My awesome image caption
  • 08

    Today, January 8, 2011, marks one month since the death of one of my closest friends from college. Masako was diagnosed with 4th stage cancer along her optic nerve exactly at this time of the year last year; she fought a brave, cheerful, wonderful battle all year… and passed away on December 8th. There’s a very real way in which I still haven’t processed the news of her death, largely because she was in France and we hadn’t seen each other in years anyway; I had no funeral or memorial to attend, so it’s hard to grasp her absence. I know I will never hear from her again, but I don’t know I will never hear from her again.

    2010, for me, will always be Masako’s year. It is the year she died, but it is also the year she lived, lived with all her might. I will always be grateful for having been part of her life in those last months, for being able to accompany her (albeit long distance) on her journey. When she lost all her hair to chemotherapy, she wrote to me about her different wigs and how much she enjoyed surprising the grocer with different hairstyles from day to day (apparently, the French public health system will give free wigs to cancer patients). When she became really weak and was told she needed to rest and put on weight, she wrote to a friend about eating a lot and “drawing pictures of round things like hippos.” Even when her face started to get paralyzed in what would be the fatal relapse of her cancer (it took over her brain and bone marrow), she wrote to me about how much her little nephew was enjoying the “game” where she could smile at him with only one side of her face. She never denied her illness or her pain, although I suspect she underplayed it for our benefit, but she always approached it with a courage and a humor I’ll never forget. I did not know just how strong she was until an illness like this showed me. Even as I feel the grief and the unfairness of her passing, I am so grateful for everything she taught me as she moved from this life into her next. 2010 will always be her year, and I think I will be learning 2010’s lessons for a long time to come.

    Masako had many dreams for world peace; she cannot work towards those dreams any longer. But I intend to. We became friends through the Amnesty International Club at college (which we tried time and again to set up!), so I have decided to honor her by doing at least one Amnesty International petition every month, on the 8th of the month (I stopped doing those with any real regularity, but now I feel I must). Every time I do that, I remember the best and most powerful parts of this little French-Japanese woman who was equally passionate about her stuffed green hippo and her dream of ending the femicide in Guatemala.

    This is the cause I chose to support today. It is an appeal to the French authorities to stop discrimination against the Romanian population in France, and I know she would have signed this if she could. I am doing it on her behalf, and I hope some of you will too.

    I leave you with this photo that Masako took when she came out of hospital after a really positive development during her battle against cancer. It lifts my heart every time I look at it:

  • 07

    Well, so here I am, 8 days away from leaving Mexico. I cant believe ho quickly the time passed, that I have been here more than a month already, that it is soon time to return to life in NYC. Wrapped up in the Sierra on June 29th, headed out to Oaxaca, where M was offering a workshop to a local weavers´cooperative, for a few days, got back to DF yesterday. From today, a short trip to Chiapas, and then back to NY on the 15th.

    Been reflecting on what thsi summer has meant, realizing that this time round, my learning has been much more intagible, much more comprised of small heart-level changes than the dramaticness of last time. In some ways, I dont think it would be possible to have the same kind of dramatic experience like the Proyecto de verano a second time round… even if I were to live the exact same process again, it is no longer so strange and so outside myc omfort zone. And yet, when I say that the learning this time has been less dramatic, by no stretch of imagination am I implying that it has been less important. I am taking just as important things in my heart this time… they are just different from what I thought I would be taking back.

    Easily the most powerful imprint on my life this time has been reconnecting with the warmth and love of the people here. It has been special enough reconnecting with my close friends here, realizing that 3 years apart did not add an inch of distance between us, but it has been even more special connecting with strangers and feeling their warmth. It is a warmth that has little to do with who I am, much to do with their culture that accepts strangers as family. At least 3 families have told me that if I ever visit their village again, I should know for sure that I have a home there: “we dont have much, but whatever we have, you are always welcome to share with us”. I cant get over that feeling of being cared about so much for reasons that have nothing to do with me. They are teaching me, minute by minute, what it means to care for other human beings in a way that is simply about the fact of being other human beings. Hope never to forget these lessons.

    The day before I left Puebla, I was chatting with a family I had become close to; a member of their family is in New York, adn I had offered to take something for her if they wanted to send it. They asked when I was leaving, I told them, and they wished me luck.. then thought for a minute and asked, “But you leave by plane, right?” From there began a conversation about the difference in what it meant for me to go to NYC and what it means for people in the village who migrate. The difficulty, the dangers, the walking in the desserts, the reasons for going, the inability to come and go freely, all of those things that make it such a different trip. I cant shake that feeling of how different the same trip can be.

    OK, time up at cyber cafe. More next time about oaxaca, a magical trip that I have to tell you all about.

  • 24

    Yes, I´m thinking in Spanish as mush as English now, I didnt know how to title this post in English, but I will try to restrict the text to one language!

    So, it´s been a while since my last post, not that I havent had regular internet access, more that I´ve felt too in the middle of experiences to write about them. Today, I am waiting for my friend in a cyber cafe,where she is trying to send off a draft of her thesis, so it seemed like a good time to take a little while to pause and reflect.

    We have been going to the village to work/ play witht he kids everyday. On Monday, Y and I decided to spend the night there, so we took our sleeping bags and asked one of the señoras for space on her floor… hospitality is as much a part of Mexican culture as it is of Indian culture, we knew that one or the other would gladly host us, especially since she and I have both lived in that village for two mnths each and know the people well enough. It was truly wonderful to have doen that, to spend a whole day and night being part of their lives again rather than just ocming in for a few hours a day, but it was also incredibly exhausting. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, we did not have a single minute to ourselves… for the most part, we were constantly surrounded by children, ages 3 to 10, inventing one game after another. I had no idea how tiring it can be to be around 5-6 kids for 24 hours (they were all cousins, part of the extended family of the house we were staying at, and since it was raining hard, many of them decided to spend the night there).

    It was also heart wrneching, actually sitting down with them and hearing their stories, equally with the kids as with the señoras. There are a lot of single mothers in the area, mostly abadoned by their husbands at a young age, and the woman who offered us her home was one of them. In general, talk to the señoras here, married or unmarried, and they all tell you “mejor sola” (better alone). Alcoholism and violence are so much a part of their lives here, they all genuinely seem to believe that even with all the hardships of raising children alone in a community that is already very poor, they are better off alone. Often, one doesnt even want to know the story behind the statement, with such decision do they make the statement.

    That particular day, we also ended up talking a lot about migration to the USA: Many of the men from this village have migrated either to Mexico City or to the USA; some have been sent back several times and have attempted the migration again, some have been able to stay on, all the families have stories to tell abolut the difficulty of crossing the border and then the difficulty of living there. But what struck us more this time was the fact of how many little children had been left behind. In recent years, at least in this family, two of the women migrated, leaving behind young children. A 6 year old in the house we stayed in hasn´t seen his mother since he was a year old, when she crossed the frontera… he talks to her on the phone from time to time, but he really has nothing to say to her, doesnt even really register that she is his mother. His father abandoned the family a long time ago soon after this child was born, so he is now being brought up by his grandparents with money that his mother earns working as domestic help and sends to the village here. Many, many versions of this story exist in this community; almost every family has its own version of it. While one is grateful for the tight extended families that take care of the young children in these cases, the kidsare still often lonely in a way that breaks one´s heart. And I can´t even imagine how hard it must be for the mother to miss out entirely on her son´s childhood so that he could have a childhood.

    By the time we left the next day, though, I couldnt believe I had actually spent two months living in that village… so exhausted was I from those 24 hours! Also realizing that, no matter what one wnats to belive, to suddenly be stripped of all the basic comforts one takes for granted no es nada facil. In general, I am completely comfortable there, but the one thing we couldn´t get used to even now was the absence of bathrooms… during the day they use the cornfields, which is fine, but at night these little brick structures they call baños but that are really breeding grounds for disease.

    Still, it was a wonderful day. We were served simple but absolutely delicious food (handmade tortillas,eggs with salsa, and locally grown coffee), got to play with lots of wonderfully affectionate children, went berry picking, ate mangoes in the messiest way possible, got lost in the milpa, walked five people to one umbrella in the rain… and came home so fulfilled.

    Today, L and I are in a different state.. we came here for a workshop on polinazadores… o, mas bien, she came here for aworkshop on polinizadores, I came here partly out of curiosty and partly because M, my program coordinator from 2007 and one of my closest friends in mexico, is supposed to be here as well and this might be the only part of this summer when our paths cross. Spent most of the day today in a room with about 10 farmers from 4 states, looking at powerpoint presentations of insects and specifically bees! Well, some preserved exhbits too… and learning how one could use the food chain that exists in nature to pollinate and eliminate pests rather than using chemical fertilizers. It´s quite fascinating, for example, a certain wasp is a parasite, but it´s a parasite of a certain worm that can cause the worst plague for corn… so introducing the right number of those wasps can help control the pests without any chemicals involved. It is all new to me, but I love hearing all of this as a discussion amongst the farmers (although the man giving the workshop has a PhD in entology and has done a lot of research on which plants work with which insects, including things like which sort of bee do we want to reproduce in order to prevent certain native plants from becming extinct)… even as I doubt I´d ever have much use for this specific information, especialy since it is tailored specifically to this region of Mexico, it is defnitely creating a whole new level of interest in the natural world and how it works. I do want to continue being involved, in some capacity or another, with rural grassroots movements such as these, and I also want my own organic edible garden someday!

    OK, I have more to say about some fascinating ecologically sustainable constructions that I am learning about, but my hour at the cyber cafe is almost over, and I do not want to pay for another hour! So, next time!

  • 19

    OK, so this was originally written as an email to some 10 or 15 of you… but then I realized how long it was and didn¨t want to do that to you all! So here it is on the blog, I¨d love to hear your thoughts.

    On the 16th, we finally drove up to Cuetzalan, a beautiful little colonial town in the mountains, where we are staying with one of L´s friends for the next few weeks… Zoatecpan, the Nahuatl indigenous community where we work, is only an hour´s bus ride from here, so we are going to commute there in order to work. The initial plan had been to stay there, but L has a draft of her thesis to turn in on the 28th of this month, and there´s no way you can get any work done there, the children will simply not leave your room until you falll asleep at night (sometimes, they will then climb further up the hill and throw stones on your tin roof to  wake you up!), and they will be banging on your windows before you wake up in the morning. they are adorable, but they are also little devils when they want to be! And as one of them told us today when he got annoyed by somthing we said, “this isn´t your pueblo, it´s ours.”
    At any rate, so here we are in Cuetzalan. The drive up was insane… hats off to L for getting us here safely despite dark mountain roads, thick fog, heavy rain, and bats flitting across the windshield for a stretch of our journey! As we drove up, i could feel all kinds of emotions churning inside me. Joy at being in the mountains, excitement and nervousness at soon being back in that village where i lived for 2 months, a strange pull I always feel out in the countryside– an awakening of something more basic and grounded in me that I lose in the city. L and Y were talking about various people in the context of the sort of work they do in these mountains. This project with the kids is a small part of it, a lot of their work is around issues like biodiversity and organic agriculture with the farmers of this region… right now one of the biggest issues n the region is the fight agains genetically modified corn coming in through the United States. A farmer told me his story of how he started usng that corn, and over time the fertilizers it required polluted their waterways so much as to kill some of his animals when they drank from them. He wanted to opt out after that, but he must leave his field fallow for 8 years before it will yield a regular crop without feritilizers again… we are talking about a region of subsistence agriculture, there´s no way his family will survive with even one year of leaving the field fallow. Plus, we are talking about a people that believe the corn to be sacred, man grew from corn according to their legends, so imagine what this whole GM corn owned by US corporations means to them. Not that most of this is going to be news to many of you, you all know of similar places and people, I´m sure, even if not personally. but the thing I´ve always found super inspiring about this region is the amount of amazing grassroot level work that is happening here, the ways in which the indigenous people have organized themselves to start fighting for their rights. Of course, their organizations, like all organizations, have huge problems… still, they are incredibly inspiring. Above all, their levels of commitement to their work have always given me food for thought… it´s relatively easy for us to work on these issues, even get paid to work on them, but for so many of these people, every day spent away from the fields at crucial times has very real repurcussions for them and their families… many similar activiists whom I had met in Bodoland in India were similarly inspiring for the huge odds in the face of which they do their work.
    Our first night here, we were up till almost 2 AM chatting with our host in Cuetzalan, Mayolo, one of Lupita´s classmates in her Masters in Rural Development program… partly about people and projects here, and partly just chatting, about music and languages and whatever. Once again moved by all the people who are here working to protect the enviornment, working to protect the rights of the indigenous people who have been exploited for far too long… and the very real victories they have had in the last few years. It´s reassuring in the most important of ways.
    But I still feel conflicted. When M asked me what I am doing right now, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I am studying poetry… no, embarrassed is not the right word. It just felt like such an out-of-context answer, if that makes sense. As much as I know that my work in poetry and peace education is really towards the same larger ideals as his work in rural development, I guess it was just a moment of realizing, yet again, how completely privileged I am even to be able to consider studying something like creative writing! For those of you who knew me back in 2007, you might remember that my summer in Zoatecpan had turned me off academia, had made me distrust the ivory towers that universities often are, made me want to work at the grassroots… it was why I didnt get into the grad school track right away. This time is different though… I´ve been through that journey once, returning to India, working in a non profit for a while, and finding my path back to my creative work through my peace education work… I don´t need to do that again, I know now that my work in art and in education is (or can be) part of the larger peace work that I want to do.
    and yet, and yet. Going back to Zoatecpan brought back so many of those questions. Our development priorities are so messed up; as far as I know, not a single house in that village of thousands of households has a proper bathroom, many of the teenagers who have been going to school all their life cannot read, the señoras are all losing their eyesight because of the amount of smoke that fills their kitchens with the wood stoves and the number of hours they spend embroidering clothes they can sell to tourists ín Cuetzalan in order to keep their families going. And yes, I have seen worse poverty, I guess it just hits me harder here because I have lived with these families for a couple of months and care about them differently as a result. And here, at a short distance, I am sitting at a friend´s house, (very basic by some standards, but ultra-luxurious in that we have electricity, hot water, a gas stove, and a bed) typing an email to you all. I cant get away from the contradictions we live on a day to day basis. And I can´t help returning to the question of how much of a difference I could ever possibly make through my art.
    Don´t get me wrong. I continue to believe in art´s power to open difficult conversations about peace and conflict, to give hope, to affirm an individual life through creating voice and spaces for dialogue, and all those things… but in this kind of context, it doesn´t feel like enough. Nothing feels like enough, of course, but it doesnt even feel like enough of an attempt. But even as I write this, I also know that I have been writing the most interesting and important poetry I have ever written since I have come to Mexico this time. I started working on my first l
    ong poem a few days into being in Mexico, and I can for the first time feel the place in my work, not just content-wise but also in terms of voice and style… it does continue to feel important to me that those feelings and frustrations find a voice, and so i am continuing to write in all my free time. But I am having to redefine for myself what my priorities are… I know i do my peace work best through my creative work so i will continue to do my creative work, but i also need to figure out what my commitment to these people, places, and issues is, beyond just my creative work… what else do I have to contribute? My oral history work seems like something that will increasingly become part of my finding that balance: in so many of these areas, where people¨s cultural and political identities are constantly under threat, just recording individual histories is an incredibly important piece of political work. I have known that for a while, talked briefly about focusing more on that work at some point, and am all the more inclined and inspired to do that now. Even if not here and now, but eventually.

     In fact, in the course of our conversation the other night, M mentioned two indigenous poets who live nearby, one is Nahuatl, the other is Totonaco (those are the two main indigenous groups in this region). I¨m inclined to asking him if he will introduce me to them, and then if they are open to it, to sitting down with them over a cup of coffee and asking them to tell me more about their art. I think one of the things that bothers me sometimes about so many conversations about art is that they are so elitist… ok, so the spoken word movement takes poetry beyond the academy, and thank goodness for that… but in the context of some of the groups I have worked with and wanted to work with, it¨s still a world that those kids will perhaps never enter. For one, many of them have cannot read or write, have never even formed an alphabet, have no idea what it would mean to write a poem… for another, many of them have been so scarred by the violence all around them, have so learned that silence is survival, it¨s inconceivable for them to stand up to perform their work… and as a teacher in Assam once pointed out to me, it¨s downright dangerous for some of these kids to be seen as confident or having leadership qualities (in regions of violence, they will be the first to be recruited by militants and also the first to earn the suspicion of security forces). And yet, we know poetry has been part of all major cultural traditions, also that it preceded the written word in many cases, so I guess this is partly about whether we can still tap into those oral traditions… but it¨s also, just as importantly, about opening up to different ideas about poetry¨s place in people`s lives. My guess is that poetry amongst the Nahuatls and Totonacos, at least originally, is much closer to prayer than to entertainment… the same is true of their dances and of most of their art, they are religious rituals, not to be taken lightly. I want to understand more of that worldview, understand this art I care about from a completely different lens. Let¨s see if I can make these conversations happen… heck, what I really want to do is to do some oral history work with these poets, capture some of their life stories, and then go back to NY and do it with some of my more academic poetry classmates and some spoken word artists… and hopefully at some point do some of it in India. More and more, as I become aware once again of the harsh circumstances amongst which so many people still live happy lives, I am curious to see what the role of work like ours can be… what art and poetry have meant in different people¨s lives across cultures. I think a lot of “professional artists” assume that, because writing poetry or painting or dancing or whatever changed our lives, it will change others; lives too… I want move beyond that (rather simplistic) assumption by actually listening to these stories. Because of time constraints, it might not happen during this trip, but hopefully it will begin here, and at any rate, hope it will happen soon enough. 

    OK, clearly, I could go on forever. But now I want to shut up and I want to hear you. Talk back to me, will you please? 🙂
  • 15

    Seriously. For the last 4-5 days, he has asked me everyday, more than once, if I have considered living in Mexico and if not, why not. Yesterday we even had a conversation– him, L, her brother did, I was mostly listening– about what I could do if I decided to stay. I coud teach english, I could translate for sucha nd such organization in oaxaca, I coud… you get the drift. They are so confident I could make my way here, don´t understand why I don´t want to. It´s been fun trying to explain that, no offence to their country, I love it deeply, I dont have a good reason to stay here. I´ve had those conversations before with people about the USA, and there I do have a coupe of good reasons not to want to stay (ok, one good reason big enough to make up for everything else: the medical system that has caused me too much trouble in the past!)… but how ultimately, it isn´t about why not USA or Mexico as much as why USA or Mexico when I have everything waiting for me back home in Delhi… if I had a good reason to stay, I´d think about it, but things being as they are, why even think about it? Still, it cracks me up because of how often he asks me this question, as if anyday I might suddenly have found a reason to stay. Too sweet.

    Tomorrow, we head to the Sierra (at last!). At this time tomorrow, I will be trying to keep up with a group of 30 something children running about the hillside. I´m looking forward not only to being back in the mountains but also specifically to Zoatecpan. it´s been 3 years– 3 long years– and while I am on one hand excited to go back, on the other hand I am wondering how things will have changed. The little babies I carried about will now be running all over the place; my host family in the village has a new baby in the house; I dont expect to remember many names, and I am not sure how many will remember me either. In my heart, the village is frozen in time, and going back feels like it should be a going back to what I left behind… but of course, the years have passed for them just as they did for me, they will have grown as I have, and this will be an interesting re-encounter.

    Been thinking a lot about what this process of creatng homes, only to leave them behind, entails. As fortunate as i feel to have been able to travel so much and live in so many different places, a part of me also dislikes the way that means I will never again belong completely to one place the way I did before leaving home for the first time. I have come to accept that from here on, at any given moment, about 3/4 of the people closest to me will not be physcially where I am… maybe over time, as I settle down in one place, that number will come down to half, but at least that many. Yes, it´s wonderful to have close friends scattered throughout the globe, but it´s also frustrating always to be missing someone!

    Well, I have little more to say today. Shall sign off here, hoping to receive emails from some of you soon, and will write next from the Sierra Norte de Puebla.


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