenegro and then went to get the ticket from Bulgaria to home...except that though the cheap price was still listed, it didn't actually exist anymore...crap. More searching, with no cheap flights to be found. So I decided to just stay here the whole time, since I'd pay the same (or more) leaving from somewhere else.
Ducks in Pamukkale, Turkey, not Montenegro, but you get the idea...

I am spending more to fly home than I wanted to. Do I think my time in Montenegro will be worth it? Absolutely. Had I flown back home yesterday with my mom, I would have been thoroughly unprepared to be home.  In all likelihood, that lack of preparation would have led me to all sorts of unpleasant behavior towards people I love, people who most definitely don't deserve any nastiness from me.  I am thankful that I was  steered in the direction I didn't even know I needed to go.  Montenegro... I've got my waterfowl, you've got some water. Let's get to work.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Home

You will always be surrounded by true friends.  Home is where the heart is.  You're my home. The above 3 thoughts have been swirling through my mind as I get closer to going back to the States, now less than 2 weeks away.

The first thought was a fortune cookie saying that I saved and recently found laying on my bed, having fallen out of wherever I'd put it for safekeeping (my change purse maybe?) I've written about it before as it also resurfaced when I was in India.  I'm sure you know the second saying.  The third is the title of a Billy Joel song that I've always loved. The gist of the song is that his home is wherever his love is.

For me these 3 thoughts seem to describe my journey pretty well. I have felt surrounded by friends everywhere I've been. Sometimes those friends have been the ones I've met in whatever country I've been in, even for short stays like Turkey and Italy. Sometimes I have felt the embrace of friends from across oceans. Many times, actually.  My heart is in Louisville, KY. My heart is in Atlanta, GA, where my brother and his family live, even though we haven't spoken much while I've been gone.  My heart is in Chatra, Jharkhand, India. My heart is in Jerusalem and Nablus. My heart is in Alicante, Spain and Wasenaar in the Netherlands. These places have been my home for months or days, but a piece of my heart remains in each and I know I will be welcomed back as family when I go back again. I was going to write "if," but the idea of not returning puts a lump in my throat, so I choose to write "when."

People ask me where my favorite places have been. How can I choose? Each place and each person I've met has left a mark on my heart.  I was talking to a friend a week or so ago who was saying she didn't think any of our lives meant much in the grand scheme of things. I told her I heartily disagree. Sure, maybe our names won't go down in history books, but that doesn't mean our lives are meaningless. She is a mother and certainly her life is incredibly important to her children and, therefore will affect their relationships with everyone else around them, which will in turn ripple out to affect other relationships...   I will likely never see the girls in my Chetna Bharati English class again- Binita, Soni, Prabha, and all the rest- but the love they showed me and the love I have for them (which I hope they felt)  will not be forgotten. In India I was welcomed into the home of friends to celebrate a wedding, one of many times I was offered hospitality beyond my wildest hopes.  When I called my "hermana espa├▒ola" out of the blue to say I was in Spain, she said without hesitation, "Get on the next train to come here," a response more generous than I could have hoped for.  In Jerusalem I was welcomed into the home and busy lives of new friends. I could tell story after story like this.  I guess I have in some previous posts... My list of "favorite places" will be long... My heart is in each of these places as well as places like El Salvador and Guatemala, not recently visited, but ever-present in my heart.  They continue to influence who I am and how I try to live...

You're my home... I think Billy Joel is singing the song with one person in mind. I love the sentiment, but am glad my own scope is broader. I don't have a husband or boyfriend, but, as I explain above, my life is not devoid of love by any stretch of the imagination. I am blessed to say my home is not only in Louisville, KY, but many other places. My home is Mom and Dad and the rest of my family and friends, Trinity High School, St. William church, the SCN community, and Project Hope, to name a few. I would venture that my home will become more places and more people, too, as I continue on my journey.

Yes, I am going back to Louisville soon, but my journey isn't over. And so I will try to remain open to new friends, to hospitality, to whatever may lie ahead. Likewise, I will try to extend the same to others, so that they will feel embraced, loved, and at home when they are with me.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Backpack, God, and Life

My backpack, the big one I bought in 1996 when I went to live in Guatemala, the one that's traveled with me through many countries over the last 8 months, is in Wassenaar, Netherlands at my cousin's house. She's going to ship it back to the U.S. for me. I was pretty grateful to leave it there, because it means the amount of stuff I'm carrying continues to decrease. Yep, two weeks left and I'm getting closer to packing light. Not quite there, but getting closer...  It's about time...

As I was looking at my empty backpack, which was not nearly as impressive empty as when I had stuffed it fuller than I'm sure the manufacturers intended, and talking to my cousin about it, she said, "Aw, your backpack... I think I see a blogpost in the future."  Actually, I hadn't even considered writing about my backpack. I was happy to be rid of it, but my cousin's statement made me feel rather ungrateful to the trusty vessel of my physical burdens.

I think I do a reasonable job of being thankful, but clearly, sometimes I need a little help seeing what's right in front of my eyes. Thanks, Brandy.

At various points as I have arrived with my huge backpack (and small backpack and market basket, sometimes all filled to the brim) people have offered to carry things for me. Usually I'll hand over one of the smaller bags, saying, "I've always said if I can't carry my stuff, I shouldn't have it." When it comes to the physical stuff I'm carrying, I believe that. I know I could've packed lighter and chose not to. That's cool. I can handle the burden, though I am grateful to share it when someone offers. I never hand over the big backpack. It seems too much to hand over to someone else, since it is always so full and so heavy.

I've never actually asked my backpack if it's OK with the way I've stretched, stuffed, slightly ripped, dirtied, thrown, hauled, dragged, and swung it around. I never thought to. I just assumed that a backpack's life is meant to be that way. But maybe I should have. Or maybe the backpack also thinks that's how its life is meant to be and is cool with it. I notice that I am anthropomorphizing things again...I guess I like to do that.

As I think about my uncomplaining, heavy burden-bearing backpack, I'm also thinking about God. I know in my life I've also tried to stretch, stuff, rip, dirty, throw, haul, drag,  and swing around God. God's bigger than I can even fathom, so it's not God I'm stretching, but my mind as it tries to comprehend the vastness.  I'm not sure my mind stretches to encompass the wholeness of God as easily as the backpack has stretched to fit all my stuff.  God has taken in everything I've stuffed and gone with me everywhere I've dragged, hauled, and swung, even through the dirt.  And, as far as I can tell, God can't be ripped.  God hasn't complained and God's handled the burden.

My backpack also makes me think about what we carry around in life. Though I believe I shouldn't pack more than I'm able to carry, I have quite a different philosophy when it comes to life. We don't always get to choose our burdens. In fact, the heaviest ones tend to be the ones we don't choose. As with this short journey, in our life journey, sometimes the load is pretty darn heavy. I don't think we're meant to carry the heavy loads by ourselves. In fact, I'm pretty certain we're not supposed to carry the biggest burdens ourselves- whether the burdens be individual or collective. I'll go even further and say, even when it is of our own doing, we're not meant to carry the burdens ourselves...  We all need some help sometimes. Luckily, some of us always have lighter burdens and stronger backs. When we are fortunate enough to be in that place, it's our turn to assume at least part of someone else's load.  I look at my life and can see that I have been blessed with a lighter load...pretty much my entire life... This year is a prime example of that privilege and I've tried to use a little of my blessings to lighten the burdens of others. I think I've done an OK job.  I still think I have a lot to learn about doing it well.

Maybe I could learn more if I study the life of my backpack a little more seriously...