Thursday, December 24, 2009

the end of counting

I was hoping it would rain at least once while I was here. I’ve missed the smell of the rain and not being able to hear anything else when it’s really pouring on a tin roof. I got my wish yesterday, in the form of a huge thunderstorm that turned the compound into a puddle, knocked trees down all over Nairobi, and left our electricity even more unpredictable than usual.

Except it’s not supposed to rain like that in December, in Nairobi or anywhere in Kenya. December is supposed to be warm and sunny and dry, the midpoint between the short rains in October and the long rainy season in March/April.

Any Kenyan will tell you that the weather is now impossible to predict. Farmers plant without knowing if there will be enough rain for their crops to mature, or if they’ll lose their seeds to flooding. Kenya’s pastoralist groups once had a sophisticated understanding of seasonal cycles, enabling them to predict droughts decades in advance and plan their movements to sustain their herds. But in the last two decades, the elders of these groups have reached “the end of counting”. It’s not just that some of their knowledge is being lost as young people move to cities and take on a more global cultural identity, it’s that a finely-tuned understanding of the environment developed over hundreds of years has been rendered completely irrelevant by changes in the last twenty or thirty years.

Here climate change is not polemical, abstract or debatable. It’s as tangible as the skinny Maasai cattle that are still clogging up Nairobi traffic months after one of East Africa’s worst droughts started to ease and the prayers of a whole country for rain in its season.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

nairobi

There is at least one question I can't come up with a satisfactory answer to no matter how many times I get asked it: "what was it like growing up in Nairobi/Kenya/Africa?" I usually launch into a little speech about how Nairobi is a modern city of nearly 5 million people (to dispel the myth that Africa is all villages and huts) in the Kenyan highlands (to explain that not everywhere in Africa is unbearably hot) with some infrastructure and crime issues (so yes, my experience growing up was still a wee bit different than yours'...water shortages and carjackings, anyone?). At that point I usually trail off and want to turn the question around - what was it like growing up in your hometown? It was home. It just sort of...was.

I don't think being back four and a half years after I stopped living here is going to make me any better at answering that question, but the last week has at least reminded me of one thing - this place is home.

A few of the things I didn't even know I missed that I've gotten to re-connect with...

1. the food mangoes, bananas, pineapples, perfect honeydew melons, mandazis, Fanta orange, Weetabix (always better here than in the US), Ethiopian food, and of course, the universal appeal of fried potatoes (featured here in bhajia form)

(note to aspiring artsy photographers with no actual skill...just rest the camera on some flat surface and shoot in the general direction of your subject)

2. the football
(particularly evenings like this one, when ManU loses 3-0 while Arsenal wins by the same margin!)

3. my family here
By far the most poignant reunion was with this woman, Jocinta, who was our househelper for fourteen years She told me she was so happy to have "her girl" home, and how pleased she was that I had gotten so tall and so fat. I was holding back tears the whole time and I think she was too.

4. the sickening feeling of approaching a riot. Not something I was hoping to relive, but such is life in Nairobi. Also wasn't looking to reconnect with equatorial sunburn, power outages, mosquitoes, or upset stomachs, but have failed on all counts.

5. the wildlife
exotic:


and not-so-exotic:


Our dog, Snoopy, who has been with two other families since we left and more or less didn't remember us. Oh well. At least we were able to tell her new owners that she howls when she hears scales played on the piano and that she'll doggy paddle in the air if you pour water on her head.

6. for lack of a better descriptor...street culture
We went to buy an internet modem and ended up hanging out with Father Christmas and this colonial character who makes an appearance in many Kenyan comedy sketches

Most of their routine was dancing

video

Hopefully this explains some things for those who have wondered where I learned my dance moves.

At some point in the last few years I convinced myself that I had not real home and was doomed to be a rootless wanderer, at least until the magical age of 30. While the latter part of that is probably still true, every time I laugh out loud at something that hasn't changed in Nairobi, I suspect the former just might be false.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

consumer charity II

Yesterday I wrote about some of the ethical complications I see in the conspicuous efforts of companies to tie buying certain products to charity donations. It’s probably not surprising that this isn’t the only US “giving” practice that makes me cringe.

On my way to and from visiting the Angkor Wat temples while I was in Cambodia, one particular village caught my eye. All the houses were made of the same green corrugated iron (which strikes me as impractical in a hot, sunny climate), but this didn’t make it stand out – groups like Habitat for Humanity and Tabitha make houses that look similar. What was special about that village was that in front of every house, placed close to the road for maximum visibility, was a sign with little American flags announcing the name of the donor whose funds had built the house. I wonder what kind of people really needed to know that their names would be displayed in a language none of the locals would be able to read in order to give money to construct a home.

I see this as an extreme example of common need in the West to make our giving personal. A more typical scenario is child sponsorship. For $30-35 a month I can provide a child with school books, basic medical care, and a nutritious lunch every day (or something along those lines). In turn, I get the child’s picture for my refrigerator and receive occasional letters from him or her.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad arrangement. Rather than just throwing money at big problems like poverty, underdevelopment, malnutrition or child labor, I get to know (or at least think I know) that my money is making life better for little Joseph in Tanzania.

Except it’s rarely that simple. The reality is that organizations like World Vision and Save the Children with child sponsorship programs often pool the money for sponsorship within a certain community – so I’m supporting Joseph’s village, not just Joseph. That seems fair. After all, it’s a bit offensive to think that Joseph is receiving more care than his playmates because I picked him out of a catalog of children. But even though the funds may be combined for community projects, child sponsorship organizations still use a significant amount of their resources facilitating and administering the connection between the donor and the sponsored child. If those resources could be going instead to providing more books or mosquito nets, at what point does sponsorship become more about me than about the kids?

Perhaps it’s natural for us to want a human connection in our attempts to do something to address the suffering in the world. And perhaps its better to use money connecting sponsors with kids than for that money to not be given in the first place (though I’m not convinced – perhaps a future post on that). But at least we can start by being honest about the importance of feeling good in our attempts to do good.

Monday, November 30, 2009

consumer charity

This post deserves a bit of a “Sarah on her high horse” warning. Sometimes I say or write things not because I think I’ve got a particular issue figured out, but because I want to ask uncomfortable questions of myself and the world around me. With that in mind, then, one of the questions I’ve been asking recently is when the choices I/we make in the name of helping others are more about feeling good than actually doing good.

The advertisement sidebar on my Facebook page tells me that tomorrow Starbucks will be donating 5 cents of the cost of every drink to the (red) campaign. Money for people with AIDS in Africa – it’s a good thing, right?

Maybe. Leaving a discussion of the actual impacts of charity efforts like the (red) campaign aside for a moment, I wonder what they say about us as US consumers. To begin with, there’s the absurdity of using the donation of a few dollars or cents of the profits from a purchase to some worthy cause as an incentive to buy something. The obvious question here is – if you really wanted to help, why not donate the whole $15 cost of your t-shirt?

Okay, so maybe your t-shirt purchase isn’t so much about helping the poor, but if you’re going to buy the shirt anyway, isn’t it better to go for one that will support someone in need? Again, I want to say, “not so fast”. I wonder if by highlighting special opportunities to make particular ethical consumption choices, companies like Apple, Starbucks and the Gap aren’t distracting us from the fact that all our consumer choices have social, political and environmental ramifications in the developing world. Does a dollar or two given back to the communities in Lesotho where (red) t-shirts are made make up for the fact that what you pay for the jeans on the next rack is the same as what the woman who sews them in Cambodia makes in a month? Does a few cents donation from your latte do anything to address the environmental degradation of non-fair trade, non-organic coffee? Though it’s impossible to measure, does the good you do with the occasional contribution to consumer charity outweigh the negatives impact of the product you buy? Of all the non-charity items you get from those companies?

Perhaps my argument is not so much with campaigns like (red) themselves as it is with how the highlight the lack of a bigger conversation about the amount of stuff we buy, where it comes from, and how the earth and other people are treated to get them to us in the first place. At any rate, I don’t think hitting up Starbucks tomorrow will be my way of marking World AIDS day.

Friday, November 27, 2009

relative

Traveling to central California for Thanksgiving is helping me put some things in perspective. First: what exactly constitutes "large-scale" agriculture. I thought the farms around ours in Ventura County were pretty big (often hundreds of acres planted in the same crops), but riding the train through central California with it's monocrop orchards as far as the eye can see has made me rethink.

And then there's my definition of rural. The Farm feels like the middle of nowhere sometimes. I can't comfortably bike to anywhere I'd want to go other than the beach, and we have no neighbors. But a few days in Mariposa County (population, I'm told, 17,000) has been instructive. For example, the following from the sheriff's report in the weekly local newspaper:
Nov. 16: There was a big dog versus little dog incident on Jones Street. A cat was up a tree on Silva Road.
Nov. 17: A cat was in a tree on Sullivan Road.
Nov. 18: Residents of La Rosa Road had bear concerns. A dog was in distress on Sixth Street.
Nov. 19: A horse was running amok on Cole Road.
Nov. 20: There was an out of control juvenile on Triangle Rd. Loose goats were causing destruction on Crown Lead Road.
Nov. 22: Juveniles were on the roof of Mariposa Elementary School. A raccoon was injured on Broadway in Coulterville. There were suspicious circumstances on Allred Road.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

thanksgiving

Today I bid a fond farewell to the game of “this time last year I was…” I had planned on spending my Cambodian thanksgiving eating roast chicken and maybe an apple pie with friends. Instead my only distinct memory of Thanksgiving Day 2008 is of waking up at 2 am and being flooded with relief seeing my dad walk in. The rest is a blur of that six days in the hospital in Singapore: IVs, the attacks on Mumbai and the take-over of the Thai airport on CNN, the cleaning lady who helpfully pointed out that my legs were the color of beet root, the nurses who were always trying to get me to take Tylenol (which, like pretty much everything I ate, I would throw up 15 minutes later) and the doctors who kept promising that my condition would dramatically improve in a day or two.

I spent the month of December reassuring people – that while I had been seriously miserable, I hadn’t been seriously sick, and that dengue would have no lasting effects, that I was fine and that what I experienced was far less dramatic than what most people picture for a med evac. I was so focused on trying to keep a brave face that the emotional force of it had to sneak up on me.

The truth is, I was rooting to be evacuated. Even before I got sick I was at the lowest point of my six month internship, tired and dreading having to balance host family politics in expressing my gratitude and saying my goodbyes. I felt a wave of relief when I heard that my platelets were just too low to stay in Phnom Penh, that I would be on my way to Singapore less than six hours after going in to the SOS clinic. I thought that because I had been so eager to leave Cambodia it wouldn’t hurt. I was surprised, then, to end up in tears trying to talk about the end of my internship, and to have recurring dreams that I was back in Cambodia but couldn’t find the neighborhood I had lived in.

While my fever was over before I got back to the US, dengue lasted longer. After a month of Harry Potter and West Wing I had recovered enough to function at school, but it was months before my physical energy caught up with the rest of me. My hair started falling out in earnest in February, in sufficient quantity for my mother to suggest buying a wig. If I pushed too hard during my last semester I would start to taste the same exhaustion that got me wheelchairs all the way back to Chicago.

Laying in my hospital bed a year ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to predict how I’d be spending this Thanksgiving – taking an Amtrak train to central California, with dirt still under my fingernails from harvesting veggies for Thanksgiving dinners for hundreds of people. I can only guess at what part of the world I’ll be in this time next year. But I’m thankful.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

rhodes interview

I finished up the Rhodes interview process this afternoon, and didn't get the scholarship. The interview process went okay. The other candidates were, as promised, interesting and engaging folks, and the tenor of the time with the selection committee was less intense than I had expected. The committee went out of their way to communicate that they wanted us to feel comfortable and relaxed and that the interviews themselves wouldn't be aggressive or combative. Friday evening was the "get to know you coffee", which went fairly well, and after which we drew times for our interviews the next day. The interviews themselves were only 20 minutes long. The questions I was asked were all insightful and fair, but it took me some time to be comfortable enough to answer well. They asked me about a range of subjects including the interaction between Christianity and feminism, the cause of the global financial crisis, my career aspirations, how growing up in Kenya impacted how I saw development and what I hoped to do, whose work I would like to model my own after, and what I thought of the relationship between organic standards and agribusiness, and what I thought of the Cambodian government's approach to rural development (promoting large-scale agriculture). There were also several questions about authors I had either not heard of or had heard of and knew the broad outlines of but hadn't read. At no time in the process did I feel like my having graduated from Wheaton or being a Christian was a liability, and the district secretary went out of his way to express how glad he was to see my application and how he hoped to see more from Wheaton.

I left the interview knowing that I hadn't nailed it and wouldn't be getting the scholarship. The group of candidates (11 of us) spent another few hours together before they did two brief call-back interviews with two of the other candidates and then announced their decision (one of the candidates who had been called back and another who hadn't).

While I'm disappointed (more with not feeling like I presented myself as well as I could than with the outcome), the process has been very valuable and I'm so glad I applied (especially considering my initial ambivalence about it). As I said in a text message I sent out to a number of friends afterwards, I've felt overwhelmed several times particularly in the last month by the amount of love and support I've received from my communities in the Chicago area, southern California, and around the world.

Thanks!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

safe

Last night was my first southern California earthquake, a magnitude of 3.2 with an epicenter in our zip code that had me a little freaked out in a room of unperturbed Californians. It started a conversation about the various disaster drills that punctuated our days growing up. We practiced two such catastrophe-readiness procedures at my school in Nairobi. One siren sounded to send everyone to the soccer fields in the event of a fire, and another prompted the intruder (aka terrorist – and this was even pre-9/11) drill, where the teachers would lock the doors and we would all be quiet and stay away from the windows. While my US friends got snow days off, we had riot days when violent student protests shut down the center of town and prevented us from getting to school.

As excited as I am that I’ll be back in Nairobi in less than two months, I also feel the rise of the familiar and unwelcome sense of fear. I remember the morning I woke up to be told that I had slept through hearing the guard in the compound next door screaming as he was tortured by thieves who returned three times over four nights (my brother heard the whole thing). I remember my heart racing at the gate of our compound every time we’d arrive home after dark, knowing that carjackers preferred to strike at that vulnerable moment. I remember on my last visit feeling helpless sitting in a matatu next to a man who was trying to steal my phone, knowing that if I called “mwizi” (Swahili for thief) he might be lynched in front of me. And I remember knowing that something had shifted in me when I cried myself to sleep that night for both my own fear and the poverty that drove the man next to me to attempt the robbery.

Growing up in Nairobi gave me a somewhat warped sense of personal safety. If I woke in the night to the sound of sirens or gunshots I would run my mind over each layer of security measures between my family and the outside world, from the hedge around our compound, the guard at the gate, the motioned-sensor lights, the bars on the windows, the multiple locks and bolts on the doors to the metal cage we built to separate the second story of our maisonette, and the panic button installed by my parents’ bed, ready to summon a truckload of private security guards. On trips back to the US I would struggle to fall asleep at my grandmother’s house in rural Pennsylvania knowing that only a single, simple lock separated me from the outside.

I still like to keep my car doors locked. I still watch the cameras and jewelry of my friends when we’re in a crowd and worry about carrying a bag that isn’t closed with a zipper. And I hate the thought of having to live that way, and knowing that I was one of Nairobi’s residents who could afford to be most insulated from the insecurity. This week I read an article on the recent rise in kidnappings in the city, with the targets being wealthy westerners but also middle-class Kenyans. It makes me ache.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

unharvested time

I spent today banished from the Farm, exiled by my housemates on account of an inflated sense of my own importance and a bit of an outburst yesterday (which probably had as much to do with sliding around in the mud in my tennis shoes on the ten acres as it did with feeling overwhelmed by work). I’d taken on a lot of the administrative responsibility for the CSA and was starting to feel like the veggies wouldn’t be harvested, boxed and delivered without me. So, since today was our biggest CSA day (with 18 boxes to get out the door), they sent me away for a day off the farm.

In this unplanned free time I came across two lines from Robert Frost's poem "Unharvested" that I had written in my journal:
May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan...

I'm getting used to letting some of our crops go unharvested. There are partial rows of radishes and arugula that are approaching jungle thickness and a row of green leaf lettuce that has long since outgrown the size of anything I've ever seen in a store. But I'm finding it difficult to welcome unharvested time, to tell the internal voice that urges me towards productivity and efficiency to pipe down every now and then. I've all but convinced myself that rest and contemplation are only possible when I feel in control of everything that's going on in my life. So I'm thankful for days like today. I read for a few hours, spent some time on the beach (and even more time finding a beach where parking wasn't too expensive and there weren't aggressive squirrels), and left my computer at home. The world continued to turn, my chickens survived six hours of my absence, and 18 boxes of produce found their way home.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

resistance

Some days I wish I had been blogging a year ago while I was in Cambodia, telling the stories that so often come to mind now when they were fresh (though, considering I only managed a handful of email updates in six months, this is probably wishful thinking).

Yesterday was the anniversary of one of my favorite of these stories. My "job" in Cambodia was to assist different organizations working to help poor communities threatened with forced eviction. The endangered community I spent the most time in was Dey Krahorm, a poor neighborhood on a bit of highly-valued real estate in downtown Phnom Penh who had resisted illegal attempts by the government and powerful business interests to bulldoze their community for several years.

In early October of last year, men hired by the company claiming (falsely) to own the land started hanging around outside Dey Krahorm's small community center, where many of the children took art classes, threatening to tear it down. So Dey Krahorm invited their neighbors and friends to a Musical Resistance Concert to be held the next day on the foundation of the community center, whether the building was standing or not.

And what a concert it was, featuring the traditional Cambodian music Dey Krahorm is famous for (it started as an artists’ colony), singing by members of a group of garment factory workers, and (by the far the most popular act), a performance by one of Cambodia's best breakdancing groups



The community center stayed standing, but Dey Krahorm's story does not have a happy ending. On January 24, 2009, the community was forcibly evicted to make way for a shopping center. Still, I can't help returning to the story.What a powerful example of resistance. In the face of violence and injustice, they threw a party.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

chickens little

In honor of the feast of St. Francis and the blessing of the animals today, two vignettes from my first venture into poultry raising (which began on Wednesday).

#1: The Sky is Falling

Steven Kellogg chose the right farm animal to have running around yelling that the sky is falling in his book Chicken Little. My nine chicks have seen fit on a number of occasions in their five day lives to act as though the world were ending. Usually this is brought on by nothing more serious than an adjustment to the cardboard and duct tape walls of their brooder or an attempt to move them temporarily in order to change their bedding. There was also the time during their first evening at the house when, with all nine sleeping comfortably in the appropriate donut shape around the heat lamp, I decided that maybe they wouldn't be warm enough after all and tried to replace the regular light bulb with a much higher voltage heat bulb. Not only did I take away their source of light temporarily (they began "crying" almost immediately), the heat bulb turned out to be too much for the lamp and both melted the plug partially into the extension cord and sent a couple of sparks into the brooder. So maybe the chicks have every right to be worried...

#2: Predator and Prey

The book Chickens in Your Backyard by Rick and Gail Luttmann advises the following with regard to chick diets: "You could feed them a few worms or bugs from the garden. They'll love it; in fact, they'll act like they're about to die of ecstasy." Sounds like fun. So yesterday I presented them with a dead fly I found while dusting a windowsill. They were unimpressed and returned to the business of pecking at the cardboard walls of the brooder and enthusiastically kicking shavings into their waterer. Today, Kat and I captured a moth, thinking live prey might inspire the appropriate ecstatic behavior. They showed mild interest as the moth crawled across the pine shavings, but when it started to fly around inside the heat lamp and run into them, they freaked out and ran to the other side of the brooder. So much for the chick-vs.-bug gladiator-style entertainment I was hoping for...

And finally, the blessing from tonight's ATFP liturgy:
Almighty and everlasting God, Creator of all things and giver of all life, let your blessing be upon all these animals. May our relationships with them mirror your love, and our care for them be an example of your bountiful mercy. Grant the animals health and peace. Strengthen us to love and care for them...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

good, better, best

A warning: this post is only for people who are interested in at least thinking about how their food choices affect the environment. I try to avoid being preachy about lifestyle decisions, and have been scolded a time or two for pontificating on the merits of certain choices, so if you aren't interested in environmental issues, now is the time to check Facebook. I'm going to say that some choices are better than others. You have been warned.

With that out of the way...My understanding of what making eco-friendly choices in terms of food has been complicated considerably in the last month or two. To start with there is...

Good: Organic
A lot starts with reading food labels. "Natural" doesn't mean anything because it isn't regulated by the government; USDA certified organic does.

Why organic is good: For produce to be certified organic, it must have been grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, bioengineering, sewage sludge, or irradiation on land that has been chemical-free for at least 3 years. The inputs and pest control measures allowed for organic growers are much less detrimental and disrupt surrounding ecosystems less. For example, where we live on the Oxnard plain there are hardly any birds at all because we are surrounded by conventional farms that basically nuke everything in their soil (good bugs and bad bugs alike), meaning there is nothing for the birds to eat (except, ironically, the crows, who attack our crops).

Why organic is complicated: While USDA regulation of "organic" labeling has made it possible for consumers shopping at a supermarket to have some window into how their food is grown, it only deals with a limited part of what goes into farming: inputs. "Organic" says nothing about the distance produce travels, the scale on which it was grown, or the labor practices involved in growing it. I just finished reading Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (by Julie Guthman) which looks at the industrialization of organic growing. Companies like Earthbound Organics can grow single crops on hundreds or thousands of acres (not good for the environment) using the same - often exploitative - contract labor as conventional growers and still get the organic label, as can many of the makers of US soy milk who import organic soy beans from China (using a heck of a lot of oil). Bottom line: to quote Guthman - "I am not convinced...that organic agriculture as it is currently constructed provides a trenchant alternative to the interwoven mechanisms that simultaneously bring hunger and surplus, waste and danger, and wealthy and poverty in the ways food is grown, processed, and traded." Not all produce with the organic label is of questionable merit, but the label doesn't tell you enough to make a good choice.

Better: Local
"Local" generally means grown within 100 miles of where you eat it, and people who try and eat only local foods (like Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Vegetable Miracle) are "locavores".

Why local is good: Because food is coming from closer, less fossil fuels are burned getting it to your plate. For the same reason, it will (usually) be seasonal rather than being shipped from another hemisphere where it is currently spring. Eating local also often builds community because the best place to buy local foods is a farmer's market (although Whole Foods is sort of getting into sourcing locally...and charging higher prices - though that's not new). What labeling doesn't tell you when you pick something up at a supermarket, connecting with a local farmer might.

Why local is complicated: I'll admit, until this morning I had never heard anyone take a shot at local. I nearly fell into the cabbage I was weeding while listening to the KCRW (local NPR affiliate) show "Good Food" when the segment "Are locavores getting it wrong?" came on. The guest being interviewed was James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. His critiques of local? Eating strictly local ignores the complexities of agricultural and environmental impact on a global level. Less fossil fuels may indeed go into shipping a tomato from a warm climate than are used in growing them locally in hothouses in colder climates (although this makes me question not the virtue of eating locally but the idea that one needs a fresh tomato in the middle of winter...) But his biggest point is about meat. One can eat locally and organically and still be eating meat. Which brings us to...

The best: eating vegetarian

Why eating vegetarian is good: According to McWilliams, meat production produces 1/5th of all greenhouse gases, consumes 70% of the water in the western U.S. and accounts for over half of the nitrogen fertilizers used in the U.S. Even local, grass-fed, organic, sung-to-sleep-with-a-lullaby cows need 8-10 acres of land each...less than ideal on a planet with a growing population and shrinking arable land. Also, only 40% of a cow is used in meat production, and a significant amount of energy is used disposing of what doesn't get eaten. The bottom line: the energy savings for the average American meat eater giving up meat once a week are equal to the energy saved by eating locally for the whole week.

Why eating vegetarian is complicated: I suppose if eating vegetarian is best, eating vegan is probably bestest(*sigh*). That could ruin my wonderful discovery that what I'm already doing was the best thing to do! I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

failures of imagination

Some days, more things happen than others. Today, for instance, I:
1. bought a ticket to go back to Chicago for a long weekend
2. was nearly run over by a frightened deer while hiking
3. remembered something important that I had started to forget.

This time last year I was in the midst of my introduction to active non-violence - reading Walter Wink, releasing balloons outside of a prison, watching "A Force More Powerful", attending events with names like "Musical Resistance Concert"...and learning about my own violence.

When I'm immersed in social justice-y work (working on an organic farm and trying to get healthy produce available to people regardless of income, for example), its easy to group my world into good and bad people. Last year, the bad people were Cambodian government officials ordering political assassinations and forced evictions, and everyone involved in perpetuating social and environmental injustice in the garment industry. This year, it's the government-agribusiness alliance that ensures that the most accessible food in the US is unhealthy for both land and people and everyone involved in keeping farmworkers politically marginalized so that they remain a cheap, mobile source of labor.

When I started learning about non-violence, I expected it to focus on empowering the oppressed, letting the "good" win, punishing the bad guys. I recognized in the tactics for countering violence efforts to force the oppressors to recognize the humanity of the oppressed, for the men with crowbars to look the women guarding their homes in the eye and feel some sort of empathy.

What I was unprepared for was that this has to be reciprocal. That true non-violent conflict resolution required the oppressed and their allies look in the eyes of the company thugs and military police with their batons and recognize something shared humanity and feel some sort of empathy. That I would have to start dismantling my carefully constructed categories of "good people" and "bad people". That I had a lot of violence to deal with within myself.

I found two portions of Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" particularly challenging. I wrote:
The first passage gives the thoughts of an on-the-run Catholic priest walking through the Mexican jungle while a man he knows will betray him rides his mule beside him:
“But at the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out, and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God’s image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said ‘Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?’ and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.”

God was the pastor, but he was also the pastor’s son, imprisoned for trying to stealing a necklace from a woman on a moto, and the guard at the prison, asking bribes for every movement, every scrap of food. God was the journalist and his son leaving the gym on Friday evening, and something resembling God drove by and shot them both – 5 bullets taking two lives.

I choke on those words. In this country where the injustice present in every society is done so openly, it’s so easy to know who to hate. I can feel that in myself as I sit on my bicycle in traffic behind yet another Lexus SUV with an RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) license plate shuttling its well-fed occupants around as they plunder their own people. I can feel it in my body even as I type these words.

Greene’s priest continues to reflect on the power of all human beings being made in God’s image with the following words:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality of God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”


My world is once again littered with failures of imagination, with big categories I put people in and label "enemy", categories that I use as excuses to ignore "the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth...". I have a long way to go. There's a lot of my world that needs to be complicated by the gray - the honest acknowledgment of the tensions of my own life and choices, and willingness to see those same tensions in the lives of the people I disagree with.

But at the center of my own faith has always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in God's image.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

thesis

Thesis statements rarely come to me while I'm sedentary. I'll admit that, in a near complete reversal of the correct order, I usually write my papers and then figure out what I've argued and stick in a thesis sentence just before I hit "print", but the few times I have done it the right way, the sentence that ties the whole thing together has come not while seated in front of a computer or with pen and paper in hand, but while I was on a run or walking to class or at some other inopportune moment.

So, naturally, one of the basic ideas that unifies the last year of my life came while I was pedaling around Phnom Penh one day in August. I remember repeating it over and over under my breath so I wouldn't lose it as I sweated my way to my favorite cafe:

Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.


Things were starting to make sense to me last August. I wrote:
Most Westerners do not perceive affluence as a problem because we have successfully mentally dissociated it from the oppression and injustice it causes and perpetuates. What we need first is to start to see these relationships. Living in my neighborhood on HNGR has been an exercise in that regard. Many of the linkages and relationships that are obscured by distance in the West are in plain view in my community. The woman who sews the underwear I buy in the US lives in my house. My trash goes in a bag that is tied up and thrown across the street into the pond in the middle of the community, and as the flood season progresses, we’ll all be walking in that water. I think really knowing where we are ought to be a fundamental Christian discipline – knowing where our tomatoes come from and where what put in the trash can ends up, knowing the local growing seasons and where our shower water goes. What we learn, and perhaps more significantly what our affluent insulation makes it impossible for us to find out, should raise questions about our lifestyles.


Distilled: Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.

I was reminded of that little mantra this morning while in a Sunday school of sorts - a multi-generational congregational discussion of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" over a feast of local origins. An older farmer from the area talked about how the book had inspired him to start asking where his food came from - approaching managers in butcheries or grocery stores to inquire about the origins of their products, getting answers like "Peru", "somewhere in the U.S." and most commonly: "I don't know".

There have been a lot of moments in the past month that have captured what we're doing here. One of them was a recent farm staff meeting over brunch, where we went around the table describing where the food we were eating came from - friends' gardens, farmers markets, our own land...

There was also a lot of Trader Joe's in there. We've made no Barbara Kingsolver-style goal of perfection, but its a start.

Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

go look at the other blog.

Once again, I'm re-directing to the ATFP blog, for which I am a regular Wednesday contributor. This particular installment involves fighter jets, chemical warfare, and shotguns...all things I don't usually discuss in much detail, so it's worth a look.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

itchy feet. home for Christmas

On December 3rd, 2008 I returned from my last international adventure weak enough to be met with a wheelchair at the door of the plane. Though I highly recommend this as the speediest way of negotiating customs, I was not in the best shape. Still, even after the rather unpleasant and abrupt end to my time in Cambodia, as the plane touched down at O'Hare my first thought was, "Oh no. I don't know when my next plane ticket out of the U.S. is!" For the first time I could remember, there wasn't the assurance of some sort of trans-continental trip in my future.

I lasted almost 10 months like that.

At 22, my carbon footprint is probably big enough from all my air travel that I could use no other form of transportation than a bicycle for the rest of my life and it would still take several planets to sustain Earth's population if everyone lived like me. But for the moment, I am unrepentantly excited to have just spent more than I can probably afford on a plane ticket home for Christmas.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I told you I would!

There's a first time for everything. After more than two weeks of living at the farmhouse, I finally did something resembling FARMING today!


This last an hour or two, and then degenerated into a contest to see who could throw an over-ripe zucchini the farthest. For more pictures and narrative, see the ATFP blog.

After all that was over -- another first. While preparing a refreshing cucumber-cantelope-yogurt-mint-honey-dill beverage, I snuck a sliver of cucumber, and realized it was still warm from growing and being in the sun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

green moment

One thing that I love about my new home and housemates (and come to think of it, pretty much everyone I've lived with in the last three years, but hey, I've heard there are people who don't live like this) is our collective efforts to live a bit greener/lighter/more sustainably. Part of our vision for this farmhouse is for it and how we live in it to encourage other people to make some green lifestyle changes of their own. To this end, we've been making a lot of signs lately...

We have a sign about recycling:


We have a sign about composting:


We have a sign telling you what vegetable scraps to save so I can make soup stock with them before composting them:


We have a chore wheel (nothing particularly eco-friendly about it, I just made it this evening and thought it was cute):


And then there's this one:


This afternoon I overheard a funny interaction around this particular instruction. Julie, the ATFP collective spiritual director, and her family have been around the house a bunch in the last few days getting the house ready for the first Sunday evening worship service. On the way to the bathroom, Julie's four-year-old daughter anxiously asked, "Is there going to be pee in the potty already? I don't want to go!"

Thinking about it, "if it's yellow let it mellow..." is really quite a paradigm shift for anyone recently potty trained. Conserving resources means re-thinking some of the cleanliness rules of childhood for me too...fewer showers, anyone?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

so I thought I'd be spending a year in D.C....

[Note: This post is identical to one I just did on the Abundant Table Farm Project blog which is where you can meet my four wonderful housemates/sisters/friends, and where we plan to document our farming adventure!]

While I won’t start the story of what brought me to the Abundant Table centuries ago, it does begin on the other side of the world. After growing up in Nairobi, Kenya and three years at Wheaton College outside of Chicago I chose to spend six months doing interning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as part of my major in International Relations. Though the focus of my work was on land rights and non-violent resistance to forced evictions, I found situations closer to home captured my attention as I began to understand the dynamics of the Cambodian community I lived in. My host family were garment factory workers in a poorer neighborhood sandwiched between two sweatshops. Systems of production and consumption and the infrastructure that supports them that had been largely invisible to me growing up in more affluent neighborhoods became very obvious. I started to think much more about where things came from (did I really want to eat the morning glory picked in the contaminated marsh behind our neighborhood?) and where they went (what would I throw away when I knew the trash bag was tied up and thrown in the pond in the center of the community?) My new neighbors and I dealt daily with the consequences of not only these local systems, but also a supply chain that stretched thousands of miles – back to my neighborhood in Chicago and countless other U.S. communities. The factories that the women I lived with worked in were producing clothing for stores in the U.S. like Gap and Old Navy where I had once shopped.

While the factories did provide jobs with relatively decent conditions and brought economic growth, it came at a significant price. The chemicals emitted from the factory behind my house were eating through our metal roof, and many of my friends and neighbors began experiencing unemployment as soon as the U.S. recession again. As I returned to the U.S. for my final semester at Wheaton, awareness of the unsustainable relationships between producer communities such as the one Cambodia and consumers in my Chicago suburb guided the lifestyle choices I hoped to make after graduation, but had little impact on my post-graduation job search initially. Trying to eat locally/seasonally, fostering face-to-face relationships between producers and consumers, living mindfully of my environmental impact, and being a part of a spiritual community committed to social justice were things I hoped to fit around work in research or advocacy in Washington, D.C. When the Abundant Table Farm Project description came my way, I was caught off-guard by the opportunity to take 11 months to focus on those themes. At first, spending a year working on an organic farm/CSA in southern California was so different from what I expected to be doing that I couldn’t even bring myself to read the entire internship description. It sounded too good to be true, a possibility that would distract me from my job search. Obviously my self-restraint was less than absolute – I did allow myself to open that email again, and five or six months later, I’m enjoying the beginning of many good things, starting my post-college life on the opposite side of the country than I expected to be and in an occupation I never would have predicted for myself, yet somehow in just the right place.

Friday, August 14, 2009

the vegetannual

Last December as I lay waiting for my legs to return to their usual color and my hair to fall out (thank you, dengue fever), I broke up long hours reading Harry Potter and watching West Wing with forays into Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (a singularly frustrating read in Chicago in the dead of winter). Kingsolver documents a year of her family's experience eating locally - only food that had been grown and produced either on their own farm or within 100 miles. One of the recurring images in the book is the vegetannual, "an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we can harvest".



I remember thinking that this would only be an enjoyable experience year-round if one happened to live in southern California, where most things can grow most of the time, and the seasonal restrictions in more temperate climates would not apply. And sure enough - here is the list of what is currently being planted on a corner of the 10 organic acres I'll start working on next week: yellow, green and burgundy beans; ruby, romaine and butter lettuce; arugula, spinach, basil, cilantro and parsley; cucumbers; 8 ball, geode and crookneck squash; gold, red and candy striped beets; fennel, zucchini and edible flowers. A lot of the conventional farms around here are currently planting strawberries.

All this is a testament to two things:

1. The gorgeous Mediterranean climate. Most days (all year, or so I've heard) temperatures are in the 60s and 70s, kept in check by the ocean. It actually reminds me of Nairobi - eucalyptus, jacaranda and mimosa trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus plants...A local told me yesterday that this is God's country, and I believe it.

2. Some of the most fertile soil in the world. According to the farmer (Paul), whose family has worked on this land for just over a century, the soil is sandy loam, a combination of sand, silt and clay that traps organic material while allowing water to run through. This area wasn't always the best agricultural land - it was once too salty and alkaline to grow anything but sugar beets, but artificial drainage has pulled the water table down and made the Oxnard plain ideal for farming.

So much for the vegetannual...

first thoughts on the farm

I know that I have successfully moved to California now that not only my own mail, but also my father's have followed me to the little mailbox on an obscure rural road by an avocado orchard. Since arriving at the Abundant Table Farm Project I have (among other things):

- Biked to and along the pacific coast highway to try and find the beach and meet the Pacific Ocean. It's unfortunately farther away than I had been told. There is the small matter of a US Navy base between the farm and the beach (they, however provide lots of low flying aircraft and strange pulsating lights for our entertainment). I did eventually get to the beach.

- Experienced my first farming "injury"...a bee sting in the avocado orchard, which turned into Katerina's first opportunity to use her extensive first aid training. Remedy: flick stinger out with a credit card, thus the middle finger of my left hand was saved.

- Cooked zucchini at most meals. We have more than our household of 5 can handle, and we don't even start farming until next week.

- Received the strong impression that this is internship is not a particularly realistic introduction to life in the real world of adulthood. The five of us interns have received ample quantities of hugs, affirming words, and homemade soaps and have been practically tripping over people wanting to give us food, furniture, and office supplies. The house has a hammock, an awesome little dog, and we were told today by our landlord that if, like the previous tenants, we feel inclined to ride our skateboards through the glass doors, we may do so!

All in all, good things to come!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

join the farm

Now that I have successfully thwarted the efforts of the laws of physics to limit the amount that will fit in a carry-on suitcase, I have nothing to do but be excited about the next 11 months. Okay, that and cry through my breakfast. (This always happens when I say goodbye to my family, and is made all the more dignified by the fact that I am the only one in my family who ever cries in public).

But in celebration of the exciting things ahead - a little bit of what I'll be up to:
  • living and working on an organic farm in southern California with four other interns as part of the Abundant Table Farm Project
  • enjoying the produce we grow and helping start a CSA (www.jointhefarm.com) so other people can too
  • learning about "environmental sustainability; organic, small scale agriculture vs. industrial agribusiness; community health and access to unprocessed foods, especially as it relates to disadvantaged communities; immigration and labor issues"
  • recovering from four Chicago winters by living a bike ride from the Pacific ocean, right off of Highway 1...I hear it might be kind of nice out there
On my list of things to get done before heading out was to take this picture, the equivalent of the "back to school" shot:

For the story of the stylish headgear, see an earlier post. Impressive corn featured here is on my uncle's dairy farm (and, as my cousin said, "there's nothing organic about it!").

And yes, the hat is in my suitcase.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

"you a real white girl?" and other tales

To paraphrase (or quote?) my mother, I'm excited about being able to 'live forward' again soon. The last eight months have been about processing and finishing -- recovering from dengue, processing HNGR, finishing college, wrapping up my jobs, sorting through and packing up both my belongings and family memories, saying goodbye to Chicago (in the summer! not a good idea...better to wait to the depths of February), saying goodbye to friends, and soon family too. I'm excited to know I will be living in one place for the (seemingly) long span of 11 months, and to start living forward again, to dig in to stay.

The last week has been particularly transitory. I've spent at least a night in each of five states (and will make that six in a week and a half on Monday). Still, it's been a rich time. In no particular order, I have enjoyed:

1. Dirt bike lessons from my brother. I promise I was riding just like in the video after 5 minutes. Oh, and the bike is for sale.

2. Finding and playing two pieces of music composed by my grandfather who died long before I was born
3. Packing made somewhat bearable by listening to the wonderful documentary series Five Farms. They followed five American farm families (dairy farmers in the Northeast, an African-American hog farmer, a Hopi farmer, an organic farm in California (!) and a farm in Iowa) for a year and produced 5 hour-long shows, each with a specific theme, corresponding roughly to some point in the growing season. The shows are about both agriculture and the people themselves and their stories (think Ira Glass on a farm minus a bit of the sass).

4. Packing made even more bearable by friends who brought me homemade spinach and Parmesan pizza and wine, or showed up to meet up one last time in Chicago.

5. Taking the scenic route from North Carolina to Pennsylvania via a camping trip in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, planned entirely by my brother. Non-essential items like plates and pancake syrup, of course, didn't make it. We ate these with our hands, along with ripe-to-bursting white farmstand peaches.



The camping was great except for being awakened repeatedly in the night by the rummaging of an unknown small animal around our tent. The next morning we discovered not one, but four acorns 'buried' under our tent.


6. More than my fair share of Bush's baked beans. My meat-and-potatoes Mennonite family doesn't always know what to do with a vegetarian, but they try!

7. Hearing stories from both sides of my extended family.

8. And finally...One afternoon my brother and I were perusing the Goodwill fashions when I heard three women talking in Cambodian in the aisle next to me. I got up my courage (I haven't spoken Khmer to any native speakers in person since the end of November) and greeted them in Cambodian. One spoke a bit of English and her first response was "you a real white girl?" They proceeded to ask me (in Khmer) if I had a husband yet.

Ah, yes...

Friday, August 7, 2009

the lot

The news that I'm going to be spending the next 11 months working on an organic farm has elicited a range of responses from the adults in my life. Of late the tone has been a mix of amusement and incredulity. I'm at a family reunion of sorts, and of the assembled 10 aunts and uncles, I know that at least seven grew up on farms (though only two chose to farm themselves). Of the many stories they've told from their childhoods in Lancaster County, the following was one of the most interesting.

Among the more conservative Mennonite congregations, being a pastor or some other part of the church leadership was not something one aspired to or discerned a particular calling for. When a new pastor (or bishop, or deacon) was needed, nominations would be gathered (3 from each member) for who from the congregation would be chosen as the pastor on a Wednesday. Any candidate with at least 3 nominations would be examined by the elders for character and leadership capacity, and the following weekend the church would be assembled for "the lot". In my grandfather's case, two men from the congregation proceeded past this vetting process. Two brand-new Bibles (there was some discussion as to whether these actually had metal clamps to seal them shut) were taken by the elders to the back of the church, and a piece of paper was slipped underneath the front cover of one Bible, after which both were closed. Someone else who had not seen which Bible contained the slip of paper stood the two Bibles on the pulpit in front of the congregation, and the candidates, in descending order of age, chose one of the Bibles (usually, but not always proceeding in order from right to left). They then waited for the bishop to come and open the Bibles to see which of the two God had chosen, by means of the lot, to be the pastor.

When my grandfather was chosen by the lot to lead his small church, the changes for the family included switching cash crops from tobacco to tomatoes and moving the radio to the attic (where it could only be turned on for the World Series).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Group 78

Last August I started training for the Angkor Wat half-marathon, waking up at 5 am to run a few miles as the sun rose. My favorite loop was around Phnom Penh's riverfront, circling overly-manicured parks where hundreds of people gathered daily to walk, do aerobics, learn karate and practice traditional Chinese sword and fan dances. In a few kilometers my running buddy and I could get to most of the city's tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the big casino, the home of Phnom Penh's elephant... The end of our run would take us back behind the National Assembly and by a little community called Group 78. The village of wooden homes, some of them with plastic tarps for walls seemed out of place surrounded by the homes, offices and gardens of the wealthy, one of the last remaining pockets of working class residents in downtown Phnom Penh.

Group 78 will most likely be evicted tomorrow. Under Cambodia's 2001 Land Law, the residents are legal owners of the land after occupying it for more than five years. However, like many other communities along the riverfront, their land has been turned over to a local developer and the police are preparing to chase the people from their homes. After the Land Law was put in place, the World Bank began funding the LMAP program to title all the land in Cambodia. At first glance, this should be good news for poor people who, in theory, should have tenure security and be able to harness the value of their land. Things have not always turned out that way, in this case because in order to ensure the cooperation of the Cambodian government, the World Bank has promised to keep its mitts off any disputed land (like Group 78). In all likelihood, these people will lose their homes and their jobs tomorrow in the name of "improving" the Phnom Penh.

Monday, July 13, 2009

a hat to farm in

I think God and my parents are getting a particularly good set of laughs as I trip and fall my way around trying to be an adult. The most recent irony involves a certain hat.

When my family first moved to Kenya, we spent three months camping in the bush in an orientation program (to prepare us for 15 years of living in one of Africa's most modern cities...yeah). In the American tradition of gearing up to go to intense places like Africa, my parents bought matching hats - dark khaki, synthetic, floppy broad-brimmed things with black strings and those toggles (like you use to keep a stuff sack shut) to keep them on your head, ensuring that they were the dorkiest things ever. I complained about those hats for years at every sports day and game drive when my dad would pull his out. There was a succession of variations on the fisherman's hat, none of which I approved of and which were eventually lost to various theme park rides and other misadventures, ensuring that the original hat persisted.

While I haven't seen that hat in a few years, it came up again a few days ago. As I look forward to starting work on the farm in a bit more than a month, I'm running into the fact that I don't have good work clothes, and I don't have the money to buy them. My parents generously volunteered one of those original hats for the purpose.

I just might have to do it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

chips on a hot dog bun

In honor of the Fourth of July and the annual awkwardness of being the only non-meat eater at a barbecue, and in recognition that I'll be spending the next year thinking about it, learning about it and...umm...growing it...the first of some reflections on food.

My family had a tradition of marking the day we moved to Kenya - September 1st. Along with making a cake, we would make a list of the things we were thankful for, specifically related to living where we were. One of my entries on the list perhaps foreshadowed something. I thanked God for all the wonderful fruits and vegetables.

As a child I would eschew hotdogs at cookouts and instead happily load a bun with chips, ketchup, mustard, and lots of relish. I refused to eat drumsticks, stuck to white turkey meat at Thanksgiving, and religiously pulled apart bacon strips to remove the lines of white fat. My parents weren't thrilled with the idea of my becoming a vegetarian, so I waited for an opportune moment (when they were jetlagged and exhausted in Heathrow Airport - not a particularly ethical strategy) to ask if I could quit eating meat my senior year, and they agreed. They had no recollection of this conversation when I brought it up again (surprise), but by that time I was determined to quit eating meat, and so they relented under the condition that I prepared my own non-meat sources of protein. This, of course, did not happen. I interpreted this aggreement to mean that I would open my own can of baked beans now and then, which was unacceptable to my mother who had been a vegetarian once upon a time. She started making lots of lentils.

All this to say, I am not a virtuous vegetarian. As I learn more about the ecological and environmental consequences of industrial meat production, along with the health benefits of eating vegetarian, I'm more convinced that it is an important choice, but unlike most vegetarians I know, I'm not really giving anything up. One of the most difficult things about my time in Cambodia (up there with major illness/med evac) was eating meat at (almost) every meal.

Unlike meat served in the US, what showed up in my bowl in Phnom Penh very much resembled the animal from which it came. No energy was ever put into removing the bones of anything we ate, be it fish, mammal or amphibian. One evening my host grandmother enthusiastically served me what she called "leg of the pig soup"...and sure enough, there it was, bristles and all.

Walking past cases of meat in US grocery stores now, it strikes me how much effort is put into disassociating what ends up in your cart or on your plate from what was once walking or swimming around. This goes for non-meat items as well. While a sign may tell you that your grapes came from Chile, quality standards and the modification of food crops to maximize shelf life and delay ripening mean that the impact of the location something was grown is seldom evident in the taste or appearance of the food.

So I'm going to farm for a year, and perhaps learn way more than I ever wanted to know about those fruits and vegetables.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

introduction

It feels a bit strange to take up blogging again during what is undoubtedly the least eventful time in my life in a couple of years. I can think of only two particularly story-worthy events in the past two months:

  1. A bat flew into my bedroom. A vague association in my mind between bats and rabies made me abandon both my normal tolerance for vermin and my usual desire to deal with unpleasant things myself rather than asking for help (in other words, I crawled under the covers and called my dad). During this conversation the bat left my room and proceed to nearly meet its watery end in our kitchen sink. Gross, I know. These things aren't supposed to happen in the United States.
  2. My purse was stolen from the trunk of a locked car. Before I went out that evening I thought "Well, in case my bag were to get stolen, I shouldn't have anything unnecessary in it" and proceeded to remove a $5 pair of headphones. I wish my intuition would be a little more specific next time and spare me having to buy new glasses. Again, these things aren't supposed to happen in the United States.

Other than these two memorable and not particularly pleasant occurrences, life is predictable enough to make me very much miss the relative chaos of my average day a year ago. It would be nice to get caught in a monsoon rainstorm with a flat bicycle tire kilometers from home or head off on the back of a motorcycle to a protest or a Buddhist celebration or the filming of a karaoke video or something.

I spent part of my five hours of jet lag and anxiety in Bangkok before flying to Phnom Penh last year re-reading Letters to a Young Poet, and remember focusing on one particular quote:
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches, for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
Somehow I expected that such poetry would be called for while living in an urban poor neighborhood. There were certainly days when rice and sweat and rodents were distinctly unpoetic, but seeing the riches in that community was never very difficult. Rilke's challenge is much harder for me now, doing jobs that aren't very challenging and living in suburbia.

But, in the anticipation of more interesting things to come in a few weeks, and as a way of trying to stay present while I'm here, I decided to jump the gun on my next adventure and go ahead and write.

so welcome