29 March 2012

Skewed perceptions

Today I somehow found my way to this article/photo essay about celebrity moms feeding their babies in public, in various forms. What was shocking to me was that many people are "offended" by images of breastfeeding women.


To me this is so skewed and twisted it is hardly comprehensible. Today we live in a culture which has turned women's bodies into sexual objects, and then so normalized this objectified, sexualized image that when we see nearly nude women in magazines and movies and television we hardly think twice. Yet, somehow an image of a woman feeding and nourishing her child in the way nature intended is unsettling. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this situation?

Maybe having spent time in cultures where public breast feeding is completely normal and common place, or knowing the some of the benefits mother and child can receive from breastfeeding, or the impact that breastfeeding can have for children and families in developing nations, or knowing women who would love to breastfeed but are unable to has changed my perspective. In our culture I know it isn't common to see a mother openly breastfeeding. What I don't know is why. I am offended, if we want to talk about offensive things, that we as a society hardly say a word when scantily clad women are posted on every magazine cover and make appearances in practically every film and TV series, often in demeaning and horrifyingly objectified ways, and then turn around and act as though we've never been so shocked when a woman happens to expose her breast in order to feed her child. It's beyond me!

Breastfeeding is awesome. And while not all moms can breastfeed and there are also many other good options for feeding babies today, there is no reason for this weird cultural taboo against a beautiful act of motherhood!

28 March 2012

The view from here.

Every once in awhile I have a split second of insight. For one small second I catch a glimpse of just how much there is in this world that is completely beyond me--that I have never felt or seen or understood.

And it is actually rather frightening.

Today I spoke with a woman I sometimes see here in Azuqueca. Her name is Laura. I met her outside the supermarket, where she works... asking the shoppers for money as they enter or exit. Laura has a daughter who will turn two this week. She wants to buy her a small birthday cake, but she doesn't know if she can.

After I talking to Laura for a few minutes I turned to leave and suddenly I felt the distance between her daily life and my understanding of what it is to be in that position. I realized, in that instance, that I had absolutely no way of comprehending what it would be like to be a mother, without a stable job, trying to support her family from day to day, not even certain I would have enough money to buy my little girl a cake for her birthday. Nothing in my life experience has compared with that. None of my cares have ever approximated those of Laura, or of so many other people who struggle to get by. I have felt empathy, perhaps. I have felt love or sorrow or pain for the people when I've seen them or heard their stories, but none of that is anything like being in such a position personally. Not even close.

I was listening to a TED talk yesterday by Jessica Jackey, the co-founder of Kiva. She talked about her introduction to poverty and her journey to beginning this online micro-lending system that has now provided over $25 million in loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. She talked about what it meant to her to actually know the people who we call "poor." Talking to them, being friends with them, she saw them as individuals. And not only suffering individuals, but individuals who had every bit as much life and love and joy and sorrow and intelligence and hope as anyone else. And as much variety too. She wants us to see "the poor" not just as them--those who need our help--some ambiguous group, distant from us--if not in space, in their very being they are distant to us... different--but as true human beings and individuals.

I think she's right. I think we need to know who these "poor" people are, what they think, what they dream and what they know on a personal basis. That is why grassroots development and community based projects, though small, often are the most effective. They are not led by people from far away who see developing nations from a distance and as a conglomeration of people who, though important and even loved, are part of one large problem to be solved. It is easy to see things that way. But I believe that we will never achieve real change while we continue to treat poverty and development as a group issue to be solved by the outside. That kind of development has proven itself misled and wasteful at best. Because really, without being in the situation yourself, however much you have seen or studied, you don't know what it is like.

But I am not just thinking in terms of poverty and development. I am thinking of the myriad of ways in which we fail to understand each other. Not because we don't try or because we aren't compassionate enough or we don't listen enough (though these things happen too, at least for me at times). Rather, because there are limits to how much we can understand about others, ever. A perfect example comes from a close friend of mine. She expressed to me once her frustration in the fact that, though she was able to share so much with her husband and was closer to him than basically anyone else, there were still divides. There are still things that can't be shared and understood fully between these two people whose lives and future are now one. They are still separate beings with different ideas and thoughts and perspectives. Love, marriage, dedication, intimacy, time--none of it was enough to close that gap entirely.

Perhaps all of this is circulating through my mind now because I just finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It is a story about and told by Christopher--a 15-year old mathematical genius with a form of autism (though he never uses the word or explains the exact nature of his "behavioral problems" in the book). The book is highly acclaimed, and I add my own positive review. Because it is funny and smart and interesting and captivating. But also because it does something akin to taking you inside the mind of another person. Inside a mind which is complex and beautiful and completely distinct from my own mind. And while reading I was blown away by this trip into another mind and another way of seeing and understanding the world. To an extent I felt I could share Christopher's view of the world. Yet, there is a limit. For example, I was shocked by the way in which he literally observes everything, as he frequently mentions. I tried for just a moment to notice everything around me while walking on the street today, and it was dizzying. I couldn't do it. It was impossible for me to even begin to see the world as this boy might.

There is always a gap. There is always some level of distance between the life, thoughts, experiences of one person and that which any other person can ever connect to and comprehend. That's nothing new. We have all felt those moments of disconnect. Even with those we are closest to. It can be hard. It can sometimes make us feel lonely or frustrated or strange.

But I think sometimes we also forget. We forget that we don't understand. We don't get other people. And with the majority of the people in our lives we barely skim the surface of their actual being. What does that mean? I don't know. A lot of things I guess. But most of all, I suppose for me it means (as I should know by now) that I need to be more vigilant in questioning my assumptions and my judgments. I need to do my best to know people well, and give them the benefit of the doubt. And also, I need to be grateful for every joy and blessing I have. Because I will never know how grateful I should be.. because I will never know what it is like not to have all I have. And I will never know what it is like not to be me.

And it's weird.

22 March 2012


"Later Lin understood about her grandmother not wanting to think about the past. Auntie, Grandmother's sister, told Lin how the old woman had been raped and left for dead, cut at the neck. Auntie said she found her, the woman's long hair red with blood all about her neck and shoulders. Auntie grabbed her and lifted her. 'You! Sister, wake up! You are breathing!' Auntie yelled. By some miracle, the artery was not cut, even though Grandmother thought she was dead, wished she was, and lay back weak and limp, but she was yelled into life by a woman almost too thin to have a voice.
"[I]t was why Grandmother always wore one of her two scarves. It was why here eyes saw only as far back as they would; not far. . . .
"Lin buried her head against her great-aunt's chest. 'Is it human?' Lin asked. 'To do that. Is it human?'
". . .'Yes. I think it is human. There is so much to a human.'
'Does it have to be?'
'I don't know.' She braided the child's hair. 'But that's enough for now. There's only so much a girl can hear.' Just then there was a gunshot in the distance.
"Later, when they were down in the reddish sand by the water, she held Lin and said, 'I'm sorry.' Crying.
"Lin studied her face, to see what she meant. She looked at her fine nose, her cheek that seemed dented, her eyes. Lin said, 'I know. You're sorry about humans.'
"Auntie nodded, hiding her face."

-Linda Hogan, The People of the Whale

I can barely begin to explain the beauty and the tragedy and the redemption of The People of the Whale. Reading it at times was like being inside the minds and hearts of people both magnificent as well as deeply wounded. This passage sums up one of the overarching themes of the book: the capacity for humans to hurt, torture, lie, and kill--each other, other creatures, nature, society--anything and everything around them. The depths of disgrace to which they can succumb when they are not whole; when they are lost and afraid and have traded in their hearts for a sense of personal survival or desire. It is tragic and terrible.

I too have questioned the ugliness that exists within humanity and even lamented being a part of a race with such a capacity for cruelty; so fallible; so easily broken and twisted and led astray.

And yet.

In life, in this world, (and in The People of the Whale) alongside every act of disgrace there is also beauty. For every broken soul there are others working to rebuild; to strengthen; to teach. Just as the world is full of hatred and woundedness, it is also ripe with compassion and healing. And the horrors and glories of humanity are mingled together and twisted into our histories and our lives in ways that cannot be easily separated and explained. It is all too complex. Too intertwined. Too deeply connected in every aspect of life and our very beings. I wonder if it is even possible to delve deep enough into the human heart and spirit to comprehend the disparate halves of our being and the incongruencies of goodness and evil that are among us and within us.

Really and truly, "There is so much to a human." Beautiful and terrible. Miraculous and sorrowful. I don't really know what else to say about that. I don't know how to accept it, to live with it, to assimilate that reality into my understanding of the world. But I see it, constantly. And I know it is part of me too; that I contain both good and evil; that I have beauty, but also brokenness. In the end I just hope that we can find ways to bring all of that together; that we can heal those parts of us all that have suffered and unify our goodness and compassion and love. I think it is possible. I pray it is.

image: Linda Hogan

20 March 2012


I love words.
I have felt their power and been inspired by their beauty.
But they are limited, too .

There are moments of magic in this world
that words cannot capture.

Valencia: Las Fallas

I wish the world knew the value of quietness
the meaning of stillness
the power of silence.

Because there are times when words are not enough
and can only diminish that which should already speak for itself.

*I hope someday to marry a man who knows when
to not speak

13 March 2012

The things Alfred Hitchcock has done to me.

In Spain I live in a wonderful room. A loft. At the top of the house with lots of space and light that comes in through the two big windows on either side of the room. Some days, like today, when it is sunny and warm, I like to open one or both windows allowing air and sun and the noise of the outdoors to come in.

Today really was a beautiful day. Warm--27 degrees! (Celcius of course!)-- and bright, with just a touch of a breeze. So of course I couldn't pass up the opportunity to leave my one window wide open all afternoon! Finally, towards evening I was getting ready to go for a run in this lovely weather when, suddenly, there was a sort of banding noise and a little sparrow came flying in. For a second I was delighted. How cute!

But then, I saw the panic in the bird's eyes as it starting flailing about and hurling itself around the room. So, doing what any courageous soul might do, as the poor bird collided with the closed window on the opposite side of the room, I squealed and raced into the bathroom shutting the door quickly behind me and then stared blankly into the darkness.... since I had forgotten to hit the light switch, which is inconviently placed outside of the bathroom. Why? Don't ask why in Spain. These people are just different...*

After standing there in the pitch black room for a minute and hearing no terrifying sounds in the on the other side of the door, I took my chances and peaked out, not sure if I was more frightened to see the bird bomb-driving towards my face or to find it injured (or worse) near the not-so-open window. However, as I carefully scanned the room, all traces of the bird had vanished. . .

. . . unfortunately, with it also went my last shred of dignity.

So I guess, if you're looking for the moral of the story it's basically this: If you need some help in high stress, emergency situations, where calm, collected thinking is a requirement-- I'm your girl! Just think what you could do with this kind of bravery, quick thinking and logic at your disposal!

*Also, Spanish people aren't really different... all the time.

08 March 2012

A very special day...

It's International Women's Day today. And I feel like I can't go to sleep without at least acknowledging that fact. I mean, Google did...

Día Internacional de la Mujer
(Okay I confess: I just thought this was pretty!)

So.. women. The truth is I don't know what to say today. I've said some things before (here and here and here and here and here, etc...) and there is a lot more to say too, of course.

I think what I really want to say is just that I love women. And I am so grateful for the way I have been influenced and inspired and encouraged by women in my life. My mom and sister and grandmas; my friends; leaders and authors and activists and teachers and mothers and mentors. They are all amazing in their own unique ways, and I am a better person for the women who have touched my life.

But there are a lot of problems that face women. And it can be overwhelming and depressing to think about. It can be stressful and confusing. Yet, women are strong. Women are not just victims and minorities in power positions and the underdog struggling against all odds. Women are changing the odds and making their own odds. They are creating new stories and finding new ways of interacting in the world. I am inspired by women (and men too). Sometimes by those close to me--because I know them and what they struggle with and how they overcome and how they take the world and the life they were given and then rise to every occasion to be brave and bright and to make individual choices, even incredibly hard ones, that they know to be right. And sometimes I am inspired by women I will never know--ones who do impossible things and who ignore the rules that would suppress them and say beautiful words and make beautiful things and wondrously defy those who would negate their power or try to push them down or tell them who to be.

The world is changing. And it is a very good thing. Still, there are a lot of scary things facing us in the future. There is a lot of uncertainty. And there are countless problems to be grappled with and to overcome. For both women and men. We've come to a place where I think we are going to find we will fail if we don't stop putting up barriers and limiting people's potential because of their gender--or their race or background or even their apparent weaknesses. I am very ready for the day when we can stop talking about women's issues and women's rights. I am waiting for humankind to unite as we're meant to be united and for all of us to love and respect and support each other because we are all part of the same family; because we are all born into the same world and fighting the same problems; because each person deserves to be treated like a person, no matter what. But unfortunately we have a long ways to go.

The problems facing women are many. And they are linked to and exasperated by many other issues facing the world today. We can't change one thing without affecting the rest. That much is clear. So what do we do? What are the solutions? Where do women stand and what steps should we take? Well really, who knows?

But one thing is for sure: women have power. Even if it is only within themselves. Even if there are people and societies and pressures that try to suppress it. The power is there, and if you know women, you must have seen it. And this world will be a better place as each woman (and, yes, men too!) takes responsibility for her own power; harnesses it; directs it to those things that are important to her; looks beyond her immediate surroundings and does whatever she knows how to do, and maybe some things she doesn't know how to do, to influence some piece of this world for good.

It's that simple. And it's that hard.

It isn't easy to know where your power lies or how to use it or where your influence might best be felt and leveraged. But I think it is possible. And it is in this potential that I put my hope! Because power is already there within each of us, we just have to find--or better yet, create--the opportunities to make the most of it!

Happy International Women's Day. I believe in you!
(and I am trying to believe in me too)