The Journey Home?



“Everyone is asking what you are going to do with your life,” my step-father recently wrote, “What should I tell them?”


My decisions largely baffle my family.  They want to trust simply that I am working towards some sort of good in the world, but the details defy them.  They are proud of me without quite knowing why.  I have a college degree so I am safe, they hope.  Other times, in a manic way, they show open disdain – it is ridiculous and impractical, they say, to travel around the world when you could live at home, get a paying job with health insurance and save some money. 


Money and insurance are not part of my vision, but, in truth, I do want to be home. Home somewhere – not with my parents, surely.  I want a place where I can settle into the seasons, learn the nuances of the land, grow food, be a part of a community, work with children.  I don’t see this as contradictory to my passion for travelling and living in foreign countries or to my interest in other cultures.  The desire to stay put (eventually) rather, is derived from my experiences in and understanding of other places -- on their own and in relation to my own county – the United States.  My travels, in turn, are rooted to initial misgivings and dissatisfaction with this place – my home.


“Tell them I plan to continue to unveil and challenge destructive models of social thought-control and de-humanizing power structures,” I replied, half-jokingly.  I know my step-father is searching for something more solid than this.  But, joking or not, I am being honest.  The words may be new to me, but the idea and sentiments are not.


I need to start earlier in my life, though – with the times in my childhood that still stand as clear memories of the “real” world revealed. I don’t know if there is a moment when we transcend childhood -- any of us -- but I have clear memory of moments when sense seemed elucidated (or startlingly obvious).  Times when I was sure that I understood the world.  I am especially grateful to my flashback memory of the distinct feelings of these times -- the remembered and revisited roots of my resistance. 


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I wasn’t very nice when I was little. I started being “bad” when I was seven or eight years old and (for a while) it went downhill from there.  I was the child the neighbors’ kids weren’t allowed to play with.  And the one the kids at recess picked last for kickball.  I lied, stole and played mean tricks. My mother blamed the horrors of my childhood on inevitable growing pains.  But for me, it was sheer self-defense; I became “bad” when I tried to rescue myself from a sense of increasing awkwardness and discomfort.  Simply being myself no longer seemed to work.  The persistent questioning of “What really happened?” turned my initial truths into ridiculous, punishable lies.  By taunting anyone I deemed less “cool”, I consoled myself of my own inability to ascend the clique ladder.  And by stealing anything I could slip in my pocket or up my sleeve, I resolved that I could take care of myself.


Punishments – spankings, groundings, manual garden labor – were supposed to teach me a lesson and prove a point.  But these lessons – related to common sense, respect and behavior – were not generated through the punishments themselves, but rather through the times my parents sat down to discuss my actions with me.  Tensions between my mother and father – divorced since I was 2 years old – also added a dimension to disagreements and family feuds.  With 2 families[1], I often ended up in the middle of fights I could not comprehend.  Sometimes I used these politics to my own benefit: I would threaten to run away to my father if I was angry with my mother.  Sometimes I offered support, comforting my mother after a phone brawl with my stepmother.


I still consider my childhood a happy one, despite my miserable behavior.  I lived in a nice neighborhood, I had the freedom to walk or ride my bike anywhere, my family did many activities together, my parents read to me, relatives were supportive and nearby.  My present interest in working with children (and my faith that it really will make a difference) can largely be attributed to the good things I remember growing up, the things that excited and inspired me then.  Two people come first to mind when I try to discern the roots of my  present convictions and goals. Both teased out my curiosity, challenged my perspectives, and opened the world to my imagination and questioning.


My step-dad was the one who introduced the river to me.  Sometimes he woke me at 5 A.M. to descend the embankment behind the street, and climb down to the miles (it seemed) of paths and brambles.  We collected sumac[2], explored the capillary run-offs, investigated rainbow puddles and fish – both alive and dead.  We followed the river down to where it ran into Lake Michigan and up, where we could canoe alongside the beaver dam and sunning turtles, where I caught crayfish and was amazed by water-striders.  It was my step-dad, ultimately, who led me to delight in the natural world.  Through his amazing patience and openness, I simultaneously discovered and fell in love with the life and simple living that sprung quietly up in the world around me.


I also feel a great appreciation to Mr. Conway, my fifth grade teacher, who, despite the ‘stolen ring’ and ‘mysterious eraser theft’ incidents, also had faith that I was a pretty good kid.  In fact, in his eyes, all of us kids were.  In the classroom he was always open to new ideas and suggestions, always ready with “Okay – how should we do it?”  Mr. Conway did things differently than any of the other teachers – and a place in his classroom was coveted and often requested in advance. He was the only teacher I ever had who used the classroom as a learning space for everyone, even himself.  He seemed to enjoy learning with us.  In his class, we published our own books, brought in interesting articles to create our own bulletin boards, went on self-organized weekend camping trips, made up games, cared for classroom pets.  We even decided, after research and discussion, to bring our own plates for lunch instead of using the supplied Styrofoam[3] trays.


The class pet did not raise alarm; neither did the bulletin boards, or the books.  But the plates attracted attention – and we wanted them to.  In the hallways, on the way to lunch, we marched with our plates in front of us for all to see.  On a poster outside the classroom we illustrated the harmful effects of CFCs in the atmosphere and in their enduring life span in landfills.  After lunch we washed our plates and let them dry on a shelf.  This lasted all of one week before the Health Department shut down our operation.  The movement was declared ‘Unsanitary’ and snuffed out.  I was astounded – had they not read our posters?  They could go see for themselves the bags and bags of trash piled in the cafeteria at 2:00 every day!  This was preposterous and…well, stupid.  Even I knew that – and I was only in fifth grade!  I resolved that there had been some misunderstanding – that we were indisputably doing the right thing and just needed to talk to the right people.  In a very formal manner, I typed a letter, provided the pertinent statistical information and the testimony of our experiences in classroom 5B, sealed it in an envelope and placed it in the mayor’s mailbox, down the street from my house.


When the mayor finally responded, he congratulated our efforts.  The he apologized; he could not help.  He – THE MAYOR – could not be of any assistance.  This shocked me.  Who, then, could help?  The president?  A lawyer?  I wracked my brain – who is there to turn to when something seems so obviously immoral and dangerous?  Despite media coverage, both on TV and in the newspapers, no one came to help; the Health Department could not be swayed.  The abominable usage of Styrofoam in the lunchroom (and the world!) continued.  I lamented the injustice, even as we moved on to establish a battery recycling box outside the classroom.  This received media coverage too – and nobody objected.  We did many projects in that class that attracted attention, we were even asked to participate in the making of ‘educational films’.  But the themes we were challenging and the ideas we were proposing seemed so obvious to me – action and change seemed simply common sense. This was painful for me – why couldn’t everyone just see for themselves and help make a difference?  What was the use of having one’s picture in the newspaper if there wasn’t anything happening or anyone really listening? 


My fifth grade astonishment has repeated itself, with a new face each time. I was assured (by parents, teachers, adults, the media) that my naiveté about the functioning of “the system” was to be expected and would eventually be overcome.  The more this happened – a sort of pat on the head and gentle shove back outside – the more I knew something was terribly wrong.  I could not fit in properly and kept asking seemingly wrong questions. “The system” I was trying to understand at these stages of my life was exactly the one telling me not to ask questions, to ‘do as told’, to ‘behave’.  “Why?” I would ask.  “Because that’s how it is,” came the retort, time and again.  The world seemed largely patronizing to me as a child and youth.


The end of middle school and the beginning of high school, when my family moved from northern Michigan to the mountains of North Carolina, was the breaking point for me. I felt I needed to get away from everything in my life.  Or hit someone.  Or throw a temper tantrum.  My discomfort in school and at home, when not transformed through art or creative writing or long-distance running, turned often to anger.  This was largely due to the fact that I could not articulate what exactly was so wrong, nor could I engage in discussion about it with anyone.  On one hand I was extremely competitive, both academically and athletically, and considered talented in both respects.  But, on the other hand, I was awkwardly self-conscious and never quite comfortable with my self or my voice.   The best I could do always seemed a step below what I wanted to be able to do, and once I managed to climb up a little more, another level of ‘better’ appeared. 


So, while my past misbehavior and insolence had been forgiven (and overcome?), I still couldn’t seem to conform to the version of “good” that I hoped for or others expected.  In middle and high school I tried to be really good – I made good grades, took “advanced” classes, joined clubs, became a star athlete.  But nothing changed. I was still angry, I was still frustrated, I still wasn’t good enough.  It is not surprising that in these years I also joined the statistical fate of 1 in 3 American teen-age girls: I secretly maintained multiple eating disorders and undertook the slow process of wasting away.[4]


In eleventh grade I left.  I won a scholarship to study for a year in Germany at a German high school.  I didn’t speak German.  In fact, I didn’t know much about the country at all.  But it was somewhere else and that was good enough for me.  My school was reluctant to allow me to go; they did not want to give me credit for the year.  But, after careful deliberations on their part and promises and signed declarations on mine, I was on my way. 


Studying German history and speaking the language, although I did plenty of both, were small parts of my ultimate learning.  My host family was a young couple with no children. My host mother quickly became a close friend.  She was an avid supporter of the local organic farming movement, a naturopath, artist and volunteer at the children’s hospital.  She was also dying of cancer.  In the year I was there, I learned much with her about transforming fear into action and love, about faith in small things.  She talked candidly with me about life and death, about her perspectives on the world and its workings, about love.  She was also the first one to talk to me about my body – about loving myself, taking care of myself, eating.


In my time abroad, I discovered a new voice, one that was strangely familiar – it was my anger, transformed.  I made friends with people who wanted to talk about poetry, the nuclear arms race, spirituality, the Zapatistas – things I considered important and related to a larger consciousness about the world. I quit school and walked through nearby villages and forest, biked along the river, hopped the train for distant cities, or stayed home to bake and write and draw. Everywhere I needed to go was accessible by foot, bike, or train. I traveled around Europe with friends and my host-family. 


These experiences served to fuel my curiosity and wanderlust, while uncovering a self-confidence I didn’t realize I had. I was making choices for myself, engaging with people on deeper levels and transforming a ‘foreign’ place into a comfortable home.  I began to think about the world differently; I questioned what it was exactly that offered the new perspectives and ideas.  The culture? The geography?  The certain people? What was it?  Simultaneously, I began to question other themes, such as the role and importance of school, the corruption of those who hold power, the meaning of ‘freedom’ and catch phrases such as ‘natural’ or ‘environmentally friendly’.  I had more and more questions, but now there were spaces to discuss them.


Back home I forged my German report card and finished high school.  The only credit denied was in ‘Foreign Languages’ because I could provide no “proof’ that I had taken an official German-As-a-Foreign-Language class.  In fact, I hadn’t.  My fluency in the language, acquired through experience, did no good in school paperwork. 


My final year of high school after Germany was different; I raised my voice more – not in anger this time, but with my personal opinions and beliefs.  I worked through my eating disorders and talked to my family about them for the first time.  I fought Styrofoam again – this time with what some considered success.  After countless petitions, letters and meetings, the cafeteria dusted off old plastic plates, plugged in old dishwashers and discontinued its use of Styrofoam.  It wasn’t the battle I had expected.  Victory was a ghost.  Nobody much cared.  I spent my lunch break digging the re-usable plastic plates and trays out of garbage cans and dumpsters, talking to people, soliciting my hope and disgusted by the indifference I faced.  


School taught me a lot about stupidity.  And, disappointingly, there were very few people who related to this view or even bothered to question their education.  Everyone’s goal was to graduate, whether by just slipping through with marginal grades or by making honors and marching down the aisle in fancy, decorated robes.  If you graduated, it meant you were smart, or at least had worked hard to overcome your slowness.  If you didn’t graduate, it meant you had somehow failed yourself, probably due to laziness or fate (i.e. background).  The separations within my high school were not only ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’, but also ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ and ‘white’ and ‘black’. None of these dichotomies (or their overlaps) was talked about directly  – they were the sacred cows of the school, inherent and untouchable.  The hierarchies seemed to be woven into the curriculum.  One teacher, well respected and admired for his creative and innovative classroom approaches, openly refused to teach some classes unless they were reserved as ‘advanced’ or ‘honors’.  He didn’t have the patience to work with kids who wouldn’t do their work, he explained.  Whatever his reasoning, it reinforced the stereotypes and divisions that were already in place in our minds: “We are smart, they are not.” 


College was a little better, but mostly because it was not high school.  I enjoyed the new geographical environment and the opportunities available outside the classrooms.  With the new freedom of my “alternative education” at Hampshire College[5], without grades or tests, I had the space (largely) to create my own process of learning. This was the appeal of the ‘alternative’; I wouldn’t have the same demeaning school structures I’d left behind.  I worked at the school’s organic farm, learned how to fix the tractors and equipment, trim sheep hooves, spin and dye wool, repair fences, grow 55 varieties of tomatoes and save their seeds.  I learned to understand soil, appreciate the seasons (even winter!), live in a tent, cook good food, and share my excitement with children.  My college education may be compiled in a transcript of classes, but the experience I have taken with me is mostly connected to the land where I lived and worked.  And to the subsequent vision I have of living and working as part of a healthy, conscious community.   


Disappointingly, many of my classroom experiences in college reproduced the outrage I first experienced in elementary school.  I am still angry with professors who, with their dangerous influence (being, after all, professors), behaved in moronic ways.  I still believe I am justified in my dissatisfaction with a former advisor who, in my ‘Agriculture, Ecology and Society’ class, refused to engage a question about the terminology ‘weed’ and its historical and cultural implications.  I had read about how, in many cultures, agricultural practices included many plants grown together, some for human consumption, some for fodder, some for basket-making, etc.  Further, these ‘weeds’ were said to have complimentary nutritional and religious value.   This, my professor insisted (with a laugh), was not the place; we were discussing ‘weeds’ strictly as they applied to our practical lives now.  What I accepted then as “pressed for time” has revisited me as deep disappointment – to think that I did the work, got the credit, moved on when there was so much to challenge, so many other perspectives pushed aside. 


The same professor also headed the committee that served to examine, critique, and eventually pass my first Natural Science “exam”; a substantial writing of my choice.  I chose biotechnology and wrote a thirty-page paper that touted the potential for genetically modified organisms to clean up Super Fund sites[6].  I used scientific journals, reports, the Internet and attended a conference.  I presented a paper that heralded the joys of such technology and projected future market growth.  I passed, no problem.  It wasn’t until my second year, after a Social Science research and writing project on the Green Revolution, that I realized my Natural Science work was a piece of crap, that I had written a scientific report with one-sided information and no critique.  I was angry that I had written so confidently about something I now understood completely differently, and that many of the people I trusted as professors – ‘professionals’ – were not the experts they projected.  I wanted a dialogue, or an argument, if need be – something beyond doing the work, reporting it and receiving an evaluation.  I recall one professor evaluation I received that declared, “Ms. Sandler lacks scholarly approach.”  This, after I wrote a final paper criticizing the ability of philosophy, as approached in our introductory class, to give any substantial motivation for understanding, appreciating and approaching diversity and positive change in the practical world.  Fine.  Maybe I didn’t want to be a scholar after all. 


I tell myself that the lessons learned here (and countless others) were worth the pain.  They led me to seek new avenues, ask more questions, seek other opinions.  Did school teach me to think critically?  Or was it the ridiculousness of it all that made me critical?  While I was questioning and challenging the structure of the educational system and my own learning on deeper levels, I still could not articulate the details of my dissatisfaction.  Maybe I just wasn’t fit to finish school – maybe there was something wrong with ME.  I alternated between questioning my own abilities and those of the system. 


 As in high school, I left during my third year.  By chance, at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah[7], I had learned about a program that sounded like the right mix of learning and running away. This time it was in pursuit of the study of “Global Ecology,” through a travel abroad program that sought to cover social, cultural, environmental, economic and political issues (in general and specific contexts). After the familiar school bureaucracy, I managed to secure accreditation and was again on my way.  Over the greater part of a year we traveled in England, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States.  Our group of thirty was comprised of students studying music, religion, education, anthropology, art, city planning, dance -- all with vastly different views on the world, our shared experiences, the past, the future, etc. 


I am often asked what place I liked best, or what I thought about the food/ amenities/ climate/ sicknesses /communications.  Failed attempts to fully elaborate my experiences are due to the many layers of learning that were happening quickly, all at once.  I was involved in an ongoing process of learning to live and effectively communicate with my peers, adapting to new host families (and their communities) on a regular basis, inundated with the provocative and passionate views of teachers, activists, scientists, artists, religious leaders, authors, farmers, economists, etc. Simultaneously, I was learning by seeing and questioning.  My questions were welcomed and engaged as a part of a larger understanding.  Indeed, each time I thought I was close to understanding something, it would unfold to reveal more layers and levels.   


My clearest images of this process of unfolding complexity are of Payatas, formerly the largest garbage dump of Manila, in the Philippines. My group was invited by a church group to visit the site, a 55 acre mountain of waste, on the outskirts of the city.  The mountain rose in a series of terraces, often with homes built partially into the sides of the mountain, supported on one side by tall stilts extended down to the road.  During the walk up the garbage mountain, I watched children play on a bluff, flying plastic bag kites.  So many children – they held our hands, led us in, wanted to play.  The statistics were horrifying – 800 loads of trash arrived at the dump a day (around the clock). People earned roughly $1 a day sorting garbage from the salvageable recycle-ables (cardboard, metal, hard plastic).  10,000 families lived[8] on the dump itself in homes made of salvaged material.  Water was sold from big metal barrels with crudely painted signs: “Drinking Water for Sale”.  Stoves were fashioned by tapping the underground methane formed as the garbage decomposed.  This was, nonetheless, a community; people paused to talk with us and each other, children who weren’t working ran around making sleds and hitching rides on the dump trucks, clothes hung on lines to dry, little stores sold Coke and snacks, another offered “Dental Help”. It was revolting and strangely friendly.  Looking across the valley I could make out real mountains, their lush green. 


Two weeks after my visit to Payatas, Green Peace held a rally and blockaded the head of the road leading into the dump.  Their banners blasted the government’s poor sanitation – the city’s water supply was being polluted by the dump.  That was all – the water.  Yes, water is indisputably a major concern, but what was really the problem here?  The city of Manila produces 2,000 tons of trash a day.  The people of Payatas have eked out an economy from the trash.  Close the dump for a day and 10,000 families will not eat.  Why are they living there?  Where did they come from?  These questions had answers and led me to issues such as government corruption, corporate bribes and buy-outs, U.S. agricultural policy, trade pressures, massive logging, mining and fishing ventures, displacement of villagers and cultures, growing city markets of prostitution, begging, scavenging. There seemed too many intersecting issues to properly address any of them.  Green Peace had chosen one part of this complexity.  The largeness of the problem and its root had to be taken apart.  Was this possible?  It had to be. 


While travelling I saw for the first time that I came from a system that was not merely a way of understanding and thinking, as through schooling or laws, but something much larger and older – connected to colonialism, governmental structure, control, power. I experienced for the first time the incongruent nature of policies and people.  The World Bank no longer seemed abstract to me when I saw decaying concrete water-holding tanks, crumbling down steep slopes of Himalayan foothills.  The Green Revolution no longer represented statistics and technology, when I had the chance to listen to stories of village elders and farmers. Plans on paper, weighted by money and greed held no roots to reality, no context, no human-ness.  Suddenly my country, the United States,  which proudly proclaims itself the most powerful nation in the world, seemed a farce. ‘Democracy’, which I had been assured went hand in hand with freedom and opportunity, was really a part of a value system that survived by destroying, oppressing and manipulating the knowledges, diversity and resources of other countries and peoples. I realized that Americans (myself included) were not always welcomed or liked. 


My wanderlust changed form – it became a search for answers rather than one seeking the motion of new places. I wanted to know why.  Why did we pass so many flower farms in the desert in India? Why were there so many sea turtle bones on the shore in Mexico?  Why were blockbuster movies filmed on sacred, tapu, Maori[9] mountains?  Why were there 10,000 families living and making their living on Manila’s largest garbage dump?  Why couldn’t people in power ever answer any questions?  And, also, how?  How was it before? How are policies made, how do they really work and for whom?  How did my own lifestyle fit into the picture? How come the things so obviously unjust were covered with catch phrases like ‘development’ or ‘progress’?  How to facilitate change?


While I do believe that many questions are elusive (and should be kept that way to inspire our sense of imagination, beauty and mystery), I also have strong convictions that there are many answers. Many of these are purposely hidden or masked to save those who are profiting from control and corruption.  Thus it becomes a matter of asking questions – as many as possible – that challenge fundamental beliefs and force-fed information.  Next it means seeing that the missing facts, missing pieces and inconsistencies tell a story of their own – one that has many chapters. This is one of the many places we can start deciphering meaning for ourselves. 


I returned for my final year at Hampshire, inspired and overwhelmed by the motion and content of my time abroad.  The summer I returned I got in touch with a professor who was offering a new class: “Social and Religious Contexts of Environmentalism”, and asked to work with her as a teacher’s assistant.  We spent time over the summer discussing our views and ideas, sharing stories and planning for the upcoming semester.  We also enjoyed each others company, sitting for coffee or watching a movie.  This was my first experience working closely (and developing a meaningful friendship) with a professor (who, incidentally, also became my new advisor).  This relationship helped me realize what it was I had been seeking in my interactions with other professors: genuineness, dialogue, mutual interest, curiosity, respect. 


These final two semesters also allowed me the time to contemplate and write about my experiences from the previous year.  This was something I needed to do anyway and I was grateful (as were my parents) that I could immerse myself in it for my senior project.  I decided to discuss agricultural change, through the Green Revolution and its eventual rejection, in a small Indian village where I had been a guest.  I challenged the intentions of chemical, industrial agriculture.  I delved into discussion about the complexity of the village (its history, organization, religion, family life, etc.).  I discussed the potential of farmers’ movements (as a part of a collection of social movements happening in India). In the end I didn’t know what to conclude.  I struggled with my conclusion for weeks.  I had written 100 pages about something, surely – but what?  I wrote a brief synopsis and ended, still unsure if I had really said anything or if it made a difference. Victory was a ghost.  I passed the final exam of scrutiny over my senior project and my work was professionally bound and assigned a call number in the library.  But I wasn’t finished.  My initial waves of relief and self-satisfaction diminished – there was still so much more to say.  And so much to question in greater detail.


I spent my summer after college as ‘Nature and Farm Director’ at a nearby camp, a job I’d held previously.  While I despised the office politics and avoided camp life at all expense, I loved my job.  It gave me the opportunity to be outside the whole summer with children; plant gardens, take care of animals, bake bread, make candles, spin wool, play.  While solidifying my plans to spend the following months in India, I fell deeper in love with my home and area, with my work.  I realized that my desires conflicted – to stay, to go.  But I also concluded that I didn’t know what it would mean to stay.  What was I going to do?  Was I ready to make a commitment to a place? In what ways?


One of the greatest dilemmas I continually face is one of ‘inside’ or outside’.  Is it possible to both despise the system and work within it?  Can I ‘teach’ children while simultaneously despising the educational system? Is work “outside” going to create valuable spaces and alternatives for those (‘inside’) who do not have an inkling that there are other lenses with which to view the world?


Being in India at Shikshantar now is giving me a new opportunity, in a different capacity, to once again engage in the critical questioning and challenging of the destructive models of dominance that otherwise quietly permeate my life (and everyone’s?).  The world is too complex to let its functions be reduced to the last word of “experts” (such as those I encountered time and again in school) or to a universal equation. Shikshantar is also a place where I can explore my dilemma of ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ in a holistic way.  Here I have opportunities to see, create and participate in learning spaces that seek to break from the constraints of the school structure – the same one that I myself have been most stifled by.


Arundhati Roy said, “The only thing worth globalizing is dissent,”[10] and for me, that means doing everything I can to keep on learning, sharing, discussing, raising my voice when necessary.   Here at Shikshantar, I am also learning about a movement – learning how one group of convicted, dedicated people are making change in their community, in the world.  It is inspiring, and also a commitment.  I cannot be here, learning as I am and not go away with seeds to use in personal action.  And that’s what it is all about.  Satish Kumar said, “You do not have to solve all the problems in the world, just do what you know in your heart is good and true.”[11]  In this way, I am seeing how seeds are sown, relationships are developed and a circle of goodness widens.   


After my internship with Shikshantar, I plan to go home.  I have a job lined up in March, 2002, to work with children through an environmental education foundation.  I don’t know where it will take me or what roots I will plant.  But when it is time to go home from here, I will be ready to keep the process of dialogue and discovery going, to put new ideas to action in whatever endeavor I choose.  It can only be this way. 


 “So”, I think, “it was at home all along?!”  I didn’t have to travel around the world to see the problems, or to create viable solutions?  I am thankful for where I have been, to the people who helped me along the way and to the vision I now have, but am largely ashamed that I have such limited awareness of the sources of wisdom, guidance and opportunity available in my own community. I am reminded of the shepherd in Paulo Coelho’s book, The  Alchemist, who, after travelling to distant deserts and pyramids in search of his dreams, realizes that his treasure is at home under the tree where he first began.  Like the shepherd, my journey has taken me on a path of trials and hardship, through love and friendship.  The most valuable lessons I am learning along the way are those that make me listen to my heart, trust myself, and remain open to the questions.  It is a process, not a destination that has led me to where I am and where I envision myself going.  My hope is that everyone (myself included), on whatever road, will have the courage to stop, look around…and eventually turn towards home.

[1] Both my mother and father remarried and had children.  I now had a mother, a father, a stepfather, a step-mother, half-brothers, a half-sister and numerous step-relatives. 

[2] A genus of tree or shrub that, in this case, has bundles of bright red berries that can be used for tea or for dyeing fiber.  

[3] Styrofoam, an expanded polystyrene plastic, is heralded as a good insulating and packing material. It has an extremely slow rate of decomposition (as compared to other plastics and paper), is bulky and emits dangerous, ozone-depleting chemicals when burned. 

[4] Eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) are becoming more common in the United States (and other countries) among teenage girls and even boys. They are linked to issues of self-value and self-control, are likened to addictions, and are often connected to depression (and treated with related drugs).  The media plays a large role in promoting and idealizing a body-image mentality that especially targets women, encourages dieting, links self-control to food and portrays the ‘perfect’ female figure as one that is tall, thin and curvaceous.  This figure is, for the majority of women in the world, unrealistic and unattainable.

[5] Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, was founded in the 1970s by the presidents of four other area colleges and universities.  Their intention was to create an innovative new space for learning that focused on student-faculty relationships, a flexible, student-created curricula and a non-competitive atmosphere.  Thus, students work closely with faculty advisors to plan a schedule, choose classes, discuss work, etc.  Instead of grades, professors submit a written evaluation of each student, based on classroom attendance and participation, completion of work, individual interests, etc.  Students are also encouraged to take classes at the other nearby colleges and universities.

[6] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prepares a list of ‘Superfund Sites’ – which reflect those places most contaminated by industrial chemical pollution and in need of remediation.

[7] A Bar Mitzvah is the Jewish ‘coming of age’ celebration and religious initiation for boys when they turn 13. 

[8] I use the past tense because, in the summer of 2000 a hurricane destroyed a large section of Payatas, causing massive fires and collapse.  Hundreds of people died.  Filipino newspapers reported at the time that strategies for relocation (and prevention of repeated situations) were underway.  I don’t know what it is like now.

[9] Maori are the native peoples of New Zealand (although there is some controversy about this). 

[10] Arundhati Roy, Eqbal Ahmad Lecture Series, February, 2001.

[11] Satish Kumar, Discussion with International Honors Program, Cornwall, England, October, 1999.