Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Life on a Human Scale: The Cook Islands

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Cook Islanders have the distinction of being citizens of New Zealand as well as Cook Island nationals. They will be competing in the women's slalom (canoeing) in the 2012 Olympic Games.

The videos below show what the islands look like from the air and the ground while including interesting tidbits about what make the 15 islands that form the Cook Islands unique from one another. Though one part in the beginning made me feel a little carsick, it's an interesting and informative introduction to a country with islands that sometimes have as few as one or two inhabitants (or none actually). Pretty remarkable in a time when population is often discussed in millions and even billions now. It's fun to discover places that feel more human in scale.


I loved that bit about how Palmerston Island wasn't put on world maps properly until 1969. I think it's exciting that it isn't too late to be an explorer, or the lone inhabitant of an island. It makes me feel like a little kid again, sailing around the world on a kitchen chair in a paper captain's hat. Now how did my mom make those hats again?

Gleefully pretending because I can,

Melanie

Saturday, May 26, 2012

After Life and A Majority of One: Japan

Dear Helen, Dear John,

For months I've been wondering how I was going to write about Japan to you, especially to you, John. I've written about you both and the war before, and I'm proud that your lives and your stories have helped to heal and uplift people you've never met, decades after your deaths.

Losing your navy buddies at Pearl Harbor, then shortly afterwards having your own ship attacked and declared sunk by the Japanese... seeing men you knew on fire and all that came in the years after until peace was finally declared... Your feelings about Japan make sense to me. That's why I chose the movies A Majority of One and After Life for Japan.

A Majority of One is a gentle, humane, and humorous story about an American woman and a Japanese man becoming friends after the war. Both lost loved ones in the fighting and the bombing. Both have reasons to be bitter. Both are good people. While I would have preferred a native Japanese actor to play Koichi Asano, Alec Guinness does a fine job. Rosalind Russell as Mrs. Bertha Jacoby is pure delight. This movie makes me look at my own prejudices. It also makes me want to be a more loving person.

After Life is a Japanese movie that explores the question "If heaven was remembering just one moment of your life, what memory would you choose?" I exited the theater profoundly moved. At the time I saw it, in college, I was grieving a lot: for you, for my dad, for Everett. Every important man in my life had died by the time I was twenty-one and I was reeling from it. I talked about the movie with the lady I lived with at the time and she asked me what memory I would choose. At that time, and for years afterwards, I chose the last time I was with Everett because even with all of the horrible things that were happening at the time, I was so happy that day, so hopeful, and all of you were still here.

This last month I've had plenty of time to ponder that question all over again. As I waited with, and tried to give moral support to my mom in doctors' offices, the hospital, and a surgical center this past month, a lot of memories came back. The smell of hospital soap is always the same and that smell alone opens a pandora's box of memories for me, both as loved one and patient. As I saw elderly men pushing their wives in wheelchairs something inside of me really hurt. How often does that happen, that the husband is still around? Perhaps I've been raised around and befriended by a disproportionate number of widows in my life, but having the men there late into life is not my personal experience. Sitting in the hospital I wondered, do I really want to get married? To get so close to someone only to not have them in my life? I've seen the lonely up close in the women around me who survive.

That's where you two came in and helped heal my life all over again.

I thought about you, Helen, and Guthrie, who died just after you were married when you both were so young, and how you loved and missed him all of your life, into your nineties. If you were still here, I know that you would tell me that you were not sorry that you married him.

And I thought about you, John, and my dad, and how it hurts when I miss you, but how much hollower and painful my life would be without having you in it, because even with you gone, everything we had and we shared is mine to keep. As I wondered, "Could I handle lingering sick and death once more, with a husband?" I looked around that hospital waiting room and I realized, yes, I could. I've done it. Loads of times before. It's hard. It changes you. It takes chunks of you with it. It can make you hate being awake and afraid to go to sleep, but it is harder to take love and people for granted when you know what it is like not to have them there. I've ultimately loved more unconditionally because of it. I've been willing to do uncomfortable and frightening things because of it. And that morning in the hospital, before the nurse came to take me back to my mother, I remembered that I need to make my decisions out of faith not fear. Faith means choosing love, even knowing that it is intricately tied up in hurt and loss. Because in my lonely that morning, remembering your love still had the power to comfort me.

That's what true love is: protective gear. Love doesn't prevent us from being hurt or knocked down by life, but it does prevent those blows from being fatal to us.

That moment in the hospital is my new, if-you-could-only-take-one-memory-with-you moment because in that moment I felt resilient, I felt strong, I felt loved, and I realized I could do this.

Thank you for being a part of that moment with me, by living the way that you did while you were here.

Tremendous love from the one who made you a great-grandmother and a grandfather respectively,

Melanie

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius: Finland

Dear Helen, Dear John,

My sister-in-law's mother got me interested in Finland several years ago (her mother was from there). Those conversations along with a classical music documentary I saw around that same time got me interested in Jean Sibelius, which led me to a community orchestra performance of his violin concerto in Atlanta that spoke to my soul and quickly made Jean Sibelius one of my favorite composers ever.

Every time I listen to the second movement of this piece it touches me. If my life were a movie, this movement would be my choice of soundtrack for the moments when I seek to connect with someone incredibly special to me on a deep level or strive for an elusive dream or goal just out of reach (which as you know, I do often). The tender moments of almost unbearable longing and sweetness perfectly capture why I keep trying, the comfort that mercifully steals in with what feel like my last possible efforts, and the beauty of continuing on with hope, whether I am ultimately successful in what I am working towards or not.

There are many versions of this piece I enjoy, but Christian Ferras gives his soul with it, something I hope to do one day when I am able to play it on my cello:


Finding comfort in Sibelius,

Melanie

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Creativity and Skill in Ancient Nigeria

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Federal Republic of Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa. Over half of West Africa's people reside there. The Nigerian population is made up of 250 ethnic groups who tend to use English as the common tongue with citizens of different language backgrounds. However, it isn't uncommon for many Nigerians to speak two or more Nigerian languages.

Nigerians are well-known for their art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has interesting essays on Nok Terracottas and Igbo-Ukwu metalwork. Both are known for an impressive amount of originality in the pieces, created with great skill. I am continually amazed at the remarkable things people learn how to do. I also love that people, no matter where they live, seem to have an innate yearning for beauty and creative expression. The methods and forms differ from culture to culture and person to person, but the desires that drive them come from similar places I think. I believe it is a legacy that comes through being human. (Although decorator crabs are creative and fastidious in how they like to dress themselves up... more than slightly off-topic, but too cool not to mention while I'm thinking about it. *grin*)

As a Hausa speaker of Nigeria might say:

Sai gobe (goodnight until tomorrow),

Melanie

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Country with a Momentous History and a National Dance

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Dominican Republic has quite a history. It's where Christopher Columbus originally landed. European colonization of the Americas began there. It's located on an island that is not a nation unto itself, a rather rare occurrence. Spanish spoken in the area around the capital, Santo Domingo, tends to substitute l's for r's, something that took a bit of getting used to for me with one of my students who hailed from there.

That student is my primary exposure to the Dominican Republic. He was an ideal representative of his fellow countrymen, who my CultureGrams book describes as "warm, friendly, outgoing, and gregarious. They are very curious about others and forthright in asking personal questions." That describes my friend to a t. He definitely kept my classes in Georgia vibrant and lively.

Which is perfectly in keeping with a native from a country that has an official dance- the Merengue. (How cool is that?)

Humming while dancing,

Melanie

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Braving Iraq

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Living in the Mojave Desert taught me several things. One: look up, that's often where the beauty is. Two: the animals and plants that survive in the desert may or may not be pretty and colorful in a traditionally beautiful sense, but there's a lot to admire about life forms that make use of the little they've been given and who live and grow and blossom in harsh conditions notwithstanding. Three: just because something looks everlastingly bleak and desolate doesn't make it so. Rain, when it finally did come in sheets and torrents, brought life up and out in a rich carpet of abundance. I've watched sheep graze on it in wonder. Nature has an incredible capacity for resurrection that can help awake and activate that same inner quality in us.

Braving Iraq is an excellent documentation of this. I had never heard of the Mesopotamian Marshlands before watching this. Greenery and abundance of wildlife in Iraq? Definitely not what you typically hear about in relation to Iraq. This article from 2001 about its disappearance along with the culture of the people who have lived there for centuries, is fairly typical of the kind of news we have come to expect from that part of the world. What we don't hear about with nearly the same frequency is the courage and vision and stick-to-it persistence that made this article possible. We forget or don't even realize that life has an inner drive and design to renew and perpetuate itself. Renewing Iraq's marshes is helping to bring life back to Iraq and its people. Its also proving that nature and people are built for resiliency.

It takes work, it takes courage, it takes vision. There will be setbacks. But more and more, with examples of feats like this, we can be assured that less and less falls into the category we solemnly deem "impossible".

I need that reminder sometimes... because resiliency is a renewable resource that feeds, grows, and thrives in soils marked "bleak", "desolate", and even "hopeless". I think all of us find ourselves weighed down lugging buckets of that dry, dreadful stuff for a distance. We look back, we look forward, we look up, and if we are wise, we make like the Iraqis who are using their strength, talents, skills, and time to create conditions that bring life back- not just for themselves- but for all those who will someday follow them.

Lifting buckets freshly labeled "renewal" and "resilience",

Melanie

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema: Venezuela

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Small decisions have large consequences, especially when it comes to how we view and treat ourselves and others. I was raised to be passionate about education. You know that my dad gave up a lucrative position to become a teacher. He worked hard in an area where drug use and violence were common. It wasn't easy for him, but he made a positive difference for the children he taught.

To me, the history documented in 3 Nephi 6:12 is an example of civilization at its most tragic:
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
The result of this distinction was, and continues to be, great suffering. I've seen it and I've experienced it myself. This is why I teach as a volunteer and write when I am able, and why many of my greatest heroes are those who teach and share freely with others.

José Antonio Abreu is a beautiful example of this kind of hero. He desired to share the opportunities he had as a child with others and he did. This video talks about his work and his philosophy:


And this video and this article show what that type of sharing can ultimately lead to:


Mr. Abreu and his musicians are transforming Venezuela. Concert by concert, one interaction at a time, they are awakening people, changing attitudes, sharing, and helping to transform musical education throughout the world.

Enjoying some of the best blessings that music has to offer,

Melanie

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Little Dorrit

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It takes a great deal of time to read a 800+ page novel in paragraphs here and there over time, but it can be done. I think in this case reading slowly actually helped me appreciate Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit more than I would have otherwise because it is more in keeping with the slow progression of the story over time.

Some will tell you that this book is about prisons: actual brick and mortar buildings, shackles "Society" and peer pressure place upon us, and the prisons we create for ourselves in our own heads. They would be correct. Some will tell you it is an attack on senseless and self-perpetuating bureaucracy that prevents people from getting their work done (a stance shared unknowingly by many unfamiliar with Dickens who have navigated complicated systems in an attempt to speak to a real person instead of a computer to fix a problem over the phone). Indeed, Dickens goes on at length about this. Some will tell you it is a love story depicting what true love in marriage really is. They would also be correct. What stood out for me most, however, is how so many characters dealt with unrequited love.

Love can be a messy business and Dickens does not shy away from it in this novel. There is disappointment in courtship: people not realizing they are loved by someone they could love, people who love people but who cannot love them in the way the other person wants their love, people who love people who in the end are only using them... on and on and on. There is also another type of unrequited love depicted throughout the book: love for people desperately lonely who are unwilling to open themselves up to the love that is freely offered because it brings up fears and insecurities inside themselves. In this case, often in the form of parents who are unable to fully receive the love of their children and the children who ache for deeper, more meaningful relationships with their parents. It's a pity, because it is shown in stark contrast to those who have those special relationships where family members are loved and cherished and respected, even in difficult circumstances, for accomplishments, qualities, and desires that to the outside world may appear small, insignificant- even ridiculous. Families where there is a great deal of music and sharing. Families where there is forgiveness.

I appreciated these things. I appreciated how Dickens showed that often we are the creators and pot-stirrers of our own unhappiness and bitterness regardless of what we have or do not have, have enjoyed or been given. For Dickens it doesn't have to be a decision you make once and suffer for ever afterwards. There are opportunities for redemption all along the path if we will only take them. Some of his characters in Little Dorrit do. Some of them don't. Always there's choice.

Ultimately it was not the main characters who captured my heart in this story, it was John Chivery.

John Chivery is in an almost impossible situation. He loves Amy Dorrit. She loves someone else. John's love is not a crush or an infatuation- his love is the real thing. He is willing to work and sacrifice for her, suffer the insults and thoughtlessness of her family, forgive- even if she never knows- even if he is never thanked. He allows his love for Amy to, again and again, make him a better man THROUGH his suffering. The pain for him doesn't end, but what he does with that pain is beautiful. He decides who he wants to be and how he wants to be remembered, and keeping that image in his mind, he makes the daily, sometimes hourly, decisions that turn him into that person in the end.

Here it is, my favorite part of Little Dorrit that has burned itself into my memory from the moment I first encountered it at the end of Chapter 27 in the latter part of the book:

STRANGER! RESPECT THE TOMB OF 
JOHN CHIVERY, JUNIOR, 
WHO DIED AT AN ADVANCED AGE 
NOT NECESSARY TO MENTION.
HE ENCOUNTERED HIS RIVAL IN A DISTRESSED STATE,
AND FELT INCLINED
TO HAVE IT OUT WITH HIM;
BUT, FOR THE SAKE OF THE LOVED ONE,
CONQUERED THOSE FEELINGS OF BITTERNESS,
AND BECAME MAGNANIMOUS. 

Striving to conquer my bitterness in life to become magnanimous,

Melanie

Little Dorrit, read in part for the Chunkster Challenge.

Planting the Trees of Kenya

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I am a huge believer in the power of an individual to make a difference. That is one of the reasons that I really enjoyed Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. For those unfamiliar with the story, Wangari Maathai's efforts to heal her native land of Kenya through reforestation not only helped the land that was being blown away without the green blanket of plant life to hold it in place and protect it, she also empowered a generation:
Many of the women could not read or write. They were mothers and farmers, and no one took them seriously. 
But they did not need schooling to plant trees. They did not have to wait for the government to help them. They could begin to change their own lives. 
In the author's note at the end of the book Claire A. Nivola writes:
There are now nearly one hundred thousand Green Belt Movement members throughout Kenya who, in addition to tending thousands of seedling nurseries, have been inspired to start many local projects. In one village, for example, the Green Belt Movement loans beehives to farmers in exchange for tree planting. When the farmers plant enough trees, they become owners of the hives and can sell their honey for a good price. Female goats are also loaned to farmers. If a goat bears a female kid, and if the farmer gives that kid to another movement member, the farmer becomes the permanent owner of the mother goat, in this way acquiring much-needed livestock. Money never changes hands, and yet, in this simple way, people who are poor can take the first steps toward improving their own lives.
I love the reminder that small and simple efforts by ordinary people have the power to change the world.

Increasing my love of trees,

Melanie