Daisy and I walk down the road together. There aren’t any sidewalks here, but people drive slowly, knowing there are always children playing in or near the street.

“Where are you from?” Daisy asks.

“You mean where was I born?”

“Yes.”

It’s a logical question, in a neighborhood like Vickery Meadow. Many of the residents are refugees and immigrants from all over the world. There are 28 languages spoken in just one square mile. It’s an amazing little microcosm of the world.

“I was born in America. My father and his parents were born in Canada, and their parents were born in Romania. Where are you from?”

“Africa.”

“How wonderful. What country in Africa?”

“I don’t remember.”

We walk a bit further. It’s 95 degrees outside, and both of us are sweating.

Daisy asks, “Do you have a religion?”

“Yes, I’m a Baha’i.”

“Does that mean you pray to many Gods?”

“No, it means I believe people of all different religions pray to the same God.”

Her brother jumps in from behind us: “Do you believe in Muhammad?”

“I believe in Moses, and Jesus, and Muhammad, and also Baha’u’llah. That’s what makes me a Baha’i. I believe that people who pray different ways can still love one another. Like my family. My mother is Christian, and my father is Jewish, and I’m a Baha’i. We’re different religions, but they are still my family. Just like you and me. We’re different religions, but we’re part of the human family, so we still need to love each other and take care of each other.”

Daisy again: “Is everybody here a Ba-who?”

I glance back at the pack of boys and girls following at some distance behind. “Nope, just me and Nabil. There are lots of different religions here. Isn’t that nice?”

We keep walking, past neighbors speaking Spanish, Nepali, French. Children chase each other and play basketball. Babies are fed, laundry is hung, the sun beats down. Daisy and I keep moving forward in the heat and the light. What else is there to do?

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It’s funny, when you ask an expert, “What science fiction should I read?” you get straight answers back. Maybe a list with lots of “if you’re more into dystopia than I’d try these three” kinds of qualifiers, but an answer, at least.

When you ask an expert, “What should I listen to in order to get a feel for big band music?” you get answers. Enthusiastic ones, with suggestions cross-referenced by song, band, and year.

When you ask an expert, “What should I do in order to be educated in my field, to the same degree that others are regularly educated in theirs?” you get a few answers. Science! Math! But you get more talk about why people don’t want to be educated, why you should lobby for a school to provide you with an education, why you should raise money to hire some people to educate you, why it’s not financially helpful to be educated, why teachers won’t find it financially feasible to educate you, why you need accreditation to be educated, why other people should be educated first.

Folks who teach know what educated people read. They know what educated people practice. They know what educated people do to prove they know what they know. It’s in their syllabi. It’s their job. But for some reason, they don’t hand you a syllabus. They talk around you while you try and explain, “I wasn’t asking for your bureaucracy, I was asking for your advice. What should I read? What should I listen to? What should I do?” They’re wonderful people, friendly, intelligent, and polite. But the answers I crave aren’t forthcoming. I’m left with the same general list of subjects I had before the conversation.

I feel like I could save a lot of time, knowing what they know I should know. I could move forward with new things with more confidence. I could build a better plan. They seem to think I can’t learn it without their help. Or that, in the absence of outside validation, it won’t matter if I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s true. I’m glad they want a meaningful education for everyone, and someday they might get it. But in the meantime, I’m left here where I started, selfishly wanting it for me.

 

I’ve got a chemistry test in a week. I wrote it for myself. I’ve been at this, all on my own, for years. And it seems like that’s the way it’s going to stay for a while.

Everywhere I go, a path of service has already been prepared for me. Junior youth empowerment is a process that is evolving in every corner of the world.

Junior Youth Group

11- to 14-year-olds have many of the same needs everywhere. The need for a safe environment. The need to explore their identities and their dreams. The need for an encouraging voice and a listening ear. This is true for everyone, whether born in a swanky American suburb or a refugee camp in Nepal.

Junior Youth Group

Everywhere there is this tension between wanting to play like children, and wanting to be heard like adults. Luckily, there’s plenty of space for both.

Junior Youth Group

All photos taken by Kat, who is clearly not a photographer.

I received a card in the mail the other day. It was from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

For the first time since I was 22, I have comprehensive health coverage.

And suddenly I can breathe.

It’s like that muscle you didn’t know you’d been clenching until the moment you’re receiving a massage. A chronic fearful itch, just below consciousness. Don’t get sick. Don’t get hurt. For the love of God, don’t get pregnant. Don’t feel worse. Don’t get tired. Don’t give in. 

I don’t have a primary care physician. I haven’t seen a physician in ages. Except for a $30 trip to the Nurse Practitioner for antibiotics and steroids (bronchitis and an inflamed lung), and a scary but uneventful colposcopy and biopsy at Planned Parenthood, I haven’t needed any kind of medicine in my life. I’ve been very lucky. But also very afraid.

Yes, I eat well. I exercise. I try to get enough sleep. All the alternative health folks tell me this is the best health plan the earth can provide. But all the broccoli in the world wouldn’t help me avoid bankruptcy if I were end up in a coma after a drunk driver smashes into me on the side of the road.

It happened at a party I attended. It wasn’t me who was hit, but it could have been.

I didn’t know how stressful it really was until it was over. Now I get the amazing chance to think about my health instead of worry about it.

The card I got in the mail wasn’t a birthday card or a thank you card. I’ll be paying thousands of dollars a year for it. But my chest is full of air and I can let it all flow out and then in again. It turns out that money can buy a slice of happiness and peace. Who knew?

The birds are louder here.

I mean, I’ve always had birds around. Lots of the sparrow variety. Robins. Finches. City pigeons and crows. Gulls by the lake, ducks in the pond, that sort of thing. Dallas has similar birds, plus some strange varieties. And they are LOUD. I regularly hear one bird on my walks through the city that sounds like a car’s breaks are in sore need of repair. REEEEE, REEEEE, REEEEEEEEEEEEE! Some chatter. Many are utterly shameless as they beg for french fries on bar patios during the lunch hour. Is there some sort of app for identifying noisy Texas birdcalls? Or is that the sort of thing you just have to learn by wandering around in the company of a naturalist?

People are neither friendlier, nor less friendly than people in the Midwest. Some folks have adorable accents. Many are transplants. Everyone seems to have moved to Dallas for a job, even the native Texans. But once they come, they stay.

Spicy food is disappointingly difficult to find. You’d think, lodged between New Mexico and Louisiana, that this would not be the case, but it is. We’ve found a Thai place that will happily melt your face off at your request. Still looking for more.

People wear less clothing here. It’s a natural result of the environment, I know. I’m told I’ll have a couple more weeks of mild weather in the 90s before the summer starts to heat up in earnest. I’ve always been a pretty modest dresser, but it might be time to adapt a bit. I wore a shortish skirt without tights underneath the other day. My legs felt naked, but okay. I was still the most heavily dressed woman I saw. My inner meter of appropriateness might need recalibration for life in the South.

There is a magic box in our new apartment. You put dishes inside of it, close it up, and when you take them out later in the day, they are clean. As far as I’m concerned, this is nothing short of miraculous. Also, we have air conditioning. I wallow in unprecedented luxury.

I’ve run into more unapologetic racism here, but no more or less of the more covert variety than up north.

Trolley! Oh my goodness I love this free trolley. It is eight flavors of adorable and passes close to the art museum, also free.

There is a pool in our apartment complex, but I’ve never seen anybody swim in it. Mysterious. Must investigate.

So far, that’s my new life in Texas. Still exploring. I know I’ll learn to love it; the trick is in the deciding.

Dallas

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

Remember when I said that this was my no-guilt-for-not-updating blog? Yeah, I did that. I got busy, I got stressed, I was so busy writing professional stuff that my urge to write for myself was next to nil. But now I’m back, with all kinds of new words in my head.

Really cool things have happened to me lately. I got really involved in working with some older youth (ages 15-18) in Cleveland, who have turned into some of the coolest people I know. I attended a research conference in Boston, which fueled my passion for science even more, and actually rekindled some of the social science love that I thought I’d left behind me when I dropped out of college. I started getting some writing clients outside of the health and wellness industry, and it turns out I can write for photographers, lawyers, and bookkeepers just as well as I can write for massage therapists. And then, WHAM! We moved to Texas.

It pretty much happened just like that. April 1, Jef was given a choice between a promotion in Dallas or getting laid off in Cleveland. On the 10th he formally accepted the position. A few days later he started work, leaving me in Cleveland to settle our lives and pack. And May 17th I first set eyes on our new apartment in a town I’d never visited before. Whee!

I’m learning a lot about being detached from material things. All of my jewelry somehow got lost in the move? Need to cut down our book and record collection by a third in order to fit into a smaller apartment? No more need for my Cleveland-sized collection of heavy sweaters, long underwear, and scarves? Okay. Harder is dealing with being new and largely isolated for the moment. But people seem friendly, so I know I can overcome my shyness and meet new people.

My life mostly consists of unpacking boxes at this point, but I’m eager to learn more about my community here. I know that there are several junior youth groups in the area, and it’ll be really interesting how they are similar and different to the ones I knew in Cleveland (and Cincinnati, and Lilongwe, and Albuquerque … me and my silly nomadic life).

Anyhow, new insights will undoubtedly arriving soon. For now, I’m turning a mountain of boxes into a proper home. If that’s not a creative endeavor, I don’t know what is.

 

brazil junior youth group

A junior youth group in Portal da Gloria, Brazil plants a flower garden.

It occurs to me that, despite how much I talk about being a junior youth animator, I’ve never really explained what the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program is all about. Not in a concise way, anyhow.

Junior Youth

A junior youth is someone between the ages of 11 and 14. In some places the “junior youth” designation starts at age 12, but here people start middle school at 11 and move on to high school at 14, so it’s a really logical social group. Junior youth is that time in between childhood and youth when we become more independent, start to look critically at the world around us, think more abstractly, ask big questions about the nature of things, and feel an awful lot like an adult, even if we don’t always act like one. Heck, we even start to look more like adults, too. Growth spurts and hormonal changes are a part of this time period too, for better or worse.

Spiritual

The qualities of the human spirit: courage, compassion, truthfulness, trustworthiness, love. Many people (junior youth, as well as those younger and older than them) navigate their spirit through the medium of religion or faith. Many people do not. So while religion inevitably comes up in conversation (and if you think junior youth aren’t interested in discussing religion, think again), it’s from a perspective of sharing and inquiry rather than proselytizing or catechism. The goal is to deepen the spirit: for the Muslim youth to be excellent Muslims, the Christian youth to be excellent Christians, the Baha’i youth to be excellent Baha’is, and the humanist youth to be excellent humanists. For those young people that are exploring religion in the hopes of choosing one to follow, the goal is for them to do so from a place of understanding and respect. Don’t forget, curiosity and creativity are also qualities of the spirit.

Empowerment

Empowerment means “to endow with power.” When junior youth work to make positive changes in themselves, it endows them with the power to change their communities. When junior youth serve the community in increasingly complex ways, it endows them with the power to change themselves for the better. Youth already have amazing capacities inside them: physical capacities for athletics and dance, mental capacities for critical and creative thinking, spiritual capacities for kindness and justice, and other uniquely human capacities for things like verbal communication and artistic expression. To empower junior youth doesn’t mean stuffing them full of power they don’t yet have, it means drawing out the capacities that are already latent within them and bringing them to fruition.

Program

While each junior youth group develops organically, there is a basic framework for the program. There are study materials that encourage discussion. Service to others is a major component, whatever form that may take. Artistic, athletic, and social activities are also important; forming strong friendships rooted in mutual respect is vital at this age.

All these things grow as the youth do. In the beginning, they read simple stories. While the topics may be profound, the depth of the conversation may or may not be. This isn’t problematic, it’s just a natural result of being 11. Service projects may be simple, like visiting the sick, reading books to young children, or cleaning up litter in a neighborhood.

After three years, the youth are reading stories at an adult level. Not only are their services to the community more long-term and complex (like holding a regular class for children or maintaining a vegetable garden for local hungry families), but they have taken on most of the responsibilities themselves. They call organizations to arrange a meeting or businesses for in-kind donations. They plan the lessons they’ll teach. They write the public talks they’ll give. (And arrange the venue. And write to the local paper about it.)

Does this seem like a lot to ask of a 14-year-old? Of course it is. But 14-year-old gymnasts with three years of training under their belts can do backflips. Imagine the citizens that 14-year-olds with three years of systematic empowerment behind them could be.

So what happens after?

Obviously, we don’t just ditch these youth on their 15th birthday. What happens next depends on the paths of service that each youth chooses to take, but many take all these skills for consultation, service, reflection, and community-building, and decide to become trained to animate their own junior youth groups. At around 16 (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), often with the assistance of an experienced mentor, they become that older sibling to a group of 11-year-olds who are just entering adolescence.

So when you hear me talking about my junior youth groups, this is what I mean.

It’s a process of empowering young people ages 11-14 to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. It’s frustrating to be told that your entire life is a time of preparation for eventual adulthood. The best way to prepare for a life of service is to start making a difference now.

Photo used with the permission of the Baha’i World Center.

Makings

I came into your house when it was empty,
turned on all the lamps, and waited for you to arrive.
When you did, you stomped your feet and scolded me:
Did you think I was made of money?
No, I answered truthfully.

I thought you were made of light.

letter k

Ever get one of those writing or thinking prompts that goes something like, “What would you have done differently in middle school if you’d known then what you know now?” There’s nobody I know who wouldn’t have lived those years of their lives with some drastic changes.

That’s the power of knowledge.

To make a change, you have to know your reality. You have to know what you want. You have to know how to get there (or at least know how to experiment until you do). And you have to know enough about yourself to figure how to put all of this together.

That’s a tall order for a 13-year-old. Or an adult. But it’s true, anyhow.

That much I know.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

letter j

Who puts their hands on their hips, stomps their foot, and shouts, “Thanks not fair!

A spoiled brat?

An immature child?

How about a champion of justice?

Justice means seeing with your own eyes, hearing with your own ears, and not relying on thirdhand information before you judge.

Justice means equality, except when it doesn’t.

Justice is a sense of right and wrong that permeates the consciousness of adolescents, whether their vision jives with that of the adults in their lives or not.

And surprisingly enough, justice promotes some decidedly un-childish qualities. Generosity. Compassion. Determination. Self-sacrifice.

If your knee-jerk response is, “Well, life isn’t fair,” you’re missing out on an opportunity.

How isn’t it fair?

Why isn’t it fair?

And most importantly, how do we go about changing that?

photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc