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In the Spirit of MLK Day, Finding Small Ways to Serve Others

Compassion need not take the form of extreme measure. Kindness does not require deep pockets, or a lifetime of time—sometimes the smallest gestures impart the greatest impact. For us, it’s letting complete strangers pick sumptuous tangerines from our fruit tree in our front yard. Wait—should they have asked for permission? Let’s not be silly—they’re tangerines, and they bring so much joy to others. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, consider these words:

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In the spirit of this message, here’s a video that will warm your heart, and impress upon you the power of the little things we do when we casually, sometimes quietly, serve others:

 

Photo Credit: MLK image: OhTopTen

Craving Quiet in a World Full of Noise

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Silence is one of those things in life often taken for granted—its value never fully realized until it is gone; and when it is gone, over minutes, days, years, in living rooms, public spaces and beyond, we want it back, even if its occasional visit makes us feel lonely, uncomfortable, vulnerable.

Years ago, when I snorkeled off the coast of Fiji, banded sea snakes terrified me: one bite and you were gone. My husband and I plotted how to avoid them, near an island we had walked out to during low tide, close to our jumping off point. Once half-submerged, our heads bobbing face-forward, the snakes were an afterthought. It was the depths of the blue abyss, and silence, mostly silence, that threw calm into a tailspin. It took great mental work to be okay with the ocean, and with an unusual degree of quiet.

In our culture, a noise-filled existence is a productive one, and we are not the first generation to produce, loudly. The Industrial Revolution, for example, ushered in an era of high-decibel machinery, from transport to assembly line contraptions—all very effective at filling the void of stuff we needed and the sounds we didn’t. Nowadays, it’s hard to be as forgiving for the noise today’s contraptions create. What does the TV produce, especially when it’s on “standby,” but irksome buzzing, like a mosquito hovering near our ear, serving no purpose and invoking low-levels of insanity? Or tunes turned up too high in the restaurant, rendering a long-awaited conversation with a loved one inaudible.

This topic of silence, of lack thereof, has been generating a lot of noise lately. In “The Search for Silence” in the New York Times, Allison Arieff describes how we’ve become accustomed to the rise in all the racket:

“This should come as no surprise to any of us, especially city dwellers. We hear the thrum of urban life, overhear the neighbors arguing next door; we eavesdrop, whether we want to or not, on the conversations of co-workers. In medical waiting rooms or hospitals, we’re often privy to nurses and doctors discussing a patient (or, worse, as I experienced recently, to the decidedly un-relaxing sounds of Southern country rock blaring in a mammography clinic)…”

“We’re always taking in what our environment looks like and, as Vladimir Nabokov wrote — ‘Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it’ — we’re also aware of its odors. But what of its sound? Is there so much noise all around us now that we’ve become inured to it?”

Silence, according to Ms. Arieff, is so devoid in our time, that art gallery owners exhibit it and architects take great strides to maintain and manage it.

Chloe Schama, in an article in New Republic, takes even a bolder stance, and says:

“From noise-canceling headphones to the popularity of silent retreats, there has never been quite so great a premium placed on silence. And not only do we value it in a general sense, we’re willing to pay for it. Silence has become the ultimate luxury.”

As Ms. Schama states, one highly-prized “silent” product is Amtrak’s “silent” car:

“[It's]…a place where passengers attempt to wrest back some semblance of control from the epic indignities of travel. You may have paid several hundred dollars for a train that shows up two hours late, but at least you can sit in peace once you board, thanks to the vigilance of your fellow passengers—dedicated defenders of the code of silence. As Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times in 2012: ‘Ever since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car.’”

In a world defined by stuff, by Amazon, by access to anything and everything, perhaps what we long for most is what is absent. Technology is responsible for creating its own type of “noise,” in news feeds, updates, texts and the like. As the pendulum of materialism, including online information, swings in the direction of surplus, one can only expect that in due time, what we’ll desire most is a combination of minimalism and simplicity.

Photo Credit: Giampaolo Macorig via photopin cc

Deconstructing the Philosophy of Legos

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When time is devoid of delight, particularly for children, nothing fills the gap like the tantalizing act of creation—building things, whether it’s a doll house, Thomas the Train railroad system or perhaps most famously, Legos building blocks.

It’s an amazing observation to make of a child, learning disparate words—bear, truck, inside—and then linking them together, to create an articulated thought: “The bear rides inside truck.” Labels, placement and the order of words differ, of course, across cultures, but the creation of a story, a fictional fabrication of one’s nascent mind, is universal: We love to construct new things and scenes previously non-existent, breathing a life into nothingness, and making it something.

In a beautifully-written column in the New York Times, writer Thomas de Monchaux explores our connection with Legos, which released its popular namesake film last month, and its place in our modern-day culture:

“…the film’s celebration of adaptive improvisation and spontaneous mythmaking also resonates deeply with our current moment of so-called maker culture. Thanks to new rapid-prototyping technologies like computer numerical control milling and 3-D printing, we’ve seen a convergence between hacker and hipster, between high-tech coding and the low-tech artisanal craft behind everything from Etsy to Burning Man.”

De Monchaux reminds us that Legos is not the first model of “maker culture” to make its way into our life:

“’The smooth shapely maple [Froebel] blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers; so form became feeling. These primary forms were the secret of all effects,’ [Frank Lloyd] Wright recalled, ‘which were ever got into the architecture of the world.’ Wright’s son John would complete the circle, inventing in 1916 the construction toy that came to be known as Lincoln Logs.”

Having grown up in the 1980s, I remember Lincoln Logs, and the feeling of possibility, and opportunity, the blocks imbued. I could make a house for a figurine seeking shelter, a fire station for a fireman, or a palace without a roof from which my Barbie dolls would gaze at the stars. In my life, without De Monchaux’s toys (blocks and the like), I could not do anything and everything my heart desired. But in my world of Lincoln Logs, I could, and I did.

As De Monchaux eloquently states:

“… it is certainly primal, and visceral, to do with the idea of making and unmaking, and the complex relationships of parts to wholes, and brokenness to wholeness…”

The rise of “maker culture” can certainly induce nostalgia of the past, but in a time of economic woes, it’s also a survivalist response. Such culture does not only encompass fantastical Legos communities, but products generated by laser cutters, 3-D printers and home kits (including “tiny” houses!). De Monchaux continues:

“Maker culture, like Lego, is about loss. All building-block toys are about appearance and disappearance, demolition and reconstruction. Maker culture, for all its love of stuff, is similarly a culture of resourcefulness in an era of economic scarcity: relentless in its iterative prototyping, its radically adaptive reuse of ready-made objects, its tendency to unmake one thing to make another — all in a new ecology of economy.”

Photo Credit: ercwttmn via photopin cc

Protecting Culture from the Passage of Time

Sankirtana, chanting performed in India's bhakti devotional traditions, has recently been designated as an "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO.

As our world evolves, so too does our culture. The practices and expressions that are handed down through generations often face an uphill battle for survival. Smartphones, for example, render the Chinese abacus obsolete, and with it the benefits that the practice  (Chinese Zhusuan) confers: stronger attention spans and better memory in children.

But one organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) aims to loosen time’s Darwinian grip on customs both threatened and deemed worth saving.

Each year, a UNESCO committee meets to review nominations for “intangible cultural heritage.”

Separate from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an intangible cultural heritage includes:

traditions or expressions, such as performing arts, social practices, rituals, knowledge and practices concerning the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. [It]…is a living form of heritage that provides a sense of identity and belonging in relation to our own cultures.

In December, 30 nominations were approved for 2013. Click here for the list. Here are a handful that made the cut:

Once a practice receives this designation, how exactly is it safeguarded from falling off the cultural cliff?  UNESCO is somewhat vague in explaining it, but does indicate a focus on identification, research, increasing visibility within educational institutions and promoting information through media.

Our cultural identities are rooted in webs of history, applicable, or not, to our modern lives. UNESCO’s designations, in this regard, do us a service as lifelong learners yearning to know more about ourselves. But whether the international behemoth’s role in “selecting” and protecting cultural practices is ethical is another topic worth exploring later.

More information on qualifying criteria for the designation can be found here.
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Dr. MLK Day: The Pain, and Progress, of Remembering

photo credit: Wasfi Akab via photopin cc

Our memory is the keeper of personal history, a mental database that both helps and enslaves us; it saves us from making the same mistakes and arms us with the know-how to teach others, and yet it can also paralyze us with lingering memories of trauma and fear.

For today’s holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I met with Mrs. Bernadette Reeves, an African-American tour guide in St. Augustine, Florida, who has retraced, over 17 years, the steps, and memories—painful and historic—of civil rights activists in the small coastal town.

St. Augustine, the place I currently call home, has gained notoriety for its significance as the first continuous European settlement in North America, but rarely do people recall its role as a hotbed of racial upheaval and consequent social change in the mid-1960s.

Mrs. Reeves, 68, has been keeping alive the past—imparting the collective memory of the African-American experience here, so others may remember its importance in shaping who we are today.

“Any group that forgets its background is bound to repeat it,” she said. “The more you know about yourself, you do better in the world.”

During her tours, with equal parts verve and sympathetic despair, Mrs. Reeves recounts the stories of Dr. King, Andrew Young, Dr. Robert B. Haling, Mary Peabody and others who endured dissent and outright violence for their public call for equality. The stories abound, from beatings of non-violent marchers to unprovoked shootings into African-American homes.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Dr. King was denied entry to St. Augustine’s Monson Motor Lodge in 1964. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Her passion, and the fact that she’s been living, re-living, again and again, the injustices of the St. Augustine Movement, a micro-movement of the wider African-American Civil Rights Movement, made me wonder about her own welfare.

“Is this work good for you?” I asked.

“Life gives you that pain anyways,” she replied. “I believe it’s important to examine things honestly. It’s difficult, but I’ve got to do it anyway.”

Mrs. Reeves admits that African-Americans, here and elsewhere, struggle with breaking old habits (not walking through the town square, for example) because places are reminders of what happened in years past, and part of an individual’s identity is bound up in listening to the stories, and instructions, of one’s elders.

“If your grandma told you of the atrocities committed against blacks in the square, you’re less likely to go there,” she said.

“Is it possible for there to be a shift in communities like these?” I asked. “How can people of all backgrounds feel comfortable enough to inhabit the same spaces?”

Mrs. Reeves paused, and looked to her husband Alphonso. “It’s going to take the young people to make the change because they have the strength, the agility AND (she emphasized) they have not experienced life the same way that I did, or my ancestors.”

Young people, it seemed, lacked some level of inhibiting pain, having been born and lived farther away from a particular point in time—and yet, despite this distance, “had a responsibility to carry on the torch or history would be forgotten.”

The couple went on to speak lovingly of their grandchildren, who, upon hearing the fury that unfolded here, were shocked. They simply could not understand the mistreatment and inequality imposed upon others.

I continued to listen, captivated by their history and thought-provoking perspectives on the past, current economic affairs and their children.

I doubted Mrs. Reeves saw herself as one who carries forward the torch of progress, distinguishing herself from children, “the strong ones who will make the change.”  But it is then that I realized that change is not confined to a particular group of people, or the memories they hold, but to a shared existence across time. Who we are today is about what we do now, and what we did then. The past, the present, the future are not compartmentalized realities, but one—its parts informing and shaping the whole.

Feature Photo Credit: Wasfi Akab via photopin cc