Saturday, November 14, 2015

Considering Humanity and Representation

I had the incredible privilege to visit France on three different occasions, beginning in high school exchanges with Lycée Bréquigny in Rennes, in northwestern France (Bretagne). The host students and their families, friends that became pivotal to how I regarded the world revealed that our (U.S.) culture, ideology, and mannerisms are different. Yet I also came to realize that at the end of the day, we all desire the same thing: love, liberty, security, connection, and heck, if success came along with that, even better. Travelling opened those doors for my mind and soul. After three cycles of exchange students, I knew I would return to France

In August 2011, my sophomore year at St. Lawrence University, I embarked on a semester-long life in Normandy, the north-central province of France. Rouen was only an hour north of Paris by train. New families and faces and landscapes, each peeling back another layer of humanity. The full-throttle immersion was not always easy, and honestly I probably gained 10-15 pounds from stress-induced eating. In France that meant flaky, full-fat buttered croissants and luscious Belgian chocolate. I spent most of my time travelling the country, rather than hopping around Europe, because there were so many regions and histories to discover. I'm likely among the millions, perhaps billions, of people who can say that they hold Paris "close to their heart." My program spent a full week there, hilariously at the same hostel we stayed at when I was in 10th grade. That was my third visit to Paris, and each day I was still visiting new awe-inspiring sites and secrets.

Over time, France and its people lost a bit of glimmer for me. The aggressive politics of xenophobia, racism, and nativism rubbed me to defense-mode. It was easier to argue and blame me about U.S. neoimperialism and conservatism, than it was to speculate about the context in which it developed. Those interactions were never fun, but that's the trade-off I took for being a U.S. citizen. And honestly, Parisians can suck. Other non-Parisian French even agreed. If you weren't from Paris, they made sure to remind you with a heavy dose of egocentric snobbery. So, we're all human. And by no means perfect.

Although my gilded image of France chipped away by the end of my semester, I was indelibly thankful for the experience. I was transformed and ready to take on more. I think because of those compounded months of intense human experiences, I developed a more dynamic lens through which I could view the world. Travelling isn't the only way to hone these sorts of revelations, but it was for me.

So what's my point? There will always be part of me connected to France. By connecting with another culture despite language barriers and cultural difference, I felt (feel) more connected to humanity. Humans are complex, socialized, historicized creatures, situated into cultures and perspectives they have no control over. I actually love exploring that notion.

Humans can also be cruel. You can check out from the internet and radio for a few hours, and suddenly the world has flipped. I had caught a brief clip on the radio when the Paris attacks began, but it wasn't until this morning that I learned of the enormity. My mind is reeling, the more I learn. I'm so relieved that my Rouen host sister, who lives in Paris, is safe.

Through my punctuated grief and washes of pain for France, I can't help but feel guilty about my reaction, too. I think this crisis and the media spectacle has exposed the enormous deficit in the way we understand the world. For the most part, our lens of understanding is dominated and directed by corporate media, and instantly consumed.

What did I say earlier? "...and suddenly the world has flipped." Because I'm a U.S. citizen, "the world" equates to whom we most relate: U.S. military powers of the Global North, such as France. They are our partners, so similar to our ideals and what we stand for; liberté, égalité, franternité. The attackers were obviously individually motivated, but it is imperative that we don't forget the historical circumstances that lead them to this destruction. 'Terrorism' is too easy of an excuse, and a cop out. Recall: humanity is complicated. Was France possibly complicit in its own disaster? How deeply are we examining the rise of the Islamic State and extremism?

The unfortunate reality is that France holds greater proximity, and thereby priority, to me than Beirut. Than Syria. Than the Congo. Violence like this is happening every fucking day, and now I'm finally reacting (aside from the occasional-but-increasingly-frequent conversations to commiserate with my friends). The world is reacting with more for France because I've been told -- we've been told -- to do so. It terrifies and disgusts me that we are normalized to the violence in other parts of the world that aren't a national priority. 

By no means am I saying that anyone in Paris, France, or the rest of the world deserved this horror. But before we begin aiming our guns and hatred, don't forget what we -- the United States, France, the Global North or dare I say, Western Imperialists --  have done to others. Our drones drop bombs on villages in Pakistan every day. We've tortured and slaughtered thousands of Iraqis as mere suspects of terrorism, whether they were complicit or not. Thousands of refugees have sacrificed absolutely everything they know to escape hell, seeking refuge in Europe and the U.S., and we refuse to open our doors widely. Where was the safe button for Beirut, bombed two days ago? Where IS the safe button for Palestinians? These people have lives, families, histories, and dreams that simply aren't acknowledged. They are portrayed as the 'Other': static, unchangeable, voiceless, inherently unrelateable. That's reflected in simplistic answers, and blanketed assumptions. We aren't granting all people the human complexity they deserve.

What I'm asking is to make sure you take a moment to lift the blinds on your lens. Say a prayer, send your thoughts, post your hashtags for France. Because Paris, je t'aime. I really do. But please take a moment to remember others suffering in this world. Don't ever let violence be normal. I need to remind myself this more often.

There's one last piece to my brain vomit: perhaps my guilt is misplaced. I do have tangible and psychological connections with France, so it makes sense that I would be rattled. However, as humans, what is the threshold for empathy? How much information can we actually process?Technology has allowed this endless barrage of news and sensationalism to flood our minds, so is it possible to care about everyone and everything all the time? I can't believe that it is. I think I just despise how easily our minds are interpellated to care about some more than others.

I'm not trying to be self-congratulatory. Just trying to reflect critically on what's happening, and where we go from here.

All photos my own, taken in Paris in late October 2011.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Westward Bound!

Business at work and a lack of wifi has resulted in a distinct lack of blogging, but I just had to share these pictures from the wild, wild west! I visited one of my best friends, Brad, in Colorado and we also ventured to Wyoming from September 12-19. This was my vacation to celebrate the end of my AmeriCorps VISTA term, and subsequent hiring onto the Central Berkshire Habitat team.
Feast your eyes on the glorious Rockies!

The town of Dillon hosted weekly concerts on the reservoir (that serves Denver) during the summer. We caught the last one the night I flew in, featuring a Michael Jackson funky tribute band!
The towns are high in the mountains, 8,000-9,000 feet in elevation, and built largely around the ski resorts. They ski lifts still operate in the off-season, so we hiked around Keystone Mountain.
View of Dillon Reservoir and surrounding towns from Keystone Mountain.
Climbing a rock slide at Copper Mountain.

The neat part about Dillon, CO is that there are a few other friends from Honeoye that have moved out there! We met up with Nikki and Bri who hiked around, and also joined us on the Wyoming road trip.
The view from Copper Mountain was a bit hazy from wild fire smoke blowing in from farther west.
We drove 8 hours north through the vast lands of Wyoming, to Jackson Hole where I was able to meet with one of my friends from Habitat/St. Lawrence (photo on Facebook), and then to Grand Teton National Park!
Proud to say that I was the first one to spot this moose, then cause subsequent traffic jams.
He was a beaut!
Despite the freezing rain, we convinced ourselves that it was worth taking a swim in Jackson Lake at the base of the Tetons (which were shrouded by the fog). We figured the lake would be warmer than the air -- and we were wrong! Photo is post-swim.
Not too long after the dip, we made it to Yellowstone! 

Every 10 minutes is a different, jaw-dropping geography.
We snagged a camp site before they all filled, which had full running water (thank goodness).

Wyoming sits upon a volcanic caldera, and is so alive through its hot springs and geysers.

The sulfuric gas stinks, but the hot springs are beautiful! Don't even try touching them, though... they can be as hot as 300 degrees F. 

Here's Old Faithful, but it erupted once it was too dark for a photo. The lodge there is gorgeous, but I'm glad we arrived when things were closing up.

The bison were incredibly majestic! The locals actually refer to the calves as "red dogs" because they are born this color until they turn darker brown. 
The best traffic jam I've ever been in (and would prefer)!
Elk interspersed at another tourist stop.

Calcite springs tumbling into the Yellowstone River.
Amazing vistas, and snow falling on the 14,000+ foot peaks in the distance (no thanks!!).
Lower falls in Yellowstone Canyon is one of the park's best known views, although the number of tourists there was overwhelming. 

Our crew at Yellowstone Canyon.
And then we saw a grizzly!! All these cars were stopped and the rangers were trying to redirect people to the cars (duh), yet I was thrilled at the opportunity to spot one. 
On the way back out of the park, the Tetons revealed themselves to be dusted with snow!
Back on the shores of Jackson Lake (but not for a swim)!
Wyoming was a dream. I would love to go back!
I still had a few days in Colorado after that, so I hiked among the gorgeous golden aspens and Mount Buffalo (the hump in the distance).
We did a quick hike at Mont Royal, which gave more beautiful views of Summit County.
On my final full day, we drove 3 hours south to the Great Sand Dunes National Park! This 30-square mile monument formed after a millennium of erosion and sediment deposits, tucked between the mountains.

Truly epic and surreal. ... then we hiked.
There was a class sand boarding down one of the first dunes!

It took us a while, but we ascended the highest dune in North America, rising 755 feet over this micro-desert!
More sand boarding... ouch!
On our way back down, the wind picked up so I went into storm trooper mode to protect my face. We weren't at the Great Sand Dunes for too long, but it was simply another marvel of nature I visited out west.
The West was amazing, the vacation very restorative, and I really enjoyed spending time with Brad, who's been with me through middle and high school and crashed his car on the way to St. Lawrence (and the only hometown friend to visit me) senior year. Quite the reunion.

(I can't guarantee more blogging in the immediate future, though hopefully these photos suffice!)

Monday, June 1, 2015

April Roundup

It's June but I still have a lot to share from April. The first weekend, I suddenly decided that Florida would be a wonderful way to spend Easter. And of course it was (thanks Mom and Dad)! My brother Duane and nieces were down there, and we basked in the sun and gorgeous waters.

Always a blast to hang out with the dogs.
The next weekend, Tom and I took off to Boston for less than 24 hours for a Rubblebucket concert! It was a late Valentine's gift and pretty much perfect. Tom's parents live in the suburbs, so we took the T (their metro/train) to Paradise Rock Club downtown. We even ran into some of my St. Lawrence classmates, unsurprisingly! And then we did our best to stay as close to the front as possible to rock our faces off.

Rubblebucket was Thursday and we were back Friday, because SATURDAY we (Emma, Luke, and I) hosted a St. Lawrence Charter Day party!! I can't emphasize how heart-exploding and happy it made me to bring two-thirds of my favorite humans to the Berkshires. 
Annie and Elizabeth cheesin' before everyone arrived (no, really--Emma's mom filled that table with 20 kinds of cheese!!)

2014 ladies :) Kate is on the far left.
Team Habitat, otherwise known as the Cream Team.

Former Ruckus, now Rusty Bus ultimate frisbee members!
Once a Saint always a Saint -- representing classes '76 through '14!

Class of 2014 friends 
I also iced everyone at the party when they thought we were opening a surprise box of SLU goods.. that rocked.

That was the first full-blown reunion party we've had as alumni, and certainly won't be the last. It was fun to celebrate the institution that brought us all together (even though they took away our theme house..)!

And the weekend after that, I took off to Nantucket for a ladies' retreat, initiated by my lovely friend Caroline that I studied with in Shanghai. It was a weekend divorced from technology (for the most part), serious responsibilities, and full of reflection, friendship, and restoration. We cooked and crafted and went to the beach and had a hoot of a time at the daffodil festival, which was quite frankly one of the wasp-iest events I've ever willingly taken part in. Not offensive, just ostentatious displays of wealth.
The dinner I lead included ratatouille, couscous, roasted broccoli, and garlic bread.

Caroline and I. I am endlessly fortunate to be friends with such an amazing lady!

The most moving part of the weekend was when Caroline revealed packages of letters she collected from each of our loved ones, reading one letter aloud for each lady. There's a radiating amount of love in my life, and all the adventures of April really reinforced that.