Archives for posts with tag: community

Let me tell you a story.

I started playing the cello in elementary school orchestra. I was lucky to go to school in a district that took the arts very seriously (more so than the sciences even, somewhat to the detriment of STEM-inclined students like my sister), and so orchestra was an option beginning in fourth grade. Every year my teacher would recommend I take private lessons, but dance and gymnastics were more important to me at that point, so there was never time for one more thing. Still, I had a decent theoretical and intuitive understanding of music thanks to my pianist father, so I did fine.

In middle school, I started developing joint pain. Gymnastics fell victim first, followed by ballet. I managed to keep up enough for theater, but by my junior year I wasn’t even engaged in that the same way. So at 16, I started private cello lessons.

My teacher, who had his pick of brilliant students, agreed to take me on because I was “interesting.” I could read music fluently, in multiple clefs. I could handle complex rhythms. I was keeping up with the other members of my high school orchestra. And as long as I did, my technique had never been dealt with. I was going to have to start over.

From scratch.

My first lesson, I wasn’t allowed to play a single note. After bow-hold exercises, I held the bow in my right hand, with both hands resting on my knees. I picked them up, and placed them correctly on the instrument, drawing two wide loops in the air. I put them back on my knees. I put them back on the cello. I put them back on my knees.

The next lesson I played open strings.

The lesson after that I played four-note scales. Then eight notes.

Then I finally had music placed in front of me. Suzuki Book 1. The first song? “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I started to cry, just looking at it. I had been playing the cello for seven years. It was so humiliating. My friends were playing Bach, and here I was, playing baby music. My teacher, bless him, didn’t seem phased by this. He explained that we’d move through relatively quickly, but that my technique needed to be addressed at a foundational level before we moved on to more complex things. And that it would require hard work and practice, and a huge dose of humility, but never humiliation. There was nothing to be ashamed of in striving to be better, no matter what it looked like to someone on the outside.

I stayed after school every day and practiced by myself. Twinkle Twinkle. French Folk Song. The Song of the Wind. The Happy Farmer. Minuet in C. My orchestra teacher commented that it was so nice to hear the old songs again. I did move quickly, practicing every day. And I improved.

The next year, I found myself a section leader. My teacher moved to another country. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson in humility he taught me when he watched me cry to see a book of children’s songs.

Now.

I serve as a tutor of study circles, which are intended to raise capacity in individuals and communities to serve their communities. Each of the courses these study circles goes through includes three related units of study, and at least one practice. Both of these elements is essential for capacity to be built, and neither is particularly effective without the other.

The thing is, we all live in communities. We think we must know how to live together. After all, haven’t we been doing it as individuals for twenty, thirty, seventy years? Haven’t our families been doing it for thousands? Who doesn’t know how to be a community, anyway? A hermit, maybe. Certainly not us.

But the truth is that, while we’ve often been getting by, our technique is, frankly, terrible. And we need to start learning at the beginning.

From scratch.

This is why people who feel at the height of their influence struggle with the Ruhi sequence of courses. Book 1, called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, includes three units, two of which have a practice component. The first is to read the Writings, carefully and with intent, every morning and evening. The second is to visit two Baha’is and study a prayer with them. Not even to pray, but to study the prayer itself, the same way the first unit teaches us to study on our own.

I have literally had people refuse to study with me, insisting that it is a waste of their time. As though looking at a few words together with fresh eyes were somehow a demeaning task when they were capable of so much more.

I’ve had people agonize over whether visiting someone in their home, even invited, were an appropriate avenue of service. Whether it was patronizing to study a prayer with someone else. Whether there was any use in it. Whether they shouldn’t just skip it and get on to the real acts of service, the exciting ones for books down the line.

But of course, if you can’t study fifty words with a friend, you can’t facilitate the study of hundreds in a group. If you can’t will yourself to talk about spiritual reality, you won’t be able to teach an entire class of children to pray. If you aren’t willing to visit a friend in their home, you will never work up the courage to build bonds of friendship with someone previously regarded as a stranger.

You won’t build community in your neighborhood.

You won’t build unity in your world.

It takes so much humility to understand that how we’ve learned to be in the world may have helped us cope, but it’s on some level fundamentally broken. That we need to re-learn something as basic as friendship, or neighborliness, or meaningful conversation.

It’s a real struggle to overcome the sense that we’re meant for something better than this, that we’re not children, after all, that we already have so much capacity already if people could just see it …

But if we can set it aside and practice the basics until we’ve really mastered them, the resulting music is so much stronger. And I know because I’m still here, trying my best, playing away.

KIR_1480

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On failure

I was recently digging around through a bunch of links I had bookmarked, and came across an article by Carol Zou, who I had the pleasure of knowing when we lived and worked in the same neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. Carol is an artist whose primary form of art is empowering communities to create their own art. (If that sounds strange to you at all, sit with it a while. It’s actually a really helpful way of looking at artistic expression.) Anyhow, she published an article last year called Who is Allowed to Fail? Some things she notices:

  • A recently-arrived refugee must prove their business idea is foolproof in order to receive a $5,000 loan, but a middle class 18 year old can take out a student loan for ten times that without so much as a conversation about how they intend to pay it back, or even how they plan to successfully graduate.
  • A bank can get a bailout after making bad decisions with their money, but a renter will be evicted from their apartment when they start missing payments.

Anyhow, I don’t want to summarize the entire article, because it’s Carol’s work and you should read it for yourself. But it definitely got me thinking about the privilege of failure.

Part of this is the privilege of defining success and failure for ourselves. In the the Baha’i community, we’ve been encouraged to see past “narrow conceptions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ that breed freneticism or paralyze volition.” We talk about a learning process, an experiment, rather than a failure. Failure to move forward and learn is a problem. Failure to adhere to a formula for results is not.

Artists get this. They’ll tell you about a “sketch” or a “draft.” It’s one of many, and we’re lucky when we’re in a community of others who get that.

But this freedom to focus on learning over results is a matter of privilege. When I was teaching at a school a decade ago, I was in charge of the Writing Club. At first, the 12- and 13-year-olds in my class made almost no progress with their writing. No matter how hard I worked to develop a meaningful prompt, they would spend inordinate amounts of time coming up to me and asking me to spell words for them, or erasing their handwriting and re-doing it neatly. They were shocked when I told them that we’re only making drafts here, that I cared not one bit about their spelling or their margins at this stage. That they could have as much paper as they wanted, that I would personally go to the store and buy everyone new notebooks if they ran out of space, that they could try and try again, in search of powerful language. That they could fail.

Children without paper who are graded on their work don’t get to say, “Oh, I don’t need immediate results, I just want to learn about improving my writing.”

After around four months, they did start writing some beautiful things, until I got sick and another teacher came in and scolded them for their sloppy work. That was a failure of mine that still weighs on me. I never did learn how to protect them from the needless critique of adults flush with power.

People with money for more notebook paper are allowed to fail. People with power are allowed to fail. People with social capital are allowed to fail. We expect it. We respect it. But not when it’s the wrong kind of people making the mistakes.

It would be really easy to let this kind of pervasive social attitude slip into the community-building process. That the educated, the wealthy, the powerful have the right to try and fail and reflect and learn and move forward, while those who are without need to be cared for and patronized and protected from their own failures-in-waiting, or abandoned to deal with the consequences of their lack of continual success.

In this kind of scenario, we get teachers who can snap at children, while children who lash out are expelled from the class. We get youth who are fed “education” bite by bite, without ever being invited to be protagonists in their own learning. We get adults whose lifetime of acquired skill and wisdom is never put to use, either for the fear of what response it might elicit, or from the assumption that it simply doesn’t exist.

We know the attitude is insidious. And as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle.”

But the other half, the half where knowledge gets put into action? That is the half of the battle where people tend to get hurt.

I want to think that we’re learning to write a rough draft of a community, in the truest sense of that word. But it’s not something you can build perfectly, then invite people inside, based on your limited vision of utopia. The community is the building process. And no matter how much paper it takes, we need everyone to have the chance to pick up their pencil and write their future, failing as they go.

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Background image for the “On failure” graphic by Pink Sherbet Photography from USA (Free crumpled paper texture for layers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny, when I wrote that last post about ebola, it was something far-off. And now it’s here. I mean here.

When I first heard there was a patient with ebola in Dallas, I thought, “Huh, I wonder which hospital he’s at.” Then I found out he was at the hospital where I work.

Then they mentioned that children from four different schools might have been exposed. Someone remarked that it was unlikely that children attending four different schools could all be in one family, and I thought, “Not really. That’s very common in my neighborhood. I wonder if he lives here.” As it turns out, he does.

Now, I’m not afraid of contracting this virus. It’s not particularly easy to catch, and I follow standard precautions. I know that the hospital, and the health department, and the CDC are all doing excellent jobs.

The news crews who are swarming this gentleman’s apartment complex? I have less faith in them.

Lots of the kids I work with live there. They all came home from school today with an ebola fact-sheet. And the whole world wants a snapshot of the place where this virus lived for a few days before being isolated and hospitalized.

My neighborhood.

And I’m worried about what these news people are describing. Crowded instead of close-knit. Full of refugees instead of diverse. Dirty. Dangerous. Poor.

I see you looking at us through the lens of the news, and the combination of xenophobia and paranoia this lens promotes is a bit frightening. Much more so than a simple virus.

No, not every road here has sidewalks. No, not all of us speak English. No, we don’t look like any other neighborhood in Dallas.

But we’re not a throwaway neighborhood. We’re not a public health risk. We’re not the problem here.

We’re the solution that has yet to be called upon.

We speak 33 languages. We know our neighbors. We gather regularly to share information on the soccer field, in the laundromat, and on the street. You couldn’t ask for better participants in a campaign to ensure the safety of our friends and relatives.

But nobody’s asked us.

So we’ll try to mobilize as best we can, ducking between the cameras trying to sell a frightening story about immigration and public health. I hope that, when they start using that story as a reason to tear these old buildings down and build condos that none of us can afford, someone will remember our story too. That we aren’t just a ghetto full of scary people from scary places.

We’re the solution to problems that have yet to be understood.

And this is our home.

While I’ve been following the current ebola outbreak for quite a while now (my job requires me to visit the CDC website on an almost daily basis, so it’s constantly in my face), it’s only recently that I’ve seen Americans without ties to west or central Africa becoming actively afraid of the disease. And where fear goes, exploitation follows. Scammers are selling all kinds of products to “protect your family against ebola,” from essential oils to magical water to expensive dietary supplements. Never mind that the best way to avoid contracting ebola is to avoid coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has ebola—not terribly difficult to manage here in the US.

But people quite naturally want to do something when horror strikes. As such, here’s my list of suggestions of things you can do, as an average person outside of an area where ebola is endemic, to help the situation.

1. Support science education of children, youth, and adults.

If we as a people do not understand science, we will not produce scientists. We will not be able to develop cures and methods of prevention. We will be easy prey for scams. We will not know where to donate money or time or energy in order to be of service. Supporting science education might mean tutoring a neighborhood youth. It might mean pitching in for science supplies for a local cash-strapped teacher. It might mean organizing a workshop at your local library, or calling your state legislators. It might even mean logging on to Khan Academy and educating yourself. Choose the path that makes the most sense for you.

2. Demonstrate and teach compassion.

Nothing gets better when nobody cares. (And caring is different from fear.) Does picking up litter in your neighborhood on your daily walk really have any effect on something like ebola halfway across the world? Not directly. But in a world where editorials make sarcastic cracks at those who dedicate their lives to curing disease and alleviating suffering, any attempt to eliminate cynicism is a step that brings us closer to being able to act in unity with our fellow human beings.

Vickery Meadow neighborhood cleanup

3. If it’s not about you, remember that.

If you live anywhere near a decently-sized city, there are people in your area who are affected by this crisis. You have neighbors or coworkers who are from central and west Africa, who have family there, who are worried sick in ways that probably don’t apply to you. A visit, some baked goods, a word of understanding can go a long way. Listen. Listen well, and do it more than you speak. Share the burden of those who are suffering, rather than adding a burden of your own.

4. Live in a learning mode.

Medicine is a tricky practice. It involves some science, some art, and a sizable chunk of engineering all thrown together. It requires a process of study, action, and reflection that doesn’t always run perfectly on an individual level, much less on a global scale. But when we allow ourselves to internalize this learning cycle, we stop being defensive about past mistakes, and instead upgrade our knowledge and habits without shame. While most of us aren’t going to develop a cure for ebola, we can bring to a halt the spread of misinformation, even misinformation we ourselves had a hand in promoting. We can encourage habits of creative thought and concerted action that might lead to a new scientific breakthrough, or just a better experience for the families on our street.

I know that these aren’t the kinds of advice most people are looking for. They don’t particularly alleviate fear. They aren’t direct. They aren’t immediate. They’re not simple. And they’re definitely not glamorous. But when we finally conquer this outbreak, there will be another crisis to capture our attention. Perhaps another virus. Or a war. Or a hurricane. Or a messenger from outer space—who knows? We can’t possibly hope to preemptively develop exactly what is needed to handle every possible contingency. But in all of these cases, there is a shared truth: that the best preparation is a community of people who strive towards acquiring and applying knowledge for the betterment of all.

If you want to make a difference, start there.

I love how the more I work in the community, the more it becomes a process of mutual sharing. Sharing a song with the youth in a study circle is so much lovelier when they teach me one in return. A gift of my time visiting a neighbor in her home is quite literally sweetened by the tea she serves me. A word in English traded for a word in Spanish, or in Nepali, or maybe just a loving smile.

It sounds so selfish, I know. We’re taught that we should give selflessly, without regard for reward. But I can’t help the feeling that what I’m experiencing isn’t something as petty as tit-for-tat, it’s an emerging environment of equality. We’re just neighbors. Collaborators. Friends. There are no martyrs here.

So I know a prayer in Sanskrit now. I’ve learned to make chatpate from a group of middle school girls and to make origami flowers from a talented boy who used to curse at me in the street. I hoard a collection of construction paper cards that say “I love u Mis Cat” and “Thank you for being a awesome friend.” I’ve been invited to saints’ days and birthdays and dinners and festivals. And I’ve come to understand, most people love the opportunity to share what they have. Knowledge. Art. Stories. Passion. Faith. It brings people joy the same way it does for me. Silly not to have known it all along, eh? But I’m so much richer for having discovered it now.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

Celebrating Holi with the some fabulous youth.

 “You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-The Princess Bride

Coherence does not mean the same thing as balance. To balance two or more aspects of your life, they must be separate, but given equal or appropriate weight. To live a coherent life is to understand how your work, your health, your service, your family, support each other, and are one. A coherent community does not attempt to separate the needs of children, youth, adults, families, and institutions. A coherent thought does not need to be diagrammed, balance sought between nouns and verbs. If balance is a pie chart, coherence is the combined ingredients in a strawberry-rhubarb pie. There is a difference.

Sustainable does not mean the same thing as easy. Lowering your standards might seem like a great way to ensure that a program or habit can carry on for years, but without the thrill that comes from meaningful challenge and the chance to create true change, is it really so feasible? Daily flossing is easy, but many people skip it even so. Try to see the sustaining power in exhilaration, inspiring greatness of spirit rather than smallness of action. There is a difference.

Empowered does not mean the same thing as independent. Just because someone cannot take on all the responsibility for a task without help does not mean that they cannot begin by taking some. Just because someone has all the skills to act without support from others doesn’t mean that they should. Abandonment is not a condition of power. There is a difference.

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?

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.

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.