Friday, July 25, 2014

Almost Goodbye--A Mixture of Fear and Optimism

I'm laying on the  box-spring mattress that has been mine for the past month, eating chocolate as I contemplate what my life has been these past four weeks. First, I can say confidently (between bites of Reese's peanut butter cups--a staple of Artsbridge life) that no other job I've had has been as fulfilling as this one. My spirits are high, and despite a little lack of sleep, I've never felt better. Tomorrow is the final showcase, the time when the students finally get to exhibit their completed art projects and films to friends, family, and locals (and hopefully a few reporters). Since this is my first year here, I'm not quite sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be an incredibly fulfilling moment for all of them. This presentation is the culmination of their three weeks and their hard work, frustration, tears, and triumphs. They've struggled not only with the physical execution of professional creativity, but they've had to learn to work in teams with people from very different backgrounds and of largely different opinions. Many of them struggled to have their voices heard and to listen to others, and I'm sure at times they felt like nothing would or could change.

Fast forward three weeks, and they're now preparing to exhibit professionally crafted pieces to the larger public. But they're just not displaying their art. They are demonstrating to this community that change is absolutely possible and collaboration can triumph over division. Add to that the fact that some are Israeli Jews and others are Arab, Palestinian, and American, and you have a whole lot of awesome in one place.

This has not been an easy time for the students. There's a war going on in Gaza. It's hit us all in
different ways, and they are all struggling to keep their heads in the program. But they've done beautifully and come out the stronger for it. I had a small experience with rocket warfare when I was in Israel two years ago, yet I know it's nothing compared to life growing up in the region. I struggled to place my feelings into the pool when I came here, but I know that this time has helped me grow up and see war in a very different light.  Now more than ever,  the implications of the work here are  immediate and so crucial.

There have been several interviews and articles written about this summer at Artsbridge. Last week we took the students to the Catuit Arts Center in Cape Cod to talk about the program to potential donors. One question that came up and has come up in many of the interviews is, "but does it work?" And, like the brilliant thinkers they are, our students answer with poise and eloquence something that really boils down to "OF COURSE."

To me the answer is so simple, but I understand why the question is asked so much. "Does it work? Does Artsbridge actually make a difference?" Uh, if you're expecting us to send the students to the debate tables to arrange a cease fire, the answer is no. Will Artsbridge stop the rockets from firing on both sides? No. Not right now it won't. But one of the most important ideas we've discussed in these past few weeks is the crucial notion that every human being deserves the same respect and opportunities and that individuals have an enormous responsibility to retain their own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others. This means putting love, compassion and empathy before violence, anger and hate. Hate is always an easy way out because it takes humanity out of the equation. To hate something, you have to to trivialize it, make it seem small and insignificant. But in learning to recognize the humanity in each other, our students have chosen to love others rather than hate them. If you love someone, you instinctively want to protect them, to care for them, to support them. I've seen an incredible support system develop between these students, who never knew the others existed up until a few months ago. And in the cultural narratives of Israel and Palestine (and in most countries if we're being honest), it is so easy to forget that human beings exist on both sides of the wall.

So, yeah, duh, Artsbridge makes a huge difference. It gives young people the tools to go back into their communities having understood what the view looks like from the other side, having spoken and laughed and cried and danced and swam and played and created with human beings from the "other" side, humans whom they didn't know existed. Abstract concepts about "groups" and "identities" have hopefully been replaced with concrete faces, voices, and unique personalities that have bonded and  will never be forgotten. And I think they've all found that they're not so different after all.

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Update: Change is Work and Work Takes Time

Change is work, and work takes time. I've been in Williamstown, Massachusetts for a week and a few days now. I came to be a counselor at a program called Artsbridge, Inc., which was set up about eight years ago. Every summer, a group of talented and compassionate artists and educators take a group of approximately thirty students from Israel, Palestine, and the United States to an area of Massachusetts, away from the fires of home for three weeks of intensive dialogue sessions and art projects. The kids arrived here at the Buxton School in Williamstown four days ago, yet it already feels like three years since they've arrived. Energetic doesn't begin to describe this group. They came like hurricanes, bearing the force of their personalities and experiences with exuberance and spirit. I'm honored to be a part of this project.

What I've experienced so far has been a whirlwind. Things are beginning to "slow down" in the sense that now, finally, after the staff and students are all adjusted and (marginally) well-rested, we can begin the work: the intensive dialogue and group art projects that will challenge the students to their very core--and the staff as well--to think about the "other's" point of view. Opinions change, and things are fluid when it comes to self and relationships. It is here in this setting where art can thrive and truly work its wonder.

One of the reasons I was drawn to the program was that it embodied everything I knew art to be but never experienced for myself. In this program, art is not only a means of expression, but a vehicle for discussion, for opening up channels of one's self and self awareness that can lead to new discoveries, relationships, and revelations. Arts tell stories, and we all have our own story to tell. I can't wait to see what the students produce.

I broke down after the first twenty-four hours of being here (thankfully before the students arrived). I felt like a part of myself--a very big part--had been shut down for years as I bulldozed my way through school, eking out papers and bullshit thoughts about taverns in Potosi and communism in Eastern Europe. Okay, maybe it wasn't all bullshit. I love history, and I love thought, so in a way I suppose I found college stimulating and enriching. But on the flip side, I became so disconnected from myself that I forgot what joy was. I shut that part of me down--the part of me that loves to sing and dance and smile and laugh and soak up sunshine. I put that part of myself on a shelf and told myself that I was here to work. So I did.

I cried a lot in college, which isn't really saying much, because I cry all the time. But I became very sad in a way that I hadn't been in years. Why? I couldn't understand. I couldn't rationalize it. I had been given everything that I thought was important to me--a top notch education, a means to a career and a life of "success" in any profession I chose, a loving family who supported me, an on-campus apartment...even my meals were prepared for me. I had nothing to do. I had no reason to engage with the world.

So I didn't. I spent days--days--in the library, in the horribly dark and depressing basement, watching movies (for school, really), reading (sometimes very dry) articles about any sort of "ism" you can think of. I chewed on words and spat them back out in paragraphs and pages. And at the end of almost every day, I walked back to my apartment, exhausted, depressed, and alone.

Maybe I'm being a bit extreme. It wasn't all horrible. But even fun felt forced, because I had this constant weight on my chest that I was missing a deadline or missing a connection and wouldn't be approved of. This is why I can't do grad school right now. I need to remove the cinderblock from my chest and breathe.
Still, Artsbridge is definitely not a walk in the park. It is challenging me in so many ways that school never did. I can't ever escape if things get tough, and escape has always been my go-to mechanism. But I wonder if, during my escapes, I was ever processing anything. No, I don't think so. I think I just shut down.

This is what teenagers (and some adults) do; if something is difficult, you go to sleep, go on facebook, go to the library...shut down. Overload. Done. And sometimes we need to shut ourselves off so that we don't implode. But we never deal with what is in front of us if we don't, well, stay and deal.

My impulse has always been to run away. Now I feel like I want to run to something. I ran to Artsbridge, and once I arrived, I couldn't believe I was here. I felt confused, consumed, and alien. I suppose this is natural. I think it is. But I've always wondered about people who stay--why is it that they can bear the brunt of things that make me cringe and cry? For many people, it's not a choice. For the students of Artsbridge, they don't have the opportunity to run away. Home is a battlefield. In my own experience, I can't begin to understand this.

I'm struggling to conclude this posting, probably because Artsbridge is only beginning, and I know my experiences will change how I feel. I'm so excited for what is to come, and I feel more prepared than I've ever been. This is not to say that any of this will be easy, but life isn't easy. It's messy and horribly broken. There's a Jewish concept called "tikkun olam," which means "repairing the world." There's a similar concept in Christianity: "go and make disciples of all nations"--not by force, and not by might, but by building relationships with others, as did Christ, for whom "their is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free." I'm learning that discipleship doesn't mean force or change. It means meeting people where they are, and staying with them to talk about their lives. It doesn't mean "correct" or "incorrect." It means understanding. This is the discipleship I want to live, and in a scary way, I feel that I've come to the right place--not to talk about religion, but to break down barriers and realize we are all exactly the same in this world.

I realize this is a self-centered blog today. I'm hoping that eventually I can stop posting about myself and write about my observations from an unbiased perspective. But that's why I'm not a journalist...not yet, anyway. I love you all, dear family and my friends who I hope are reading this and thinking about me, because I'm thinking about you, and I love you all very, very much.


With love,
Mel

PS--If you want to learn more about this amazing program, please visit www.artsbridgeinstitute.org. You will be amazed.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Counting the Constellations

"This is it," I said to my dad over the hum of the pool filter as we dipped our feet in blue-green water. We've both been dreading this moment. Tomorrow my father, my favorite person on the planet, leaves for Chicago. This Sunday, I leave for Pennsylvania, where in a few days I will depart for Massachusetts for a month-long internship. Then, three days later, I leave for Thailand. So this is the last time I'll see my dad for a while.
 
Not that we haven't gotten used to this. For the past three years, I've been living up north, going to school and visiting Memphis on Christmas and summer holidays. But this time it feels much more permanent. I know it isn't so; I know I'll only be in Thailand for a year (at least). But I'm going so far away.
 
Now is the moment when I need to tell myself to take the plunge. You can do this, Melanie. You want to do this. It seems like every time I come back home, I grow more comfortable here. Yet at the same time, I've been getting very antsy. I feel misplaced, though I'm very happy to see my family. I can't get over the unease and unrest of staying at home, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I was meant to wander.
 
I thought about this as I looked up at the black sky above our chlorinated pool. I thought of my stay in Sde Boker with some of my class from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. We had become temporary refugees in the small kibbutz town after fleeing the city two Novembers ago. Then, like now, I felt trapped and claustrophobic.     
 
Yet I remember how infinite and limitless I felt when we walked to the edge of town after supper in the neighborhood cantine. We sat upon sand dunes and looked down into the massive caverns below and beyond: the craters of the Negev, blue and black under the bright moonlight. Shoshana played guitar. I looked up at the stars in the heavens. "Where is the big dipper?" I asked. "Here. And look! There's Orion's Belt." Together we named constellations and made up names for the ones we couldn't guess. We sang songs, passed cigarettes, laughed and joked and commiserated about the bizarre turns of fate that brought us together, trapped tourists in the desert. There we were, in the middle of a war that wasn't ours, yet suddenly caring so much about the outcome. With all that chaos going on beyond our reach, I felt strangely comforted knowing that, for everyone in the world, the constellations were the same.
 
I felt this now, talking with my father in the pool, looking up at the constellations. I see the Big Dipper. And Orion's Belt. And I know I will be okay.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Homage to My College

"Now that you're an educated woman, put it to good use."

This is what my professor told me on the last days of college. "But what about before I came to college?" I thought naively. Was I uneducated and therefore useless? I doubt that's what my professor was implying. He was implying that education is a gift, one that comes with a heavy price tag--metaphorically as well as physically. Women and girls all over the world are being punished for trying to unwrap this gift, a gift that many argue should be an unalienable right.  Still, his comment came at me like a blow to the head. It struck me as a "call to action." I'm ready, I thought, to battle evil: let me go put on my superhero costume adorned with the letters "EW" (Educated Woman) and rescue the poor and oppressed, so that no one will suffer anymore. Right? Right??

I think I'm wrong and I wonder if I am not alone in the pool of recent graduates who feel that their ideals and their realities don't quite align, since newspapers and journals now report that degrees are the cultural equivalent of incomes--necessary evils, almost accessories to your life, or something to put on a resume. Holding a degree does not change who I am. To me, the experiences of college are far more valuable than a piece of paper or moving my tassel from right to left. In college, I felt like my words mattered. I found myself in intimate situations with classmates and professors, arguing over the conditions of our time and of ages past. But nothing we said or did changed anything...so what use was it? 

We weren't changing the world, we were changing ourselves. We were being changed, unbeknownst to us. We were, I hope, learning empathy and compassion, something that this world could use a lot more of.  We learned, I hope, to respect other people's opinions, even when they are so different from our own. This isn't easy. So many times I wanted to shout in class, "you've forgotten that Christ already saved the world!" or something to that affect. But I think no one would have taken me seriously.

Maybe I've taken myself too seriously all along.  There's so much amorphous pressure in college that I think we put on ourselves because we are so afraid of disappointing the ones who made this experience possible. College is not cheap. It is an investment (we've all heard that before, right?)

I heard in a lecture once that the speaker would rather his son be "a good person than successful, and I hope you would, too."  How strange, I thought. Don't parents want their kids to be happy, and doesn't happiness mean success? Perhaps not. Perhaps success is not the best way to measure happiness.

Despite that revelation, I want to say from the depths of my heart, Thank You, to all the parents, friends, teachers, coaches, roommates, bosses, boyfriends, girlfriends, and pets who have cheered us all on, dried our tears, and listened to us complain non-stop about our Intro to Meteorology classes. Because without that love and support, we would be both miserably unhappy and unsuccessful, in any way you measure it.



But I hope that you know that I don't want to be successful.  I want to be a good person, and I hope you do, too. 

With love,
Mel

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Summer: Take Three

It's amazing how quickly my work ethic goes out the window as soon as I have no more pending assignments.

Case in point: on the third day of being college-free, I decided that, instead of sleeping until noon again, I would get up at nine thirty to make it to a ten thirty cycle class at the gym. I made it on time, but there was no one in the class, probably because most people actually, um, work during the day. Not me, of course. I'm not an adult yet. But instead of using the machines, I decided, well, I gave it the old college try (pun intended), so I may as well go home, which is exactly what I did. I came home, put my pajamas back on, and got back in to bed where I belong.

Can I just point out how giggly it makes me that I can use so many commas and conjunctions and not get penalized for them?? Hah! Take that, college.

While I was lying in bed at 11 am, I had the divine inspiration that I should start blogging again, because I just have so many thoughts that it would be a shame not to share them with my four blog readers (who may or may not be related to me and thus subject to all my insane ramblings anyway...) I have about seven weeks vacation where I have virtually no obligations (minus a few fun projects and some less-than-amusing paperwork jobs), which reminds me of that sacred time two and a half years ago when I took a semester off of school and got really into blogging, reading, and cooking, which I'm still really into but less devoted to these days. That happens when you live in a place with no an oven and you have research papers to write that end up being really God awful. But that's another story.

So, I thought I would kick-start this vacation blog adventure with another summer reading list. You may (but most likely won't, because you didn't know I had a blog) recall that two summers ago (yep, two summers ago...wow...) I made another reading list that I almost successfully finished. I gave up on Crime and Punishment, not because I don't love Doestoevsky, but because I couldn't stand getting inside a criminal's head like that. I suppose this is why I also despised Lolita and I hate watching CSI. Just seems too real. But I made up for it last summer by reading The Brothers Karamazov, which I recommend to everyone and your little dog, too.

So, what's on the agenda for the next seven weeks? My mom gave me this book, The Reluctant Tuscan, because she is obsessed with Italy and I am obsessed with food. It likens itself to this book, Bella Tuscany, sequel to Under the Tuscan Sun (which I've never read), and a million other books on the glories of Tuscan living.

The Reluctant Tuscan reads rather quickly, which is great, because I'm still exercising my attention span. On top of that, I want to finish the books I started over winter break:

Cooked, the newest Michael Pollan manifesto
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
The Pickwick Papers by good ole Mr. Dickens

Additionally, I really hope to merge this blog into a new host site, because I must continue to chronicle my life. As the days pass on, I will explain more what my future holds. But for now, I leave you with this promise, that I shall sleep till noon, read till five, and drink till nine. And blog about it :)

-Mel

P.S--What are some of your favorite summer reads? I am always looking for suggestions.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Juggling

Written February 20.


College is very strange; it's a microcosm of emotions in extremity. It's a fishbowl, overflowing with bubbles and water and plastic jewels.


I moved on campus. As a second semester senior, I moved on campus. I never do anything in the prescribed order. I think I'm physically incapable of normalcy. This isn't a good thing.

I met wonderful, beautiful, truly lovely people. I love them and I think they love me, and I am very, very happy. Truly happy.

I'm still restless and a little bit sad. I think I will always be a little bid sad? Maybe I'm in mourning.

I'm mourning for the world? What did the world ever do for me?

Nothing. The world is a broken place. That's why we are only here for a short amount of time. We won't live forever, not here. (But God gave me life. I am here out of love.)

Where will we go? I wish I knew. I've made a lot of guesses in my life, but no one will ever know.

Somehow knowing that we're only here temporarily liberates me to be free and to try without recourse or fear or failure; because, after all, what is failure but the opportunity to fail again, better? 

Samuel Beckett said that--or something like it. Dr. Cornell West quoted that today, at my school--a school I have become very proud of since moving here and realizing that ideas are made and grow swimming around inside fishbowls until they get so big they burst out and rain down on the coffee table.


True, ideas come from people and people are still human. But what does it mean to be human? Does it mean to accept our flaws, our sins, accept Jesus and accept our brokenness?

When we do that, what then? When we accept our flaws, our sins and our brokenness, where can we go from there? Can that acceptance liberate us?

Acceptance can liberate a lot of things. Acceptance can make us free to pick up the pieces when we fall down, to fall better, to fall more. Falling, failing, flawing, flying, floating, fleeing, seeing and being human. 

I was amazed tonight at a juggling performance. The juggling was mesmerizing; so was gravity, drawing balls and pins toward the ground, banging the earth, bouncing back into the boy's hand as he picked up the balls he dropped and threw them again into the air, juggling, two, three, four balls and pins and circular things. He dropped them, they dropped him, he picked them up and threw them around again and the falling became part of the dance.



May you always keep falling, keep flying, keep running, keep, keep, keep falling and dancing, flailing and flawing, being human. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Growing Up

One day when I was in Israel and the war was going on, my friend Sarah told me of a friend she had had in the army. Her friend had said to her once,  "Why am I here? Why am I learning about guns and military operations? I should be learning art, romance, opera, love."

I turned to Sarah and I said, "I came here because I told myself, 'Why am I not here? I am wasting my time studying art, romance, opera and love. I should be studying politics, military operations, guns."

I wanted to understand the world.

But does this mean understanding guns?

Can you really ever understand guns?



I fear I've been judging reality and approaching life in a horrifically naive fashion. Because truth be told, people are just overgrown children with guns. There's no secret that justifies war, ever. 




It's symptomatic of studying the Holocaust. At a certain point, horrific details begin to become normal because you've become accustomed to the descriptions.

But these things are not normal. Not normal for a world that was created by God out of love. Not normal, ever.

Perhaps my existential crisis was brought on by, in addition to having spent the last six hours in the library, a poetry workshop I had the crazy pleasure of attending last week. The workshop, to my unraveling, encouraged word diarrhea, which is never welcome in military situations, nor in--let's face it--some academic settings I've found myself in lately.

The funny thing is, we were specifically instructed not to talk about abstract concepts like war or poverty. Yet of course I did, because I'm slightly sadistic and moody. So, under a list of "Things I Know to Be True," I wrote this:

4. War is never justified, but it is always justified until someone renames the war as something like "an operation" [which they did when I was in Israel] or "experiment" [like German medical experiments..]. That's how you know that the person renaming the war is just as scared as the people running away from missiles. I know this because I ran away from missiles last year. They were small and wimpy, but no one appreciates blocks of metal raining from the sky. Maybe the only thing worse than hiding from a rocket in a cement underground is lying on your belly in a moving train with sirens blaring in the background tell you you may not live to see your sister step off the plain in Tel Aviv.

My handwriting had grown messier by this point and I admit my heart was pumping a little bit faster. This was when my instructors said "stop."

This was why I thought I should understand politics, because maybe I could tell people that war is bad. But surely other people know that too?

They do, yes, they do. I'll bet both arms the thousands of people afflicted every second by civil war know that it's bad. It doesn't take an education or a fancy suit to know right from wrong, but it does take a little bit of courage.

Maybe I'm being melodramatic and extremely selfish. Here I sit, safe at home in suburbia, tucked away from harm with a blanket of freshly fallen snow waiting for me outside. Yet I'm beginning to feel restless again.

"Not all those who wander are lost."


A small river flows beneath a sixth century (?) Greek Orthodox monastery
 in the mountain deep of a desert expanse separating Israel from Jericho in Palestine.