Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.

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And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.

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Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”

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The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

Is Writing Selfish? Or Is It Service?

When trying to live a life of service to God and to others, what room is there for egotism? Where does egotism end and our God-given gifts begin?

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I’ve been state-side for one month now, with little to occupy my time other than my own thoughts and the warm comfort of friends and family. As I sit in my little, cluttered home, replete with dog hair and worn-down magazines, I think and pray a lot, maybe too much, about my own future.

I long to continue my education, which leads most well meaning folks to ask me, “what do you want to do as a career?” My usual response is “I don’t know,” which elicits sighs and confusion, mostly from myself.

The truth is, I think I do know, but I don’t feel like admitting it. I want to write. And read. And study. As a career. That seems like something that’s impossible to exhaust…study. One man can’t ever know everything so how much more can we use this life to learn? I think now of one of my favorite little memoirs, Twenty Years A Growin,’ where the narrator gleans this advice to me:

“What good are you unless you study and travel the world while you are in it?”

I take these words to heart and often feel that there’s so much to see and do and learn that I couldn’t ever possibly choose just one path and stick to it. But maybe this is just naivete.

As I contemplate the possible paths before me, I try to see into the future and imagine what would be required of me in a certain setting. How much of myself would I be required to give? How much of myself would I have to die to? In the Christian context, walking with Christ means dying to yourself, taking up your cross (your burdens–see Pilgrim’s Progress) and following Christ.

But how much of me is what I need to die to, and how much of me is given by God to fulfill?

If God gave me a talent for writing or speaking (not saying He did, but I’m certainly no accountant), then shouldn’t I use it for Him? But writing is a very personal activity, and these days I feel like I’m spending too much time alone, in my own head, instead of being present with others.

How much of me needs to die to be filled up instead with Christ?

It’s easy to discern external sins: avarice, greed, addiction, egotism, things that we all struggle with. Sometimes our failings manifest themselves externally in our relationships with others, our addictions to material things, or something else. But sometimes they sink deep inside our skin, and we don’t realize they are there until we try to break ourselves free and instead feel chained to our own sloth, our own internal egotism that sits quietly beneath our breath.

Is this my cross?

If it is, how can I follow Jesus on a path that would confront me with more of the same…the long, solitary afternoons, alone with my books and my thoughts? Our thoughts can sometimes betray us.

Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. I’m not a hermit…not yet, anyway, and I do love the great outdoors. It’s just that sometimes I love my pajamas more.

Is writing an inherently selfish endeavor? A good writer writes with an audience in mind, with a story to tell, with an argument to posit. Sometimes I just write because I can’t sit still unless I do. Oh, the novelty.

I wonder what it would be like to follow a path of academia, of writing and thinking and listening and learning and trying to convince others I’m right when I secretly know I’m not. Or what if I know I am? Maybe that’s even worse. Or maybe academia, like any other path, is not about being right or wrong but about growing and discovering and being present with others as you walk the road together. Is that naivete again?

What do you think, sage bloggers or writers? How do you reconcile your time in your head with your time serving others? Is writing selfish, or is it a form of service?

Cookery

I went through a phase my junior year of high school where I only watched Food Network and that is how I learned to cook. Of course, when I got to college, I abandoned my culinary knowledge for easy mac and beer but still looked forward to those long holiday breaks where I could get back in the kitchen and get creative.
Cooking has always been unobtrusive therapy for me. I love escaping into the quiet, bright openness of the room, usually with Pandora radio or WEVL playing in the background. If it’s the morning, I have a mug of hot coffee or tea in my hand as I stir. In the evening, wine, if I’m lucky. I like to lay all the ingredients out on the counter tops so they don’t get lonely as I transport them one by one to their bath of steam or butter or olive oil, sizzling all the way. There is something blissfully monotonous in the creation of a recipe, something warm and welcoming that I can get lost in, like the continual soft needing of a ball of dough, or the beating of egg yolks in sugar into that amazing lemon yellow color. And it always helps to have a house full of recipe testers at my disposal. I read cookbooks like novels, but much prefer to leave them on the shelf (or my bedside table) when I enter my workspace, relying on intuition, acquired knowledge, random impulses, and a slightly askew sense of creativity to be my guides.

However: my friend recently married (and, side note, gave birth to the cutest kid in the universe, whom I get to play with) and received this book as one of her wedding gifts (to which I remarked, why is it only married couples who get awesome household gifts? to which her husband responded “throw a house warming party” to which I responded “…Oh…”) and since she put it in my hands I have not put it down (and dreamt of beef stew last night).

I have been on the hunt for a “cookbook bible” lately and I think I’ve found my grail. This book, created by self taught home cook Mark Bittman, has two thousand (count them) recipes and weighs more than any textbook I’ve ever encountered. He has sections for every single meat, and explains things that all Americans really should know, like how Organic is the ONLY label that has any rules for regulations of meat production and treatment and diet of the animals (as an aside, Kosher, I learned, means much cleaner, unprocessed meat that is typically cured and fresh). Also, grass-fed cows are becoming increasingly rare, and none of what factory farms feed their cows (soy, corn, grain) is in a cow’s natural diet. Bleh.

Anyway, all this to say that I know exactly how I will be spending my spare time in the coming weeks. Fall is slowly encroaching on us, the perfect time for homemade breads and slow-cooked stews. Bittman even includes a section on how to make your own cheeses and yogurts, which I am bursting with excitement to try. I’ve never been a crafty person, or someone who can make pottery or paint (though I’ve always wished I could), but I believe that cooking can be as equally as artistic an endeavour, from the the stress-relieving, screw-the-world-I’m-in-my-zone process to the final palatable product. I don’t actually own this book yet (catch the sutble hint, family? Kidding.), but I plan to absorb as much as humanly possible in the next five days, before I venture home to Tennessee (where, I will, most likely, buy this book and then sleep with it under my pillow).

Espresso Life Lessons

It is a gray and drizzly morning in the land of the North, and it is only fitting that this is the day I leave Minneapolis. The cool of temperature in the misty mornings became a sort of security blanket for me as I walked to work each morning; the sun filled me with warmth and excitement, but the soft breeze reminded me to not get overly agitated by life. At least, it tried.


I came here with a job to do. As specific as that job was, the title, I quickly learned, meant any number of duties. For me, that included: stage managing, assistant directing, light board “operating” (and I use that term loosely), movement coach, yoga teacher, kid wrangler, kid entertainer, improv leader (another term I use loosely), tap instructor, motivational speaker, acting coach, disciplinarian, usher, furniture mover, morning greeter, attendance monitor, team leader, and human enthusiast, in the broadest sense of the term. 


I learned quite a lot, and more about myself than I expected or was prepared for. I learned invaluable information about the heart and lungs and nervous system of a large non-profit theatre company. I learned to always expect more from children, but to not be disappointed or thrown off if they cannot give it to you. I also gained light years of patience, and a hell of a lot more respect for my mother, who taught grade school art for longer than I have been on this planet. 


I met people, artistically minded, creative, fully functional intellectuals, who didn’t follow the societal “norm” of (and please, don’t ask me how it got to be this way, because I still don’t know) high school –> college –> 9 to 5. And none of them are starving. 
I think my favorite interaction in the Twin Cities has got to be my serendipitous encounter with someone we’ll call Mr. Coffee Shop Man, one of those non-starving happy creative souls. It went like this:


Mr. CSM: So what are you studying? (in reference to my transfer student information packet’s list of college majors)
Me (with a chortle): That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Mr. CSM (with a shrug very similar to the irritated body language that had been mine of late, frustrated with the “system”): I went from a major in Astro-Physics to a major in [something else I can’t remember, but obviously not important] and finally landed on English major with elementary education and dance minors.
Me: WOW. And what did you do with that?
Mr. CSM: I’ve done lots of things. Massage therapist, preschool teacher, dance instructor, corporate worker. And then I went to grad school for Korean studies, just for shits and giggles.
Me: So what do you do NOW? (unable to fathom the type of a career a dancing Korean history nerd can hold down and afford six dollar coffees and a MacBook Pro)
Mr. CSM: I create Apps.


Oooooooohhh!


He continued, with another, less hostile shrug: You have to do what makes you happy, what interests you. Otherwise it’s really hard to get up in the morning.


DUH!!


On a random aside, I did take more than two pictures this month. I will post what I have soon, because pictures really do make blogs far more interesting. I am also looking forward to two more trips in the next month: a road trip south down Route 78 and a plane trip, this time to good ‘ole New England. I will continue to blog and see what happens!