• 06

    Yesterday, L, L´s father, and I went to a festival of Mexican folk music, being held at the National Teachers´ College in Mexico City. It´s a three day free festival, 10 AM to 10 PM, with God-knows-how-many groups playing 4 or 5 songs each. We spent about three hours there, listening to music from the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Michoacan (I might have missed some others). What a treat, while I cannot at the end of the day tell the difference between the different folk traditions, the groups from Guerrero and Oaxaca really touched me in a way few musicians ever have. 

    They had a huge wooden dance floor in the middle, and at any given moment there must have been 3 or 4 hundred people, perhaps more, dancing to the music. I found myself repeatedly amazed by how well people knew all the different folk dances, there was some free styling, but in general, you could see the formal elements of the folk dance throughout the dance floor. The dancers included everyone from young couples to parents out with young children to groups of teenaged friends to elderly couples or this one beautiful woman, probably in her 80s, who twirled her skirt and danced in a world all her own. There´s one dance from Michoacan, I forget its name but have seen it before, where the movements are those of “los viejos” (the old people)… it also involves making a train of people that moves across the dance floor. More than 9 trains of people formed across this dance floor when that music came on, each must have had 40, 50, 60 people, and as they all moved about the floor, I was amazed to note that there wasn´t a single collision across that very packed floor! It looked like so much fun too, one of those moments when I really wanted to jump up and join in, then had to remind myself I didn´t know the dance! There is something about Mexican folk culture, though… it´s the only music and the only dance that has ever made me want to join in. I´m thinking both about a community dance held at Zoatecpan while I lived there and at the Dia de los muerots celebrations in Santa Ana, the only 2 times in my life that i have voluntarily joined in a dance and enjoyed it. Partly, it´s the music that gets under one´s skin in a way that forces one to move, even if one is sitting in a chair, and partly it´s the community aspect of it… I remember watching a mother dance with an infant strapped to her back in a shawl. Amidst music so loud that we had to shout to be heard, and amidst her not at all subdued dance moves, the 1 year old slept blissfully. I loved that these moments were enough a part of that child´s life.

    In the metro on the way back, though, I found some of that evening´s high slip away from me. I´ve written before about how Mexico City´s subways are full of people selling everything from lollipops to pirated DVDs and also about the variety of preformers who board the train and do their thing, then ask for money. In general, I enjoy that madness of the train, there´s never a dull moment. Yesterday, though, I had to shut my eyes and wish it away. A man got into my subway car, bare chested, and scattered broken beer bottles across the floor. Then, he began his stunt show, throwing himself against the pieces of glass, his back, his chest, breaking them further with the weight of his body and with his fist. I shut my eyes, but could still hear the sickning clink of flesh against broken glass. When he finished, nobody wanted to pay him for that stunt, so he gathered his glass and moved on to the next car. As he walked away from us, I searched his back for scars and saw none, just one gash across his shoulder. Then, I could hear the clink from the next car, and I felt my stomach turn. I can´t understand how one could do that to oneself, and as much as I outherwise like supporting street performers, this one just left me with a bitter aftertaste that I couldn´t quite shake off.

  • 03

    So, I already know what is probably going to be one of my biggest take-aways from this summer: learning to be flexible. In 2007, they used to talk about having “high hopes and low expectations” for our projects, and I never really liked that way of putting it— going in with low expectations always seemed like accepting things as less than they could be. Today, though, I am reminded of why that advice made sense in the context of trying to work here.

    Before I got here, we had talked about spending all of June in the village, and me traveling through Mexico July 1- 15. On arriving, I learned that one of my friends needs to stay in the city until the 13th of June and the other until the 15th. Now, all of a sudden, one of them is going to Buenos Aires for a workshop today and will only return on June 14th. So much for my carefully planned schedule, I’m going to need to improvise and find ways of getting out of DF during this week, I really don;t want to spend that much time in the city (I do love Mexico City, and it does remind me of home in many ways. But right now, I need not to be in a city). It isn’t that big a deal, really, but I like having things planned out and scheduled, last minute changes and flakiness always upset me. But I knew even before coming here that there’s no way to work in rural Mexico (or rural India for that matter) unless one can get used to those last minute changes… here’s a chance for me to become comfortable with the absolute lack of plans!

    More than that, though, I’m struck by how there isn’t really a vision for this project… my friends know they want to work with the kids of Zoatecpan and have been working with them for almost a year, doing all kinds of fun stuff… but when asked what they hope to achieve, what their long term vision is for this organization they are trying to found, they don’t really seem to know. As a result, the work too feels a litle scatteredñ for example, they did a series of workshops on art, a bunch of things about rights of children, and a group of their friends did workshops in many if the circus arts… if the photos are anything to judge by, the kids had a blast, and that’s important. But surely it isn;t all that is important… we can’t get away from questions about whether the workshop in children’s rights became part of their lived experience, whether we are giving them the tools to make it so. We can;t get away from asking what our goals in working with these kids are and how these different activities are feeding into those goals. That that hasn’t received much thought shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s the case with most start-up projects, isn’t it? But I’m afraid it’s not going to last or grow unless they can find that larger work of which these activities are a part. The organization through which I did the summer project 3 years ago (and the only non profit these friends know closely) suffered from a similar lack of larger vision to guide the everyday activities… and it’s falling apart now, they already can’t secure funding to pay any of their employees, everyone assumes it will disappear within the year. As the Mexicans would say “¡Que pena!:— they are good people with good intentions, but one needs more than that to keep such an organization running, no?

    Now more than ever, I go back to conversations with Paul about how 90% of start-up non-profits fail. I want this project to succeed, but I’m not sure how they’d secure funding or any of that without being able to explain the larger visions behind the project. And it isn;t just about funding either, it’s the more fundamental question of do we know we are actually making a difference simply by playing games and doing art workshops? We might be, but we might not be, and unless we have a  sense of the difference we want to make,  how can we know if we are making it?

    I feel like I have something to offer there. I;m the only one amongst the three of us who has actually worked with a non-profit for an extended period of time (and a non-profit that is growing and succeeding, at that). I’m also the only one who has received any training in instructional design and the like. My friends have more to offer in terms of on the ground experience— not only have they spent much more time in the communities than I have, one of them is doing her Masters in Rural Development and the other is just finishing a certificate course in the Rights of the Child. Between the three of us, we have quite an interesting and varied knowledge and experience base.

    The question, then, will be to what extent we can make those three things work together. I realize I am afraid to ask tough questions and push them to clarify their vision because I feel like that would be arrogant. I feel like I am an outsider to the work… they are the ones who have been doing it all this while, I’m only here a few weeks, who am i to come in and say it needs to bedone differently? At the same time, I feel like I won’t be doing justice to them, to myself, or most importantly to the children of Zoatecpan unless I start asking those questions. But I need to navigate this carefully, there are also cultural ideas about how best to do this work and mine will be seen (ironically) as too-Western at first. Let’s see where we go from here.

    In an interesting way, I’m realizing that doing this kind of work is like poetry in some ways. From the outside, people often seem to romanticize it as being all about the heart, whatever first finds its way onto the page or into the classroom is sacrosanct because it comes from the heart and that;s all that matters. It takes a lot of time, a lot of frustrated attempts at getting the work done, and sometimes a lot of failure before one realizes that structures and systems need to balance out the spontaneity, that while the work must always always come from the heart, it demands a certain rigor and discipline in order to become effective. I’m thinking now of all the times that I too was uncomfortable with structures and systems at Pravah, and I;m increasingly grateful I was held accountable to them anyway. By now, I feel comfortable enough with the structures that were put in place to know when I can break out of them. But I’m glad of having that scaffolding.

  • 02

    So, I;m going to take advantage of the fact that one of my friends has internet in her home in DF (for the uninitiated, DF is Mexican for “Mexico City” and probably a term I will use to refer to it more and more as I start thinking in Mexican again 😉 ) and blog frequently over these next couple of days.

    My initial slight disappointment at not going into the Sierra right away has changed to relief. I didn’t know just how exhausted i was going to be, but i can barely stay awake today. I want to blame it on changing time zones 3 times in a week… not dramatically, but enough to throw one off a little. Also, I’m still fighting my glandular infection, and the resultant low grade fever does tire me out. So I’m glad now, not only to have a few days of rest in the city, but also to have a few days to get used to the language, the food, the water and all those things… I think this should dramatically reduce the chance of my falling sick once we get to the Sierra. And I hope it will also mean that I can recover completely from the infection and reach there high on energy and in perfect health.

    L lost her grandfather yesterday and had to return to her family’s village in Oaxaca for a couple of days, so I am now staying with Y until L gets back. In one sense, this feels like such a luxury, it’s just the two of us at home, and I get a room to myself! In other ways, it feels strange– I associate Mexico with too many people and animals in small spaces (L’s father is enough of a farmer still as to have not only dogs and birds but also 4 roosters in their Mexico City house!). It’s a nice change in terms of being able to get some rest, time to chant and read, time to blog… but in other ways, it feels strange and un-Mexican to me!

    But right outside our door, we are very much in Mexico. This morning, I awoke to loud bells, initially wondered if they were church bells but they went on too long; Y told me later that it was the garbage truck announcing its arrival. I also heard various hawkers’ cries, not sure what they were selling, but it reminded me of home in India in many ways. And then there are the neighbors: Last night, I wanted to shower after my travels, but Y discovered that we didn’t have gas at home because she hadn’t paid the monthly gas bill, which not only meant no cooking gas but also no hot water. It was a cool night, she was afraid I’d catch a cold by showering with cold water, so I offered to wait until the next morning. No such compromises needed, she asked me to gather my things and we walked over to a neighbor’s house, she explained our situation, and they let me shower there. This morning, we couldn’t make breakfast or heat water for coffee, so we walk back to their house with all our ingredients in tow, Y lets herself in, and we make quesadillas on their stove, wash up after ourselves, and leave. All of that feels unusual to me, but in a good way… I like these neighborly relations!

    OK, I’m going to go see what we can do for lunch today… not sure I am up for a visit to the center of the city, given that we live in the suburbs and that’s a long trip, but would be nice to get out for a while and ground myself in the country again. Also trying to figure out which part of Mexico I want to celebrate my birthday in— it’s two days before my friends get done with school, so I could stay here and celebrate in the city with people I actually know, or I could head into the mountains early and celebrate it with a long walk alone to the nearby waterfalls. The latter sounds more tempting, but we shall see 🙂

    More soon.

  • 01

    Well, here I am. Blogging from my friend Yssel´s house in Mexico City. I haven´t yet figured out punctuation on the Spanish keyboard, so no one gets to call me out on that in this post 😛

    My journey here was surprisingly smooth. I had expected trouble at the Mexican airport immigration, seeing as they have just changed their laws to allow me to travel without a visa, but I was pleasantly surprised by how together they were. If anything, it was the staff at LAX that didn´t know what to do and made me wait around a while; once i actually got to Mexico, it took me only a minute of explaining the new rules for them to let me through! (although yes, i do think it amusing that i had to explain the rules!).

    My friend was an hour late picking me up from the airport, so I got to sit around and absrob the Spanish sounds around me for a long time. I feel myself stumbling a little as I try havinga  conversation with her, but interestingly she thinks my Spanish is better than it has ever been. That makes no sense, I havent spoken the language in 3 years, and I feel myself searching for words and for correct conjugations in a way that I havent needed to do before. And yet, I am happy to realize we were able to have a real conversation, about the past, about what we have been doing, about ideas for the work we could do over the summer, and about other fairly complex issues. Makes me confident that, within a few more days, I will be fluent again.

    This might sound horrible, but I;m also overjoyed to note that she isn;t in touch with that one-time common friend from Mexico some of you have heard about whom I really don;t want to run into again, being back here is bringing so much of the past back, the wonderful and the less than wonderful, but it;s good to also see that things have changed.

    Quesadillas and sopes for dinner… made me happy to be back. If there;s one thing i truly love about Mexico, it;s the food.

    As the project itself goes, turns out there really isn´t a plan, or even a proper vision, in place for what we hope to achieve this summer. I had learned to expect that, but it is still a teeny bit disappointing… but only a teeny bit because that means i get that much more of a role in figuring it out with them. Pravah´s and Paul´s training in asking hard questions about the whys of the work we do will stand me in good stead. I;m also hopeful about getting an oral history piece off the ground, brought my dictaphone, wouldn;t that be exciting? Lots of ideas, need to spend some time concretizing them before we head into the mountains.

    Looks like we;ll be in Mexico City for a week or 10 days before we head out. Y and L are both still finishing up their school year. They asked me if i wanted to go to the city of Puebla with some of their friends who are part of a circus in the meantime, i;m not yet sure if I want to do that, although it does sound like fun, doesn´t it? Haha, will keep you updated.

  • 19

    I was given a beautiful gift today. By a woman who has given me many beautiful gifts over the last few months– my poetry professor in Spring semester, Suzanne Gardinier.

    It was the senior lecture, a tradition at SLC where the graduating class selects a professor to give them one final talk before they leave. This lecture was called “A life of learning: How to tear down a house and build a boat” and it reminded me of so many beautiful things that I asked her for a copy, knowing I would need to go back to it at different points in my life… as I reread it late at night, I can only think of it as a wonderful gift that someone gave me and that I gratefully received.

    Do you know the feeling of being at home in a talk? Suzanne’s talks and writing make me feel at home in a way that only one other person’s talks and writings do– Sarah Wider’s. they both talk about poetry and activism in the most beautiful, most gentle of ways, with a love that makes me feel so complete and so utterly… at home, that’s it. Here’s a quote from it, something I needed to hear today, something I need to hear often:

    You’re not lying awake worrying because you’re neurotic.  (Or not entirely anyway.)  You’re worrying because you’re awake.  And the question isn’t how best to anesthetize yourself against this, but how to live with it.  How to dance with what’s true…. you can be trained enough not to panic, but to dance

    Anesthesia is sometimes the easier choice, but I want that training she talks about, and I know that all of this past year’s struggles with illness, with confronting mortality, with everything, have been part of acquiring that. Have been part, simply, of learning to dance.

    Suzanne would often talk to us in class about what a gift our art can be, would encourage us to think of ourselves as creating gifts that we can give to people we may have never met. She wants to see a world where people leave poems around for others in to read in phone booths and coffee shops and public places, where who wrote the poem is less important than the gift of that piece of one life to another life. Today, I read a blog posted on the facebook page of a friend who recently did something called “poetry in unexpected places”… a group of young poets/ spoken word artists who spent one weekend afternoon performing poems in the subways of NYC. The blog post mentioned something to the effect: “The greatest part was that nothing was expected in return.” Because if something was expected in return, it wouldn’t really be a gift, would it?

    I can’t get these thoughts about gifts out of my mind. I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to give something without expecting in return… when the other party doesn’t quite believe you expect nothing in return. So, when you give because you find joy in giving, and the other party starts feeling uncomfortable because they assume you want something back that they cannot give, should you feel apologetic about giving in the first place?

    S told me this morning that I can come across “too strongly”; that he knows me well enough to understand where I am coming from, but that for someone new, it can be hard to realize i honestly don’t want anything in response. I’m talking here not so much about literal gifts as just about love and support… there have been a few different people in my life whom I have tried reaching out to over the past few weeks, people I don’t really know that well but, for different reasons, connected to and wanted to reach out to. I ignored the voices, once on the outside but now well settled into my head, that tell me I “care too much,” felt comfortable in reaching out with all the love in my heart. I knew I couldn’t get hurt because I really wasn’t looking for any specific response, or even a response at all necessarily, that was not the point. But I hadn’t realized that other part enough until recently… that even if I don’t expect anything from someone, they often still think I do, and that often still makes them uncomfortable. I am starting to see that over the last few days, and S was right in stressing/ explaining that in a way that drove the point home. It almost feels selfish not to have realized it on my own.

    Except that I don’t know where that leaves me. I don’t want to apologize for caring; I don’t want to apologize for the gifts I want to give. Mostly, I don’t want to apologize for who I am. But do I want to apologize for their discomfort? I’m not sure.


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