2015 — and you

Netherlands New YearEarlier, I sat down to write a poem for you about the new year, but an hour or so into the process I realized it wasn’t going to be very good. It felt stiff, contrived, and I knew I should scrap it. I’ve never been able to create on command, and I’m always surprised by where the mysterious act of creation takes me — whether I’m writing a poem from thin air or drawing an actual tree in front of me.

From the time I was very small, people have had all kinds of advice about what and how I should write. “Write about what you know,” some have said. “Write about what you don’t know,” a few others have suggested. Upon reading a novel I wrote years back, my brother asked, “Can’t you be a little more cheerful?”

Well, no, I can’t cajole myself into being upbeat. Whatever emerges almost always appears to have its own heart and mind, while I just seem to get taken along for the ride. But, if I could will myself to write something meaningful for you about 2015, it might have some of these sentiments in it: evolve; love yourself and others; live authentically and simply; be kind (or at least stop being unkind, as a friend of mine says); be honest; surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you. Leave suffering and unrequited longing behind you, if you can.

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The awakening of conscience

remorse

On a long walk today I thought about how difficult it is to develop a genuine conscience. It comes unbidden but only after we have worked long and deeply on ourselves — perhaps with a spiritual teacher to guide us — and only after we have been made to suffer the truth of what we are and what we are not.

When I think back on my own feelings of remorse, I am reminded of one event in particular, when I behaved very badly with a college roommate — a kind, gentle, and unassuming soul if ever there was one. Sometime after we had gone our separate ways, she appeared at my door with a man she met while traveling in France; he was, I have to say, on the very other side of beyond sexy, and throughout the evening I flirted shamelessly, outrageously, with him — all the while pretending, as I must have done, that she wasn’t even in the room, my friend.

When I remember this misadventure, I am pained more than anything else by what my behavior said about how little I valued her and about how unwilling I was to see her as a woman who could be desired by such a handsome man. In fact, I remember feeling something of a shock when the two of them bade goodnight and went off to bed together.

Over the years I have thought to contact her so I could apologize, but I have been stopped by my sense that the truest apology would be more hurtful than the original trespass because I would have to acknowledge how I must have had to diminish her sufficiently in my own mind to do what I had done.

We do this all the time: diminish and dismiss others in order to justify our own vast cruelties, which is murder bit by bit.

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It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

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Two years!

Two years ago today, I wrote my first Ruminationville piece, “Underthinking is Overrated.” Typically not one to stick out difficult commitments for the long term—except, of course, the commitment of motherhood—I am amazed that I have managed to keep something going here. I can only attribute it to the quiet support of those who have been following me over these many months. Each time I sit down to write, I think of you…and of never wanting to disappoint. Here’s to another year, or two, or four!

On the ethics of vaccine challenge studies

malaria vaccine

The National Institutes of Health ran an ad in today’s express calling for volunteers to participate in a malaria research study that could run for as long as a year:

This study tests if an experimental vaccine is safe and can prevent infection following exposure to the malaria parasite. If the vaccine does not prevent infection and volunteers develop malaria symptoms, they will receive immediate treatment which is curative.

Having witnessed the brutal effects of the disease in my father, who, after serving in New Guinea during World War II, returned to the States infected and without benefit of a “curative,” I am of two minds about a study like this. Certainly I would have wanted him to be spared the suffering he endured with each redoubled bout, and certainly I would want us to find a vaccine for a disease that currently has in its grip an estimated 219 million people worldwide.

Yet, I cannot help but question the ethics of conducting a research study in which healthy people are infected with a deadly disease in order to test the efficacy of a new vaccine designed to prevent the sickness (though, yes, thanks to volunteers in such studies, I have not contracted smallpox or other dreaded illnesses). Honestly, I can’t even get past an image of myself waiting in a steely room for an Anopheles mosquito to come whining around me in search of a blood meal.

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