Posts Tagged ‘awareness’

i know

Everything I do involves the transfer of ideas. I teach English, thankfully often to people who actually plan to use it in either the US or Europe (or England, which I guess doesn’t count anymore?). So I am constantly figuring out new better ways to understand ideas people are trying to communicate to me, and to effectively communicate my own ideas to others. But this isn’t just my job. It’s my whole life. And it’s not just a job for me. This one is for all of us.

I get home from work and the work continues, because as anyone who studies or works in language already knows, INeffective MIScommunication is pretty much where every shitstorm starts. Words just seem to have this nasty habit of changing, evolving, and flipping their meaning 9000 degrees along that treacherous journey from mouth to ear. There’s so much room out there for walls and booby-traps to stop ideas in their tracks, with results ranging everywhere from funny to fatal.

wall

Take the US for example (can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, amiright??). The past few weeks we’ve seen a tragic evolution in the country’s paralyzing addiction to violence and aggression.  After years of reports and videos of what many feel to be excessive police violence, the violence has turned its crooked smile back on the police themselves.

Two major national tragedies in two weeks – mass shootings of police officers, and both by US veterans – have thrust the US into a dark time. But it seems like every time we try and begin a productive conversation about even the general problem of violence in the US, the sad problem of miscommunication gets in the way once again.

Watching from the outside, it looks to me like the entire country is talking past each other, particularly when it comes to violence and the police. How is this possible? The simplest way I can rationalize it is a fundamental difference in abstraction. Abstraction is basically how you draw the line between one “thing” and another in your mind.

Where does one “thing” end and the next begin? As a new driver, the act of “starting the car” involves numerous small steps like adjusting your mirrors, buckling your seatbelt, turning the key, shifting into 1st (or Drive), etc. After 20 years behind the wheel, “starting the car” becomes one action that happens to include all these smaller steps we no longer think about. This is abstraction. To me and most others, a chair is a chair. It’s a thing I sit on. To a master carpenter however, a chair is a work of art, many little pieces that fit together perfectly in a particular, beautiful way in order to stand tall and elegantly support the weight of my lazy ass.

So there appears to be a fundamental problem with abstraction when we talk about “the police” in the United States. To some, “the police” refers to the system of police and policing, including rules, regulations, quotas, metrics, training, culture, job descriptions, transparency, etc. that we all pay for, yet clearly and definitely contains some serious problems.

To others, the “police” are simply those wearing the uniforms, those you can point out of a crowd. Police are the men and women who perform a necessary, difficult, and dangerous duty everyday. Failure to clarify whether you mean police-as-people or “the police” as a system or particular government program appears to end any productive conversation on this issue before it ever even begins.

The Black Lives Matter movement wants changes in the system of policing in the US. Meanwhile, opponents claim that individual police officers are often good people who deserve to be respected. What’s often missed is that both are true, and more importantly, both are possible! You can respect the courage of individuals while criticizing the broken systems they may represent on the clock.

In fact, if you truly want to honor individual police, you should want the system that employs them to be as fair and safe as possible for everyone involved. From the good, honorable men and women who don the badge and put their lives on the line everyday, to the citizens on the street whose taxes pay for this program of “protection” and “service,” everyone benefits from a better system of policing. Well, everyone except those who would plan to abuse it.

So in my opinion, as a professional communication enhancer and clarifier-of-ideas (look how good I am at the putting-together-of-the-words), it’s important to start taking the time to clarify the language we use when debating this volatile, yet essential issue. Unless we can agree on what “it” is that we’re actually even talking about, we’ll never make any progress and in our stagnation, lives will surely be lost.

Until we first agree on which bone is broken, we’ll never be able to make the right cast (or perform the right surgery). If you really care about the senseless loss of life on either side of this picket line, you’ve got to start caring about how effectively we are even communicating with each other in the first place. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Let’s make sure we’re all talking about lightning, or we’ll never make it out of this storm on the horizon alive.

lorax

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I ni sogoma,

As with most circumstances in life, I stumbled my way into a great trip this weekend to le Festival sur le Niger (the Festival on the Niger). And as with most circumstances in my life, this was of way higher quality than what I deserve. In case you aren’t familiar, the Niger river is the major river that flows through Mali, blessing the region with everything a massive river has to offer like hydroelectricity, a transportation highway, and all that delicious fish!

I got to tag along with my father up to Segou this weekend for the 11th annual Festival sur le Niger. The NGO he works with, Population Services International (PSI) is one of the sponsors for this festival so they had a whole team up there running a stand and offering services to festival-goers.

I’ve worked stands at festivals and events before and these guys step it up a notch. PSI is chiefly involved in malaria prevention in Mali, but they also do a great deal of work in reproductive health and maternal and infant mortality. At le Festival that means they’ve not only got the whole spread out on display with mosquito nets, Protector condoms, oral rehydration tablets, infant zinc regimens, and IUDs but they’ve also got teams throughout the festival grounds offering private consultations about any reproductive issue or product and even on-site HIV testing! Dad and I got ours done of course. Have you?

“Zach! Hurry up! You’re going to be late for your HIV test!” – Dad

A few other organizations do some of the same things like handing out condoms and performing skits about health issues. However I don’t think anyone else was offering on-site HIV-testing (with only a 15 minute wait for your results!) and IUD insertions. Boo-yah. To be fair Marie Stopes International (MSI) – another organization my father has spent some time with – did have a post-abortion care centre set up which is definitely solid. Unfortunately abortions are only legal in Mali if absolutely necessary to save the life of the mother (Oh, you mean it will just ruin your life, not end it? Yeah, no.) All the health information was really uplifting to see to be honest. I didn’t see any “safe partying” stands like the festivals I’ve worked and organized, but at least the community’s serious issues are being addressed. I wish more festivals in the United States were as open about promoting healthy lifestyles and options, especially those that don’t directly relate to partying. Burning Man is the only American festival I’ve experienced that even mentioned anything about safe sex and sexual rights, for example. Obviously Mali has a much more dire health situation overall than the United States but misinformation is still just as dangerous. And this illusion that the USA is immune from major epidemics and health issues is still a recent veil of luxury even though many take low disease rates within the States for granted. It’s important to remember that safety in general is an illusion; we’re all just one pandemic away from being thrown back into the dark ages.

Aside from the wealth of health information flying around in Segou, the air this weekend was filled with the best of sounds: music! Much like the others I’ve experienced, the music plays around the clock in Segou. Booming, dynamic drum beats from djembe circles to electronic programs move the crowds like the waves on the shoreline, boosted by vibrant, melodic French and Bambara vocals in the classic African style we all know and love (Lion King, anyone?) and . Bringing it all together, kora and guitar solos tear through the crowds and tie everyone’s ears in knots. All the music has a strong West African feel. This is 21st century African though. Mixed in are some solid electronic beats and keyboards, plus electric strings and amped-up drums. Though I think I heard a sax in there somewhere which is always appreciated. R&B, rap, Jazz and classic blues seem to be the styles of choice. As always, the later the night, the heavier the music. Hoo-rah. The highlight for me may have been when one band brought a whole crowd of rap artists up on stage who proceeded to bounce lines off of each other to the band’s various tunes. I’m quickly becoming a fan of Bambara rap. Bamba-Rap as I’m calling it.

Not to mention I know one of the evening’s two hosts! The same woman, Fifi, organized and hosted the karaoke competition I was featured on in the Fall. Small world haha.

The Festival sur le Niger is set up much like Baltimore’s Starscape festival which has now evolved into Moonrise (Starscape as it was just got too wild to handle I guess. Having been, I completely understand.). The stages are spread out across a beach-esque shoreline. Unlike Starscape that lasts just one night however, le Festival sur le Niger lasts about a week, ending on a Sunday. Perfect for a weekend trip. Plus in Segou the festival spills right onto the town streets outside the venue complete with more unofficial stages and vendor stands. That and the main stage here is actually on the water on a floating stage. The pit (the standing-room only area directly in front of the stage) actually leads right into the shallow banks of the grand Niger river, the cause for quite a refreshing front row experience. Note to first-timers: don’t bring your phone into the pit.

There is a noticeable security presence at the annual festival in Segou, moreso considering the escalation in northern violence since the new year, but it’s not too overwhelming. During the daylight hours the grounds are open to anyone interested in catching some tunes on a side stage or trying out some local cuisine (it’s all about the peanut sauce of course). It’s only in the evening that the exits become checkpoints.

The vendors/merchants are out in full force at the festival. Conflict in the north combined with a new government and now the ebola outbreak has put a dent in the number of European and otherwise international crowds. The same could be said with any Malian industry though. The war in the north alone has beaten down on Mali’s tourist industry pretty hard. So naturally, Europeans and obvious foreigners like myself are really hounded. You’d better put your bargaining face on or you’ll be broke by the time you walk through security. As a relatively young, caucasian, tattooed male I am quite the spectacle to the locals so of course a few people requested pictures with me and a few others professed their love. All in all just another day in the life. 😉 No, I’m definitely still not used to being the exotic one.

I’m glad I’ve been practicing my French (and Bambara!). I’m starting to be able to have basic (though admittedly rough) conversations with people on my own. Next year I’ll be more ready. The music at the Festival sur le Niger is a mix of French and Bambara with the occasional sprinkle of English. The most English I saw was on a “party tips” billboard aimed at international visitors. I appreciated that. It listed several important aspects and customs relating to Malian and Islamic culture. Apparently for example dresses traditionally mean you are married, greetings are quite important, and shorts are generally reserved for children… but no way was I wearing pants out there. Call me a child. Hey though, at least it’s the cold season.

All in all being with one of the sponsors got me the royal treatment this weekend in Segou. Seats in the good chairs and free entry are great, but we also got set up in one of the nicer hotels just a couple blocks from the venue. And not only is there electricity all night long if you want but wi-fi too! Africa is already so much different from when I first actually remember visiting in 2002, not to mention what my parents describe from the 80s! The whole set-up in Segou is quite impressive actually. Maybe next year I’ll see you there! The rooms are nice with working toilets and air conditioning and great local foods plentifully line the streets. Breakfast was even included with out hotel stay. Well, except for the omelet.

Onward and upward,
Z

Hello friends and family across the screens, I hope this post finds you well.

It’s Thanksgiving again, and as usual, the holidaze is in effect. This Thanksgiving, as with each, I am thankful for many things. This year I am in a new house, in a new country, speaking a new language, working in a new field I actually consider useful, and I can’t help but be thankful for it all. But on this, the American day of “thanks,” I think I might be most thankful to understand the true, actual history behind arguably the most quintessentially American celebration. After all, the history of Thanksgiving is quite literally the history of America’s beginnings, and thus America itself.

Thanks-giving feasts are and have been celebrated around the world throughout history. In the United States, the end-of-November “Thanksgiving Day” holiday was declared by President Abraham Lincoln to recognize and celebrate the founding colonists’ first year of survival in North America. Unfortunately however, this is not the whole story. Though taught as a wholesome celebration of the natural bounty that springs from the American way of life with the help of our friends, the generous Native people, the history of this day of thanks is actually a bit more complicated, and a bit more sinister.

There is some truth behind the Thanksgiving story we all know, going back to 1621, one year after midwinter of 1620 when the famous Mayflower first landed on the North American coast. The Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in reference to the three-day feast Governor William Bradford declared to thank God for their survival. But what get’s lost in the traditional teachings of the holiday’s history is exactly what that survival entailed.

In 1620 the ship known as the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock with 102 British exiles, ready to start fresh with their newly founded, Puritan way of life. However as we know they were not the first Europeans to set foot on North American shores. Six years earlier, in 1614, a small expedition of Brits had scoped out the East coast on behalf of the British crown. They only stayed on land for a short time but when they left they brought 24 Natives back to England with them as slaves, and left Smallpox in their wake. In just a few years the smallpox they first introduced to the Natives had spread and decimated 90% of the 500+ nations.

Fast forward to 1620 and our beloved Mayflower landed on what looked more like Plymouth Tombstone than Plymouth Rock. Plymouth itself was erected just beside the ruins of an abandoned Native village that had been devastated by Smallpox. Now, it’s true that the English immigrants of 1620 probably would have died without Native help and generosity. But that help was only possible due to – and in fact came primarily from – the sole survivor of that ghost village by Plymouth, Squanto.

Squanto was a former slave of the English and Spanish, and had thus learned the respective languages of his European masters. For asylum he offered himself to the settlers who used his insights to grow corn for their people, and his translation skills to negotiate peace treaties with the surrounding tribes. So in 1621 after a year of plentiful corn crops and relative peace, the first, three-day, thanks-giving feast and celebration was declared. This was not the official holiday we all know of course, but it served as the benchmark for colonists living on the former land of exterminated Natives to declare thanks to their Christian God for allowing such “blessings.” In reality much of their survival was actually dependant on the former enslavement and subsequent cooperation of Squanto, and the biological devastation of the Smallpox their predecessors had unleashed upon North America.

Fast forward another 15 years. A decade of prosperity had attracted greater numbers of Europeans to North American shores, and with them had come their Puritan methods of trade dependent on the individual ownership of property. This was far different from and highly contradictory to the Native ideals of communal land ownership. In fact this was far different from what much of the world had seen at the time, and proved to be the critical vehicle for the establishment and expansion of capitalist economics. So with an increased population of settlers interested in trading private property, the question arose: who did the land legally belong to?

To propagate their economic way of life, the settlers agreed that public land belonged to the King (by way of his divine right), represented in the Americas by the Governor. The Puritans believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, and that the rest of the world was damned. As a result, their invasion and the fight for their prosperity was justified by the support of God, and the lives of those not aligned with their ideals were expendable. The rest of the world was doomed to damnation either way. Any within the colonies who opposed this idea and claimed the Natives as the rightful land owners were quickly excommunicated and literally thrown out into the woods to starve. The Puritans needed only to look to Psalms, chapter 2, verse 8 for their justification, in which the Bible writes, “Ask of me and I shall give thee the brethren for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” The whole of the earth was theirs for the taking.

This justification worked perfectly for the paralleled ideals of expansion that form the basis of capitalist economics. So much so that stockholders in an English trading company – who had been awarded by the King the right to govern their company’s own internal affairs – voted in 1629 to move the company and themselves to North America. These stockholders landed north of Plymouth, establishing Massachusetts as a self-governing company of stockholders. Once on North American soil, it did not take long for these money-driven stockholders to realize that their most profitable commodity was the slave trade. Labor, after all, essentially pays for itself.

The conquest and enslavement of Natives became so profitable that for decades it was the centerpiece of their new trade markets. In 1641, the Dutch Governor of Connecticut offered the first scalp (or “redskin”) bounty, drastically increasing the number of massacres against Native communities once again. Of course, because the mere eradication of threats was not nearly as profitable as enslavement, Native men were slaughtered while women and children were sold off into slavery. Several years later, various Manhattan churches decided to celebrate the prosperity that had come from this State-sanctioned genocide and mass-enslavement, and the first official “Thanksgiving Day” was declared.

Well into the 1670’s, Natives tried fighting back against the colonists with little success. But just to insure the continued success of the slave economy, a final call for massacre and enslavement was made. At the rate of 20 shillings per scalp and 40 per slave, the rest of the Native resistance was silenced. In 1676, Massachusetts declared “Thanksgiving,” to engrain within the State a public day of thanks to God, for once again eliminating all obstacles in their way. After that, the rest is history.

President Washington was the first to call for a national day of Thanksgiving, though as we know, it wasn’t until Lincoln that the national holiday of Thanksgiving was made an official, annual event. For Lincoln, the day served as a most useful tool. It was the perfect myth to aid in his efforts at solidifying and unifying the nation. Thanksgiving celebrated the prosperity and the bounty of the American way of life while not only ignoring, but masking and silencing the brutal nature behind the red, white, and blue curtain.

So where does that leave us today? Americans everywhere have heard the stories of Native genocide perpetrated by the European settlers of the colonies’ early days, yet most still celebrate the wholesome-looking holiday nonetheless. Some may not believe the holiday is directly related. Some may try to rationalize that the murder and enslavement that got us here isn’t what they and their families celebrate around the Thanksgiving table. Some may even write it all off as an unfortunate hiccup, or ignore our bloody past all together. But we can’t go on ignoring our past. The rest of the world knows how the United States forged its beginnings and see the hypocrisy in holidays like Thanksgiving clear as day. The fact of the matter is that to not only accept, but celebrate these atrocities as they were designed to be celebrated while perpetuating worldwide “humanitarian” campaigns for “democracy,” “freedom,” and “justice” is hypocrisy at its worst.

There is hope though. There are ways we can call attention to this hypocrisy and begin to overturn the oppressive power structures that carry through to today and spill out onto the streets of places like Ferguson, Syria, and Palestine: our homes. We can start by stopping. Stop honoring this day of genocide. We can gather with our families and give thanks to our Gods for all that we have been blessed with, but we hold no obligation to the “Thanksgiving” title. Instead we could celebrate Harvest Day or Indigenous Peoples Day. Universities like Brown U. and Hampshire College have already brought petitions to their administrations demanding they change the name of the holiday to reflect and honor the countless native lives and land stolen by the early European settlers. We could all follow in their footsteps and change the name of the holiday to honor those who died so we could be here. It is possible to change things. Just this year Seattle became the first city to abolish their celebration of Christopher Columbus, arguably the father of modern slavery and genocide. The rest of the United States could take these steps and start moving ourselves in the right direction.

When Ghandi was asked what he though of Western civilization, he said he thought it sounded like a good idea. Plato said that the origins of a just society must come from equal access to a good education. Well, learning the true history behind our world and honoring those who actually deserve it is a damn good first step. Holidays are a fantastic way to teach our children about our ever-increasingly complicated world one piece at a time, so why not teach them to honor the people whose lives were stolen from them to build the world we see today. Let’s stop retelling the fantasies we’ve been taught to cover the truth, and start teaching the truth. Let’s abandon our old, false stories and embrace the real ones. Only then can we hope to start writing new futures. Who knows, maybe if our children learn to value the lives that have been decimated by history they’ll start to value their brothers’ and sisters’ lives as well.

Onward and upward.

Z

If you would like to look deeper into what I’ve written about here, check out “Native Blood,” an essay found at Kasamaproject.org

Or watch my good friend and mentor Solomon Comissiong from the University of Maryland discuss the topic further here. (YouTube)

Can you imagine what the world would look like without war? We all say we want peace but none of us have ever really even experienced it; so how do we know what we’re talking about? There has never been a time in history of true peace, at least since humans showed up. In the animal kingdom there is death but only in circumstances where survival is at stake. It’s natural that at some point a “me or you” situation may arise, but only out of necessity like hunger or immediate bodily harm. The only instances even resembling temporary peace we people have ever experienced have been peace through superior firepower, which is no different than beating a child into submission and declaring them well-behaved. At some point it becomes necessary to take a leap of faith and just imagine it – or try at least.

John Lennon put his own version of peace into words and was killed for it, just like Martin Luther King Jr. Take a second and let that sink in. It’s common knowledge that advocators of real peace are often killed for doing so, but consider just how paradoxical that is, and just how powerful of an effect that knowledge has on our minds. Of course people think war is inevitable, we’ve been at war our whole lives. We don’t know anything else. But just because we’ve never seen another world, that doesn’t mean it can’t exist. And it’s important to understand that the first step toward addressing any issue is to become aware of the words that we use to do so. To say a world without war can’t exist admits defeat before the possibility of debate even starts. In sales school I became hyperaware of “self-talk.” “Self-talk” is what happens when you are alone with yourself. That voice in your head? It’s your mind expressing itself in symbols you can understand. But those symbols aren’t random, and nor are they originate externally. Except in cases of severe mental illness, you choose the words you speak to yourself. So in English, when it comes to speaking to yourself about ability, there are five levels: “I can’t,” “I can,” “I will,” “I am,” and “it is.” I can’t do it. I can do it. I will do it. I am doing it. It is happening. The same applies for every type of speech about any subject. Addressing issues is first and foremost dependent on the words we are using to do so. In the timeless words of Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

War is orchestrated and executed. Pun intended. George Carlin, the late great comedian known for his vulgarity and ruthlessness had a dream too. His was simple but profound and like much of his material, focused on the words we use; he wanted to switch the acceptability levels of the words “fuck” and “kill.” One represents the most intimate and natural of acts but is widely shunned, while the other represents the essence of destruction and is plastered all over the evening news. Coincidence? I think not. As John Lennon believed, to strip away our socially constructed barriers and “stop inviting walls into wide open spaces” would finally bring the world together as one, but as it stands far too many have far too much invested in the opposite. From defence contractors to privatized prisons to newspapers that pay more for photos of war than of love, our world is made up of people and institutions that profit from establishing enemies and maintaining boundaries, not cooperating and dissolving them. But who knows, maybe one day we’ll stop cutting off each others’ heads over invisible friends, or dumping our trash into the oceans, or using power to make ourselves wealthy, or blowing up mountains instead of investing in renewable resources, or stepping over homeless people while foreclosed homes sit empty, or locking drug addicts up in cages, or shooting people for talking about fucking love.

Maybe the aliens will have to land for us to see each other as comrades, but maybe we can reach this conclusion on our own. I like to think there are enough candle-carriers out there to light up the darkness. And you may say I’m a dreamer, but hey, I’m not the only one.

Onward and upward.

Z

A Whisper

Posted: October 21, 2014 in OC, Poetry
Tags: , ,

A Whisper

21/10/14

Tomorrow you will see,

My soul says to me.

You may have lost the fight to night

But tomorrow’s yet to be.

The morning brought the sunshine

That brightened up the valley.

She tried to kill the darkness

But the night held tight in nooks and alleys.

He stayed alive you see.

He found a way to be.

He crept around, low to the ground,

In gutters, at your feet.

High noon came and left you

Brimming with delight.

But the sunshine left you blinded,

Convinced you’d seen the last of plight.

So once you’d put your day’s work in

And sat to watch the setting sun,

He came up quick behind you

To remind you of all you hadn’t done.

His voice grew loud and booming

As the sky grew deep and black.

I know that now you’re frightened

The sun is has gone and shall never come back.

But have no fear! it yells

In a sharp, resounding whisper.

The darkness only wishes

He could stand with you and kiss her.

For when she bats her eyelids

And returns to you and me,

The night will bow in awed defeat.

Look hard and you will see.

So a couple weeks ago I wrote about awareness.  I focused primarily on situational, or external awareness, as it were.  This week I am going to continue a thought on awareness, however this time I am going to turn my focus inward, to internal or personal awareness.  As always I would love to hear your thoughts.  Let’s see where this takes us…

Who are you?  What do you want?  Where are you headed?  Where do you come from?  How about your friends, siblings, parents, or your parents’ parents?  The human mind attributes meaning to patterns.  Those patterns we recognize as significant color the lens each of us uses to see the world around us.  We categorize and label everything we see into one set or another in order to comprehend the innumerable amount of stimuli we come across, and of course as with everything, this begins with ourselves.

I am Zach.  At least, “Zach,” is the particular symbol I choose at the moment to represent the idea I have in my head of myself.  This means I have spent at least some dime differentiating what I perceive and interact with from whatever generates this voice that ponders these weird-ass questions and have reached the conclusion that there is, in fact, a difference.  Exactly where the line is drawn is up for debate, but I have decided that there is a me that is different from you or that and my name is Zach.  Welcome, by the way.

Once I created that folder, I immediately filled it with all sorts of wonderful people, stories, and places that resonated with my frequency in order to figure and formulate my perceptions.  My memories and my perceptions of course now bounce around together constantly, lubricating my imagination and birthing my dreams.

So that’s me on a skeletal level, and it is important to understand yourself in relation to yourself.  However, it is another task entirely to consider yourself in relation to those around you.  After all, it’s the meat that makes the real differences between us.  There are numerous factors we commonly use to categorize ourselves in relation to each other: gender, race, religion, nationality, spoken language, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status to name a few.  If we have any hope of working with each other then it is not only important for us to understand ourselves in our terms, but to do so in relation to the people with whom we interact.  This brings me to Bamako.

I am a Caucasion-American male living in a big, (appropriately) white, walled-in house in Bamako, a city where reproductive rights barely exist and no one picks the trash up off the streets.  I live with my father, who spends cocktail hour at the embassy with ambassadors, WHO executives and the like.  As for my position in relation to the people of this city, it is safe to say that I am quite privileged.  My father alone employs several local men for what seems like nothing to me but is actually closer to twice the average pay for such positions.  Not only do I have a woodgrain toilet seat, but I have a toilet.  Not only do I have a gate and a wall, but I have a house with air-conditioning and refrigerated food worth taking at all.  I can’t avoid how well-off I am, and denying it would offer no service to anyone, but I can use what I’ve got to ease the lives of those who don’t have as much.

There are many ways to use one’s resources for good, but the first step is to try and understand just how much you do have in comparison to just how little is available to others.  Every morning I get to wake up in a bed, inside, and take an anti-malarial pill that (hopefully) keeps each of these mosquito bites from becoming more than that.  Once I’ve taken my magic pill I get to eat a hot meal cooked with clean, bottled water.  In addition, if I were to walk down the street at night, I would be targeted by thieves due to my skin color, but left alone by sexual predators due to my gender.  Meanwhile, others all around the globe have so little that clean water is a myth and disease is a way of life.  No one person can totally solve any problem really worth solving, but if we can all get in where we fit in then together progress can be made.

As far as I am concerned this means it is up to me to pay attention to those less fortunate than myself and actually learn their stories.  All any of us can ever do is work from where we are, with what we’ve got, for what we want.  Not only am I a sucker for a good story, but I have always had an fairly good memory when it comes to the recitation of stories.  So what do I want?  Stories.  Everyone deserves to have their voice heard.

This is the reason I want to teach English to those who are interested.  This is also the reason that I plan to learn both French and Bambara, the local language.  Language defines our capacity to communicate, and communication is the key to teamwork.  I went to the market earlier in the week with Edmond, our chef, and Mahamadou, our driver so Edmond could pick up some food for the week.  It was an amazing experience and I plan to go with them again often when I can.  First we went to the supermarket so I could make a booze run and Edmond could pick up a few items there.  For the real food, however, like all our meats and fresh vegetables, Edmond needed to shop around some in the street marketplace.  The market we went to was a crowded intersection with small, one-room shops lining either side of each road.  Because this was my first time and I still did not know much French or any Bambara, I waited with Mahamadou at one of his friend’s paint shop on one of the corners.  With the SUV parked right there on the street in front of an ocean of mopeds we sat, relaxed, and people-watched with some friends of his for an hour or so.  The language barrier kept any conversation involving me fairly basic, but their fascination with my tattoos sparked a lesson on colors in Bambara.  Those guys were a warm, welcoming bunch with big smiles on their faces.  Even though I have access to many more resource than these guys,  they still offered me a seat with them and lit up my day with their smiling faces.  I hope to see them all again soon.  The unfortunate truth in most situations is that those in positions of privilege hardly mingle with those around them.  Instead, often times people use what money they have to do just the opposite and separate themselves from those with less.  Having worked in the service industry myself for some time I know what it is to be ignored by those who think themselves better than me, so as I learn more about the languages here I plan to learn as much as I can about everyone I meet here.  It’s sad how unusual this mindset may turn out to be.

Life is hard for everyone, but we can each do a little to ease the suffering of those around us by simply listening to what they have to say and caring about their well-being.  For now, for me, that means my job is to immerse myself with French lessons, French newspapers, French movies, and French-speakers until I can confidently begin to relay the endless stories I learn here back to you, the fine people of the internet.  Even before then, however, even a smile and a wave can completely change someone’s day.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now.  Time for me to get some sleep so I’m useful again.  Thanks for reading, and of course feel free to tell me your comments, questions and concerns.  If you’ve got a couple more minutes, attached is a fantastic poem about who we are.  I hope you enjoy.  Have a fantastic week everyone.  Au revoir!

Onward and upward,

-Z

So here I am, once again sitting on a piece of flying metal 40,000 feet above the Atlantic.  This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in such a place, but this time there is a marked difference than every other.  This time, there is no return flight.  This much is still sinking in, and I’m sure will be for a while. I am excited beyond words for what lies ahead.  To get into how I feel would take way more effort and words than anybody has time for, so in a word I’ll say I am overwhelmed.  I’ve decided to focus on the present, and simply try to be aware of this moment as much and for as long as possible in order to keep my head on my shoulders at the moment.  The exception being this post of course. However, in order to appreciate the present we must first, of course, begin with the past.  Warning: this might be a long one.

When I was younger, I – like most – was a huge space cadet.  My head was constantly in the clouds. I would frolic and prance and play all day, often leaving every last gadget and toy just about anywhere but where I had gotten it.  My life would have been in a state of constant chaos had it not been for my saint of a mother who ran that house like it was her kingdom, which it was.  My father worked for an international non-profit so he jumped around the world as often as most go to the movies.  Even when he was working at his office in DC, he would get up before us kids most days and come home after dinner most nights anyway, which meant mom ran the house.  It’s a classic storyline but everyday dad went to his office to work and mom got to work right there at home, and let me tell you – she was relentless.  Picking up toys, picking up laundry, picking up sticks, weeding, cooking, sweeping, washing clothes, washing dishes, washing windows, I’m pretty sure I saw her sweep the driveway once.  Of course she couldn’t keep the place spotless all the time – though I know that’s what she was aiming for – but damn if she didn’t try.  Now that’s not to say that she was the only one maintaining the house, but even when all our chores were done she would still be there, running around like a track star.  Once I found myself living in a single dorm in college I started to see why she was so seemingly obsessed with a spotless home.  My method was insane, not hers.  Although I hate to admit it, as I ran around the house ripping siding off of appliances to turn into air guitars and throwing them behind the couch, I spent the rest of my time looking for whatever it was I wanted to use next.  Now that I’m older I still lose things constantly, but thankfully my mother’s words still ring in my head whenever I am at a loss (probably because she still says them).  For every time she found something I was missing she would look at me with that cocked eyebrow, hand my toy back slowly and say, “next time, why don’t you try looking with your eyes open.”  She may have been teasing me all those years, but her advice couldn’t be applicable to everyday life.

Have you ever ended up at work and forgot the ride there?  Most people, and I am just as guilty as any, spend their days in a daze (pun intended).  We drag our feet to work as we daydream of sleep, then push off sleep for fear of work-induced nightmares.  The moments around us slip between our fingers while we check Facebook for event invites.  This didn’t start with Facebook or the internet though.  The danger only lies in how much easier it has become to lose touch with the only real thing we’ll ever know: the six inches in front of our face.

There are different levels of awareness.  Imagine driving a car.  Slowing down to a stoplight, you keep an eye out for anyone quickly switching lanes or stopping.  If you zone out and something catches you by surprise, it is easy to become a deer in the headlights.  However just by paying attention to your surroundings when everyone begins to slow down gives you that extra moment to hit the breaks or swerve to avoid an accident.  The same goes for walking on a dark road.  Simply being aware of any people around you could give you enough time to run or defend yourself instead of being caught in that surprised state.  Considering my current move to Mali where I will live in a big, wild, African city, this is what concerns me most.  I know I will have to keep my eyes and ears open to a degree I am unfamiliar with if I want to survive.  Threats are real.  Danger is out there.  There are still things that go bump in the night.  As a wise woman once told me, we all think things happen to somebody else but we are all somebody else to somebody else.

In the United States people are disillusioned by the distractions that come with living in a developed country.  We’ve got smooth roads, clean water, and standardized vaccinations that allow us as citizens to forget that outside our fences and ports, the brutality of nature still exists.  Death, disease, and destruction are all alive and well.  We hear about human rights violations like they are fairy tales because no country in their right mind would attack the U.S. on its own soil.  So when news reports surface about police brutality within our own borders, we blame the people, or claim the atrocities are isolated because no one wants to consider the ugly possibility that we might not always be the good guys.  The term “news” in the States has become synonymous with entertainment.  In fact, “news” stations hold not legal obligation to inform or educate their viewers at all.  Their only responsibilities are to entertain and generate profits.  To those for whom the life-threatening realities of everyday life have been taken care of, the true brutality of the world is nothing more than background noise at the dinner table.  This has always been a problem with those living in the castle, so-to-speak.  However it is one that is easily fixed by simply understanding your own place in the environment you find yourself.  Even if things seem fine where you are, remember those walls around you do not separate you from the world.  Only your mind can do that.

So take a second.  Stop inviting walls into wide open spaces, as the poet Buddy Wakefield would say, and be aware.  Be aware, not only of the world you live in, but the place you hold in that world.  Really open your eyes.  Where are you?  Who is around you?  Do they seem agitated?  What does the air smell like?  Where is the nearest toilet, or water source?  Might be the same place!  Come back to where you are.  Be here, now.  Be aware.  Try looking with your eyes open.  You never know what’s coming around the bend.

Until next time, onward and upward.
-Z

P.s. Food for thought:
http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/practical-guide-situational-awareness