30 October 2011

Who can mind her own business?

I am so grateful for my friend Chelsea who shared the NYTimes article Seven Billion on her blog. And, because it is amazing and I just can't help myself, I am going to write about a few thoughts I have too.

The article (and some awesome videos from National Geographic which I will put at the end of the post) talks about what it means to live in a world with 7 billion+ people. It asks if the earth can support our ever growing numbers; it asks what will happen as our populations shift--as a whole we are become older, more urban and our population centers are shifting from the "west" to China, India and Africa; and as our lifestyles change and more and more people in the world are living like those of us in the United States and Europe (i.e. using more resources on a daily basis than many people in the world use over years or, in some cases, lifetimes). Obviously, we don't know exactly what will happen in the next 10, 20, 50 years. We don't know how things will change, but we know change will happen. And as I see it, in large measure the future is in our hands. It is up to us what tomorrow will look like. We have choices to make that will determine the future of this planet and the people who live here. And many of those choices have to do with our daily lives.

The article concludes with these paragraphs on our future and our priorities:

Is economic development the best contraception? Or is voluntary contraception the best form of development? Does the world need a bigger pie (more productive technologies) or fewer forks (slower population growth through voluntary contraception) or better manners (fewer inequities, less violence and corruption, freer trade and mobility, more rule of law, less material-intensive consumption)? Or is education of better quality and greater availability a key ingredient of all other strategies?

All these approaches have value. However much we would like one, there is no panacea, though some priorities are clear: voluntary contraception and support services, universal primary and secondary education, and food for pregnant and lactating mothers and children under 5.

These priorities are mutually reinforcing, and they are affordable. Providing modern family planning methods to all people with unmet needs would cost about $6.7 billion a year, slightly less than the $6.9 billion Americans are expected to spend for Halloween this year. By one estimate, achieving universal primary and secondary education by 2015 would cost anywhere from $35 billion to $70 billion in additional spending per year.

IF we spend our wealth — our material, environmental, human and financial capital — faster than we increase it by savings and investment, we will shift the costs of the prosperity that some enjoy today onto future generations. The mismatch between the short-term incentives that guide our political and economic institutions and even our families, on one hand, and our long-term aspirations, on the other, is severe.

We must increase the probability that every child born will be wanted and well cared for and have decent prospects for a good life. We must conserve more, and more wisely use, the energy, water, land, materials and biological diversity with which we are blessed.

Henceforth we need to measure our growth in prosperity: not by the sheer number of people who inhabit the earth, and not by flawed measurements like G.D.P., but by how well we satisfy basic human needs; by how well we foster dignity, creativity, community and cooperation; by how well we care for our biological and physical environment, our only home.

With all of that said, here is what I think:

First of all, I think it is a blessing to live in a world where our lives are inescapably connected--if we recognize that fact. Because, among my beliefs about human beings are these two things:
1) people are basically good and everyone is capable of doing something that will benefit the world; and...

2) we are innately self-centered and naturally less aware of those around us than we are of ourselves (and perhaps our family member or those who we are very close to).
So, even though we have the potential to help others and do great things in the world, often we don't even recognize the problems of others, or if we do we don't see a connection between these issues our own lives and the ways in which we can influence those problems. However, the growing awareness that we live in a global community where the welfare of people across the world will have an impact on the way I live and vice versa can be, I believe, a powerful motivation for all of us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate situation to see how we fit into the bigger picture; what we can each contribute. This knowledge that in a world of 7 billion people and counting, we cannot live with affecting and being affected by the rest of those 7 billion helps us step outside of our natural "personal bubble," which in turn, will allow us to use the goodness we inherently have to influence the world in spectacular ways. If we so choose.

And that isn't just speculation. There are people all over the world who have opened their eyes to the problems around them and have done astonishing things, often with few resources and little expertise. Their main qualitification: love. A qualification available to each and every one of of us. There is nothing more powerful or more sacred than love. Pure love.

"The highest, noblest, strongest king of love"
"Charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Wherefore, my beloved bretheren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail--
But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
Wherefore, my beloved bretheren, pray unto the Father with all energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen."

As a member of the human family, a creature on this earth and a recipient of uncountable blessings, charity is my ultimate and immediate goal. It is my belief that, whatever else we do here on earth, the main purpose of our time here is to learn what it means to truly love others-- to be like, and love like, Christ, whose life and atonement is, for me, the ultimate demonstration of charity.

And charity comes in more forms that we recognize, and can come from anywhere and anyone. When we talk about our place in a world of 7 billion people, charity means knowing that every time I am wasteful with my resources I am harming someone else. It means mindfulness. It means acting consciously and carefully. It means thinking not only about the immediate consequences of my actions, but also the long-term results. It means remembering those 7 billion people and seeing them as equally important, dignified and deserving as myself. And as such, recognizing that quality of human lives is what I am weighing against convenience, economics and effort. Every day. In every choice.

None of us are perfect. Especially me. And I know that I am constantly making wrong choices. I forget about or ignore the fact that what I do matters very much. How I use my resources, talents and time can be a matter of life or death for another human being or another creature on this planet. And the truth is, I can and must do better. As a human community we have much room for improvement.

Yet, what a hopeful thing it is to know that there are 7 billion of us here on this earth--I cannot even begin to comprehend our collective potential. But that is what we must do: recognize and take advantage of our connectedness. Only by working together, pooling our resources and finding solutions that are good for everyone can we create a better world; one which can adequately support all of us in a manner worthy of a human life.

14 October 2011

You never know

Of all things I saw in Washington, DC last month, this might have been my favorite.

I went to see the monuments and museums; to partake of the incredible history that has been preserved in my nation's capitol. And I loved it all. But nothing can compare to the convergence of moon, clouds and sunset forming a kind of loveliness that can only be called gift from a loving God.

But the butterflies come in as a close second!

13 October 2011


A few days ago I saw the sign featured below. And not long ago it would have been simply hilarious. (Because, yes, I know it is trying to say watch out, there are children here so you should be careful. But that's not what it says. And what it says is funny.)

Now, I am less amused. Because I know when a sign says DANGER: Children what it really means is, watch out, these germ machines are just waiting to breathe their poisonous air all over you. You will now suffer pain and inconvenience while they, at worst, get to stay home with their mommies and watch TV all day!

I now know that as a teacher in Spain, getting sick is not that easy. You not only have to make sure you get in touch with someone at the school and explain to them in Spanish that you can't come in because your voice doesn't work and there are slivers of glass in your throat, you also have to find a doctor who can write you a note of excuse--which requires tracking down a doctor, finding a way to get to the doctor's office and figuring out your insurance--which in and of itself requires making phone calls and trying to talk to people in Spanish to explain your situation--all while your head is threatening to explode, you are burning alive/freezing/sweating/shivering, and it feels like you are trying to swallow several knives at the same time.

I think that puts the tally at...
Children: 1134 points
Kendal: 0.2 points

They really are dangerous beasts!

And just for everyone's peace of mind:
In the end my school let me NOT go to the doctor,
which made my life infinitely easier.
And I am already feeling much better!!

09 October 2011

Verghese the artist

A few days ago I finished reading Abraham Verghese's novel Cutting for Stone, a story wrought with human frailty, but also with the human ability to overcome, to love and to be redeemed. I was powerfully affected by the depth of the characters-- their capacity for love and for hate, to help and to harm; their incredible strength as well as their incomprehensible weaknesses; the paths they choose and the places and people they are led to by destiny, fate, or the intervention of divinity. I was also stunned at the beauty and emotion Verghese evoked in medical settings, images and terminology, something I am usually rather wary of, or even slightly disturbed by.

Then, I unexpectedly chanced upon this TED video. And I am not surprised to hear the sincerity and tenderness with which Verghese speaks of his patients and the powerful role of touch in the relationship between doctors and patients. I see in the rituals of medicine Verghese talks about the same nuance and skill, the same comprehension of the human heart and human connectedness that he uses to so beautifully craft his novel. And I fully believe that for Verghese, medicine is an art. And that he is asking that we treat it that way. He asks that doctors be careful and loving with their patients; that they seek to understand before they attempt to treat; that they know and love each person fully; that they take pains to make their work beautiful and every case important; that they take pride in knowing that they have not only invested their intellect, but also their hearts in this work; that they will know they have used their gifts and talents to their full extent in order to heal and to comfort. For thus does medicine become truly sacred. A true form of art.

And it inspires me to be an artist. Wherever I am, whatever I do, I want to invest myself in my work in such a way that it takes on deeper meaning; that I can feel pride in what I have created. For me art, in any form, is terrifying. It requires vulnerability. It requires that we put everything we have into what we do, and that if it doesn't work, we must confess our failed. But it is also only giving our all that we can ever do anything truly great, that we really succeed. And I do not mean that we do something important in the eyes of the world-- that we will be recognized or lauded for our work. But when we use our whole hearts, our whole minds, every gift we have been given, then does our work, and our lives, begin to be a true representation of ourselves. Of the unique individuals we are. I am not there yet, but I hope that one day, I can look at my life and see something worthy of being called art.

06 October 2011

Where'd the time go?

There is nothing that will make you feel simultaneously old and immature more effectively than being in constant contact with people just a couple stages behind you in the journey of life. If you're me, that is.

Not only am I teaching high schoolers, but I spend most of my free time hanging out with a 16 year old, and sometimes her friends. Realizing that some of these kids are almost ten years younger than me... well there's a reality check for you! You mean, it wasn't just yesterday that I was in high school? Could it actually be so long ago that I was that age? And if so, why do I feel like these baby-faced teens are closer to being my peers than the other teachers I work with?

Maybe it's a result of having to communicate in a language in which my speaking abilities resemble those of a young child; or perhaps because something as simple as getting a library card (or even finding the library) seems almost as daunting as performing neurosurgery, but I'm starting to wonder if these 16 year olds (and 14 and 15 year olds) might, in fact, be smarter and more capable than I am.

A few days ago I had a class of students who were about 15. They were all practically fluent in English and Spanish (and learning German too... the little jerks!). I spent the entire class hour listening to them enlighten me on the excellent cultural offerings of Madrid. Who are these people? When I was fifteen I probably would have had a hard time giving you proper directions to the mall, not to mention all the best art museums and historical landmarks! I am beginning to wonder who should be teaching who.... I mean, um, whom... My Spanish surely needs more help than their English. And they are all so well-read I questioning the validity of my degree in English literature...

And then there's the fact that my friend Mari, the 16 year old daughter of the family I am living with, is my only real friend in Madrid and is often my designated escort if I'm going somewhere her parents think I won't be able to find on my own. And I am so glad she is with me, too! At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if someone suggested that I don't cross the streets anymore without holding someone's hand.

Okay, okay. It's true that most of the really fluent kids were raised in bilingual families, and I haven't had the chance to meet a lot of people my age yet except a few other teachers who live closer to the center of the city. But I do confess, I can't help but feel like, for the age gap between us, I'm not a heck of a lot more mature that these pimply high school kids (and lets be honest, I probably have more pimples than they do).

Then again, I'm the one getting paid to be at school. (Take that you precocious little brats!) So maybe that's what it means to be an adult-- you don't have to be that much smarter or more capable; you don't even have to do anything a 15 year old couldn't adequately handle-- you just have to find someone who will give you money for doing it.

05 October 2011

Strike! Strike! Strike!

This week many of the teachers at my school, and most of the schools here in Madrid, participating in a huelga, or strike. I've thought about joining them (I've never been part of a strike before!), but then I remember that I actually haven't done any real work yet and I'm not even altogether sure about the details of the strike. From what I gather, teachers are receiving decreased pay for increased class hours and more students per class--so nothing too new in the life of a teacher I suppose. But I won't go into a rant on the declining state of public school systems (Apparently it's not just a US thing...).

Anyway, for those who have asked me what I am doing here in Spain and I've mumbled something non-committal about teaching English.. assisting in other classes... maybe with 12-14 year olds... I don't know... stop asking me questions because I know nothing and you're stressing me out!... I finally have a few of those missing details.

I am teaching an hour a week in 18 classes. They are all 3 and 4 ESO and bachillerato students-- or high school aged (9-12 grade in the US system). They are all English classes, but some are with students who are practically fluent and others are with those who don't speak or understand much English at all yet; as well as classes with students who are in honors and international baccalaureate programs and those who are openly designated as "bad students" by the teachers here (and they are separated strictly based on how well they perform on exams). So far, I like them all! In fact, I am particularly fond of those who have a harder time speaking--I relate to them the best probably. All of the students have been really well behaved and friendly, though some classes were easier to keep talking than others. And some of the teachers were more helpful than others (i.e. whereas some of the teachers encouraged their classes to ask questions and participate, others left to "run a few errands" while I stayed with the class).

As for the strike, if the teacher is gone we are not allowed to teach the students. And many students have been absent as well. But I'm surprised, not only that students are allowed to be left alone for hours in classrooms with no supervision, but they seem to behave quite well actually. I haven't noticed any students getting into any trouble or causing problems. And some of these kids are only 12 years old or so.

All in all, I'm really enjoying being with the students and I hope I will have fun year with them. Starting next week I'll actually prepare lessons on some of the topics they are studying-- I just hope I can come up with fun and interesting ideas so they don't get bored of having me in class. Any suggestions would be heartily accepted :)

One down side to my current situation (aside from my still slightly sore and swollen foot), is that I have an hour and a half commute each way to and from work. But that's a great excuse to get in some extra reading, and I am hoping to read mostly Spanish authors and also good short stories and poems I can use with my students in class. So, should you feel so inclined, suggest away in this vein as well!