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.
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
dont 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
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 dont 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.
* * * *
I wasnt 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 werent 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, 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.
was the one who introduced the river to me. Sometimes
he woke me at to descend the embankment behind the
street, and climb down to the miles (it seemed) of paths and brambles. We collected sumac,
explored the capillary run-offs, investigated rainbow puddles and fish both alive
and dead. We followed the river down to where
it ran into
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 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 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 mayors 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 couldnt everyone just see for themselves and help make a difference? What was the use of having ones picture in the newspaper if there wasnt 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 thats 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
So, while my past misbehavior and insolence had been forgiven (and overcome?), I still couldnt 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 wasnt 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.
grade I left. I won a scholarship to study for
a year in
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 childrens 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
These experiences served to fuel my curiosity and wanderlust, while uncovering a self-confidence I didnt 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 hadnt. My fluency in the language, acquired through experience, did no good in school paperwork.
year of high school after
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. Everyones 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 didnt 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 didnt have the patience to work with kids who wouldnt 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.
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
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. 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 cousins Bar Mitzvah,
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
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.
clearest images of this process of unfolding complexity are of Payatas,
formerly the largest garbage dump of
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 governments poor sanitation the citys 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
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
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
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 teachers 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.
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
I spent my
summer after college as Nature and Farm Director at a nearby camp, a job
Id 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
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?
Arundhati Roy said, The only thing worth globalizing is dissent, 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 thats 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. 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 dont 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 didnt 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 Coelhos 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) are becoming more common in the
 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.
 A Bar Mitzvah is the Jewish coming of age celebration and religious initiation for boys when they turn 13.
 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 dont know what it is like now.
Maori are the native peoples of
 Arundhati Roy, Eqbal Ahmad Lecture Series, February, 2001.
Satish Kumar, Discussion with International Honors Program,