Monday, August 24, 2015

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now...

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It's tempting to say "nowhere," but that isn't true. I'm moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn't it?

I've been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I've been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of "what ifs" and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I'll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I've been jobless in America, it's been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like "you don't need to know what you're doing forever; you just need to know what you're doing next." And this is true, and I'm very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I'm wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don't really explain in detail because it's different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I've been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I'm a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the...20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There's something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There's nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you're looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.

:)

Note:
Rick Steves, "It's Easier to be a Backpacker," for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com


Thursday, August 13, 2015

An Ode to My Tevas

One of the weird subjects you end up discussing when backpacking are your own feet. Specifically, you talk a lot about footwear. For example, I figured out many years ago that I hate flipflops and would rather go barefoot than wear uncomfortable shoes (which I have done many times). Nothing ruins a trip faster than blistered feet.

The best travel investment I ever made, hands down, was my pair of Teva Women's Tirra Athletic Sandals (which I have conveniently linked here for you in hopes of getting a kickback from Amazon. Just kidding.) I actually didn't buy them at Amazon but at a local store in Princeton. I'm sure you can find them at boutique shoe stores and most outdoor stores, too.

The same pair of shoes lasted me through all my hiking in Israel, my fall break in Europe, my walks to class in the US, and all over Southeast Asia until the very last trip I took, to Myanmar, where they finally said "enough." The stitching between the sole and the ankle strap on the right shoe had unraveled. Even so, I managed to wear them for the remainder of my trip by just velcro-ing the ankle strap around itself. But I decided to leave them at my hostel in Shwan State in order to save room in my backpack. I still think of them there, stuffed in the trash can. It was a very poor ending for a very noble pair of footwear.

I really can't recommend these shoes highly enough. Many people over the years have asked about them, and I always say how much I love them. We've been through a lot together. They are currently in five of my facebook profile pictures. Clearly, I'm obsessed.

So here is one final eulogy to the most comfortable, durable, reliable shoes I've ever had. Rest in peace, Tevas.

Dancing with my Tevas in the Golan Heights.

I found you in style, inside a new store
Where brown paper shoe linings littered the floor.
You cost me much more than I then could afford
Yet you tempted me, won me
With cushy, soft soles.

Your velcro and criss-crosses gave me a tan
That's stayed on my feet through summer and winter,
tatooed shadows reminding me
of hot afternoon climbs.

With socks, you warmed me
in Autumn in Prague.
In water, you carried me
through rocks and through fog.

Up mountains, down valleys,
down cobblestone alleys,
Your grip made me sure
I'd not slip nor unravel.

We spent four long years
foot by side,
we saw ten fine countries,
and a lot of goodbyes.

Till one fine day in May,
your crevices caked with clay,
your velcro delayed
and---riip--

Farewell, dear friends,
my trusted travel companions.
I'll miss your reliability,
your light-weight portability,
your eternal tan-lines.

I hope you enjoy retirement in Myanmar.

With love,
Melanie

PS-Sorry for the stinky feet.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

**************************************************
I've been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, "what do you want to do as a career?" My usual response is "I don't know," which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don't feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that's impossible to exhaust...study. One man can't ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,' where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

"What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?"

I take these words to heart and often feel that there's so much to see and do and learn that I couldn't ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens--see Pilgrim's Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I'm certainly no accountant), then shouldn't I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I'm spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It's easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don't realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same...the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit. I'm not a hermit...not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It's just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can't sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I'm right when I secretly know I'm not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that's even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Northern Mississippi

Playing with poetry, writing from the Delta.

In Northern Mississippi,
folks smile and wave.
They tip their caps
and let you go in front
of them
in line.

In Northern Mississippi,
clouds burst forth
from blue skies
like cotton candy
on sticks of sun-rays.
And when it rains,
it pours,
and dust sticks
in your teeth.

Dogs bark here,
and construction men
grown
in fast Spanish--
I cannot understand--
but I smile to hear it.

In Northern Mississippi,
fears are running out of gas
north of Goodman Road,
losing the state election,
paying higher taxes,
running out of space
for the family
photographs.

"Hi" is "hullo."
And when you ask me,
"How ya doin?"
I know
you really want to know.

Taken last summer...in Northern Mississippi :)

The Sliver Moon

The crescent sliver moon
shines like honey on a silver spoon.
Its bright star shimmers above,
like a sideways
Turkish flag.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Magical Myanmar

Four months later and I'm writing again. There's a lot to be said and many apologies to be made but for now I'll say that I'm home in America almost fully recovered from a nasty parasite and spending quality time with family. I don't plan to return to Thailand, but I don't think this is the end of my wanderlust. I'd love to give this blog a makeover and write about travelling even while stateside, but I will need a few boot-camp classes in technology first!

Anyway, I want to write about Myanmar. Myanmar is unlike any other place I've been, and I think it was the best time I had. Here's why: it really does make a difference when you give yourself plenty of time to spend in-country (especially if you're going to buy a visa anyway). I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar; I could've easily spent four, but I hadn't planned for four so my money was low, and as it turns out, that timing was perfect. I got infected (>.<) the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Bangkok. 

Here's what I loved about Myanmar: when you start exploring, you start to feel like you're stepping back in time or into a fantasy world. There is so much natural beauty in that land, and it feels pristine and untouched. Coupled with an unbelievable history and the strong yet gentle spirits of the locals, and I quickly understood why so many people claimed Myanmar as their favorite stop in Southeast Asia. It's just different. 

Understandably so. Myanmar (formerly Burma) had been closed off since its 1962 military coup and engulfed in civil war and war crimes for the past 60 years. According to Wikipedia, the military junta official "dissolved" in 2011 (the same year that the Lonely Planet guide was published, incidentally), but things had been loosening since the late 2000s. Still, when I went, there were in fact some ATMs and even whispers of Wifi, but nothing as self-serving as the resorts of Thailand. And that is exactly what I wanted.

Hiking the mountains in northern Shan State. Can you spot the tiny dots in the foreground? Those are houses.

In Myanmar, I hiked above the clouds, learned how to spot green tea plants, met the niece of the last Shan princess to rule in Northern Shan state before the military takeover, walked barefoot over sun-soaked marble temple paths, and climbed a lot of pagodas. A lot of pagodas.

One of the several thousand temples left standing in dusty Bagan.

We also did a self-guided city tour of former capital Yangon (Rangoon) where we spotted old mossy-grown British colonial buildings, the famous Strand Hotel, the old Post hub and other relics from a century long occupation.

Old governmental meeting house built under British occupation in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).


I didn't really want to leave, but my body and my wallet felt otherwise, and so with a heavy heart and a weak stomach I departed Yangon for Bangkok three weeks after I touched down in Mandalay. I took a total of two fifteen hour overnight buses (with varying degrees of comfort), climbed an ungodly number of steps, and drank about seventy-five cups of green tea. Watch the video below to see how villagers in the Pa'Oh mountains in northern Shan State gather and process hundreds of pounds of tea!! (The video turns direction at one point...sorry about that, but trust me, it's so cool!)

video

I miss travelling. Until next time, I'll relish the pictures, the stories, the teacups and the hand-rolled Burmese cigars. Ahh, the simple life!




With love,
Mel

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Bangkok's Neighborhoods

Hi friends,

This is a long post, but I encourage you to read to the end. This topic has been weighing on my heart for some time, and I've finally put together some information about it. Please read, comment and contact me with any questions or concerns. 

I knew essentially nothing about Pakistan before I came to Thailand. Nor did I think that living in Thailand would teach me anything at all about a country in central Asia for which I had no frame of reference or real concern, or make me care so deeply for a people I had never met.

But God works in mysterious ways.

I began attending a church that ministers to some refugees in the area. I joined a small fellowship group through the church’s network, and one of these families was in my group. I had just moved to Thailand, and I was feeling very lonely. This family saw the loneliness I was carrying inside me, and they invited me over to their home. I went, a bit nervous, but was welcomed with the most genuine Christian love and hospitality I have experienced in many years. It didn’t matter that their home consisted of two small rooms with one big bed on the floor—which they converted into our dining table. They showed great appreciation for my company. In reality, I appreciated their company more than they knew, and I kept going back to sit and visit with them. Sometimes we would sing or play music. Other times we would play chess. Always we laughed and prayed, and there would be delicious food and tea. They told me many stories about their lives back home. They told me of their persecution and how Muslim Extremists had registered the blackened 295-C legal case against them: The Blaspheme Law against the Muslim Prophet Mohammad. In Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy receives execution. So the family fled to Bangkok.

In Bangkok today, there are approximately six thousand asylum seekers from Pakistan, most of whom have been accused of violating the Blaspheme Law. They come to Thailand because it is very easy to enter on a tourist visa. However,  as soon as those visas run out, they are regarded as criminals. 

Thailand, to this day, has never signed the UN Commission of Refugees;  this means that every asylum seeker and refugee, regardless of their status under the UNHCR (the UN High Commission on Refugees), is illegal. In the last month, police have arrested hundreds of families and thrown them behind bars. Last week I visited the Immigration Detention Center; the "prisoners" are detained in hot, overcrowded rooms. They are let out to walk around the building only twice a month, and they have extremely limited contact with the outside world. They have no clean drinking water, receive meager meals and very limited medicine. There is a host of diseases inside. It's a terrible place to be, but for most, it is their only option. The only way out is to be granted refugee status by the United Nations, a process which takes years, or to go back to Pakistan.  There is no choice but to suffer in prison. It is a terrible, terrible place.

Yet despite these struggles, something remarkable is happening. Communities of asylum seekers are uniting to create lives for themselves and their children. They may not be in control of their futures, but they can change their present circumstance, through faith, perseverance, friendship and sharing their stories. And they are doing just that.

 ************************************

Last year, my friend opened a makeshift school in his one room flat for the neighborhood children to learn. The school has grown to reach of 140 children all over the city. A few months ago, I went and taught drama lessons to some of the children. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and sharp wit brought me to tears (not in that room, of course. I had to be cool. They are teenagers, after all.) I miss them. I hope to see them again. I haven't been back, because the learning center had to shut down. Thai police began patrolling the neighborhood round the clock, and most families were too afraid to send their children outside.

Still, God works through the darkest circumstances. He brought these children out of Pakistan. He has delivered them from incredibly dangerous situations. He has opened four learning centers, one of which was given generously by the wife of a high-ranking Thai army official. The Lord works in miraculous ways.

When I visited the IDC last week I had the honor of meeting other residents of Bangkok who are doing their best to care for the detainees however they can. They work under the constraints of the visitor's rules and regulations to deliver home cooked meals, diapers, water, food and supplies to as many people as they can.

So why is this so important? Well, being here has showed me with my own unbelieving eyes how powerful prayer is. Most of all, these people need our support and to know we love them and our thinking about them. Even if you don't pray, just sending some thoughts, or talking to a friend who may not know what's going on, can do tremendous things to alleviate the suffering of people who feel so alone. And somehow, I feel like I'm here to help.

************************************

For more information about the situation, I recommend the following articles:

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/907aad6cecba463794926748e1fb4369/stuck-limbo-bangkoks-hidden-urban-refugees-scrape

http://farrukhsaif.com/crack-down-against-pakistani-asylum-seekers-in-bangkok-thailand/

http://liferaftinternational.org/about-us/the-situation-in-bangkok

With Love,
Mel

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Being 'Miss Rumphius'

Glacier National Park and environs  Gardens in front of East Glacier Lodge.
lupine flowers in full bloom

I'm not a parent, so I can't say much about what makes "good parenting," but I can tell you this: we read so many books as kids, and those books, with their poetry and pictures, still stick like stamps firmly in my mind.

The picture books especially remain close to my heart. Perhaps this is why I am a visual learner. Or, maybe I remember these books because I was too young to stay up late listening to my dad read The Hobbit to my older siblings. I still listened through the wall between my bedroom and the living room, but again, only pictures of scenes remain in my mind from that time.

There were many whose watercolors captivated me. My mother would read these books to me at bedtime, and I would half-listen as I lost myself in a sea of soft pastels. The books of Barbara Berger: Grandfather Twilight, When the Sun Rose, and The Donkey's Dream were three of my regular favorites.  I loved falling asleep, dreaming of beautiful twilights and sunrises and friendships and visits. Thanks, Mrs. Berger, for giving me sweet dreams :)

A page from Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger. (Philomel Books, NY, 1984).

But perhaps one of my very favorite childhood books, one that, as an adult, I find myself going back to in my mind again and again, is Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius.

Miss Rumphius has a more involved plot than Berger's books, and the main character's journey along with the pictures, still captivates my heart.

The story is about a little girl who grows up and travels the world.

As a child, travelling far from home was never something I thought I could do; not because I was not capable, but I just didn't think it was real. The places I read about in Miss Rumphius seemed like wonderful fantasies to me, like The Shire in Tolkein's The Hobbit.

When I first moved to Israel, I felt this same captivation with every step I took. Every rock, every tree, every bus stop and plant and bowl of hummus was unique, precious, and undeniably extraordinary. Israel felt like a present God had given me to step outside of my own skin and into the pages of my favorite adventure story.

Of course, the unpleasant realities of politics and social clashes brought me out of that dream bubble, and I struggled with this clashing of my dreams and my reality the whole five and a half months I was there. But that's a different story...

I always admired Miss Rumphius, not because she traveled, but because travel was not her ultimate goal. Miss Rumphius, in my opinion, was the first real backpacker. In the story, she hikes the Himalayas with a guide, rides camels in Egypt to the pyramids, and meets a local village elder on some tropical beach, somewhere in the world. She didn't just lie on a beach getting seriously suntanned for two weeks and then go home (guilty as charged).

A page from Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982. The house on stilts in the background resembles traditional homes in Thailand and Cambodia.
Don't get me wrong--every once and a while, relaxing on a beach for a week in the sun can be a glorious thing. But my point is that all these places she visited, people she met, and adventures she had were real. They were not fantasies. They were very real experiences that await many travelers today. But there's something about her poise and grace that always fascinated me. Maybe it had to with the fact that she rode that camel side saddle and wearing a girdle. (Did I forget to mention that the book is set a century ago?) Or maybe, as a woman in 1915, it would have been nearly impossible for her to do what she did. But in the book, she did it. And she did by her own fortitude.


Yet, she also had the wisdom to come back to her own corner of the world after her travels were finished. In the story, Miss Rumphius becomes a librarian (probably yet another reason why I love this book).

And then she grows old.  And she lives in a house by the sea.

But before she passes away, she has something left to do. In the story, her grandfather told Miss Rumphius these words as a little girl:


You must do something to make the world more beautiful.


So she does. She rides her bike through her little seaside town and scatters lupine seeds everywhere, so that, come next spring, fields of lupine flowers suddenly spring up all over town.


Have you ever seen lupine flowers?

I love them, because they are wild and free and vibrant. Just like Miss Rumphius.

 Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982.