Wanting memories to teach me…

Son las historias que permiten, convertir lo pasado en presente y lo distante en cercano, lo que está lejano en algo próximo, posible, visible.

-Eduardo Galeano

They say that memories are more easily retained if you don’t move around a whole lot. I don’t remember where I read this, but it makes sense. As I think back on my childhood, I don’t think I can remember anything before the age of four. I would have to double check with my father, but I think by this age we had moved to Argentina and were living in the northernmost province there—Formosa. Below, I have written a brief and rough poem about the memories that I have from this time. Some things are a bit anachronistic, but so is my memory of chronological occurrences, so that’s fine—creative license inserted et c’est tout bon !

It’s interesting to note, as well, that I recently posted on Facebook that I was trying to take life a little less seriously. As I try to make this happen I feel like I am transported back to a time period as a child that I didn’t have anything to worry about because I had my parents that were protecting me and taking care of me. Furthermore, since both my parents celebrated birthdays this month, this poem is dedicated to them. My dad’s calm and collected demeanor who likes to draw people in by telling stories, alongside my mom’s curious and creative knack for everything homemade, home-grown, and made from scratch is what I admire the most about these two. Felicidades a los dos por un año más de vida. ¡Los quiero mucho!

First memories

A bucket my dad has piled full of mangoes from the backyard tree

sits next to us as the lightning bugs start blinking faintly.

Little by little the mosquitos start buzzing around the uncovered parts of our

bodies, scantily protected by summer outfits.

The day becomes night.

Each of us,

with mangoes in hand,

suck the fruit with gusto until our sticky hands nearly make the slippery seeds

resembling “Bart Simpson’s head” slip from our grasp.

Dad doesn’t say much but when he does I feel like his words make perfect sense.

We sit out on the yard in dumpster dove lounge chairs,

newly re-upholstered with polyester fabric from La Cooperativa.

My dad turns his head in shame when my mother trash picks.

“Your mother is crazy,” he says shaking his head.

Later, I realize that, “My mother is ingenious!”

Deep down, I know he feels the same.

He sits in the chair, doesn’t he?

We play in the sandbox daily, but later the play spot is banned.

“You can’t play there until we clean it up!” My dad insists.

We realize the ringworms circling the pale undersides of our feet and the

calloused palms of our hands are the result of all the stray cats in the

neighborhood using our favorite play area as their litter box.

Antifungals, covering the pink rings every night before bed, should work, but we

are forbidden from entering the sandbox until the problem is fixed.

As an adult, I tend to be a serious person, but remembering the simple things in life

helps me to stay grounded:

Mangoes for dinner,

trash picking for furniture,

and cleaning the sandbox in order to play.


Finally, in relation to the title above, a song from a group I deeply admire:

Un Grande nos inspira

Last week, a man of intrepid convictions, ingenuous words, and an indissoluble understanding of one of the most diverse parts of the world passed away and now I want to take a moment to remember him. I listened to a short interview by Galeano the other day and I was deeply moved (anyone out there that knows Portuguese or Spanish should definitely watch this). I had never really listened to him speak. In fact, I must admit that one time I tried to read Las venas abiertas de América Latina in the not so distant past and I got about half-way through because I became depressed, helpless, and frankly, a little bored because of the dense nature and textbook-like narration of the book.

Nevertheless, I think that I will give the book another try, especially since I can download Galeano’s books on this website so I have access—the first step in knowledge formation.

As my time in Guadeloupe is nearing a close, I can’t help starting to think about my experience as a whole, even though it’s not quite over yet. In Galeano’s interview, he related that in order to really understand something you have to look at things from below because from above or as an outsider you won’t understand anything: “Si uno mira las cosas desde hace arriba o desde afuera no entiende nada.” I would agree, in fact, I think we all have to start from below to then eventually, if we are lucky, get at things from within, the best place to understand things as they truly are.

In Guadeloupe I have had the privilege of living with a Guadeloupian woman who has been nothing but welcoming and patient as she has opened up her home, her family, her culture, her language, and her heart to me. I feel like she is the reason that I know Guadeloupe as more of an insider than I ever could have otherwise.

Even though I have my foot inside the insider’s camp, it doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly. There are still many differences of culture; language is most obviously still a barrier since I am still learning French; and in general, things are just plain different because it’s hard to be something or even just getting used to something that is foreign to you.

Today I became slightly frustrated with myself and with my students. It is interesting because one of the things that makes me feel alive, makes me feel happy, makes me feel like I have purpose, is when people really understand me (for more on this you can see my last post on soul mates). This may come from the way that I like to approach the world. I like to be able to be part of cultures, languages, and people, that I can truly understand, at least on some level. Part of my challenge to myself in most of what I do is to be able to really understand people so that I can offer myself to them in the best way possible. That may sound a little weird to some people, but I bet social workers, teachers, and people interested in service to others out there will understand where I am coming from.

Getting to learn new things is not always reciprocal, however. Just because you have the desire to know someone else, learn about another culture, speak a new language, etc., doesn’t mean that the other people around you have the same idea or intention. I think one of my greatest challenges to myself and others is to make this a reciprocal relationship, in this way we can learn more about each other and get out of ourselves in order to grow.

In the meantime, I realize that it really irritates me when I try to teach other people aspects of my language, my culture, where I come from, and they could care less. They would rather listen to the most recent rap trap song, even though they don’t know what the lyrics say. Their ticket to knowledge is right at their fingertips, but the motivation isn’t there. Same goes for some teachers that I have been working with. They are not open to learning new things, they are stuck in how things have always been and they don’t trust in change.

Trying to motivate others to learn from me and alongside me was a great struggle (both good and bad) of mine while working with homeless youth in SF for four years right after college. My first year I was just trying to take everything in. It was more of a learning experience for me than it was a service to others or a way to work for social justice. During years following, however, I learned about motivation and how it needed to be invoked, introduced, and mined in the youth themselves in order for them to be able to find the inner motivation to do something for themselves. Called Motivational Interviewing, or MI, I have used these techniques in great length as I teach as well. The only problem is that currently, my teaching isn’t based on forming relationships, it is based on some fake illusion that students need to learn something in order to gain a score, in order to get a passing grade, in order to pass their BAC, in order to do the next thing in life. Again, we brush up against the problem with traditional education and the fact that you can only get so far in such an environment. Additionally, with the program that I am presently working with there simply is not enough time to form relationships with teachers or students. I work with well over 200 students (I haven’t really counted but it’s 14 different classes with between 10 and 25 students per class) and ten teachers and the time I have with each simply does not allow me to form many connections.

Recalling my own experiences as a middle-schooler and high-schooler I was able to learn things that have stayed with me until now, only when I was able to use all my five senses and when I was given the opportunity to establish, foster, and maintain relationships with others.

And so, I hope that in my next job and wherever life takes me next I am able to have these meaningful relationships in order to make meaning out of daily exchanges. In this way things are not rote, based on false assumptions, fake, and whatever else might impede us in the path of creating meaningful connections with others.

On an upside, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the interview:

El mundo no está hecho de átomos, el mundo está hecho de historias. Yo creo que sí, que el mundo debe estar hecho de historias porque son las historias, las historias que uno cuenta, que uno escucha, que uno recrea, que uno multiplica, son las que permiten convertir el pasado en el presente y las que permiten convertir lo distante en cercano. Lo que está lejano en algo próximo y posible, visible.

Let’s keep on telling our stories so that we can become closer as a result.

Nayra, me, and Francelise on one of our first hikes in Guadeloupe.
Nayra, me, and Francelise on one of our first hikes in Guadeloupe.

Rootlessness

The other day my brother sent me a YouTube video of a TED talk from a friend of his from college. His friend talked about his experience as a Third Culture Kid and the fact that later in life he had experienced a series of rootlessness and restless years, moving from place to place without having the real ability to connect to a community or to people in an intimate and intentional way. I appreciated his talk, but I disagree with the fact that my own moving from place to place and wanderlust tendencies hinder my ability to connect to people in a meaningful way, and even, I would argue to lay down roots. If you know me at all you know that I am both intense and demanding (both inwardly and outwardly). I am also someone with a great longing for intimacy and connection in order to form what I think of as a meaningful relationship.

I admit that these predispositions stem from the fact that I am an outgoing introvert (I hate these lists, but this one sums up my tendencies pretty well), or an extroverted introvert, but they also are rooted in the fact that my childhood, and now adulthood, has had many rootless qualities and I believe I have honed these different personality traits as a defense mechanism for my own sanity. I am a person who likes to bridge people, feelings, cultures, languages, etc., together. These bridges, are not root systems, but they provide a way for me to develop serious, intimate, and profound relationships with people in a very short period of time.

Today I thought about the TED talk mentioned above, I thought about all the different soul mates I have had the privilege of knowing and continuing to know. I define a soul mate as either someone who has very similar views and philosophy as me or someone that completely understands me even if we are very, very different. Both of these qualities can be present, but either one or the other if present in someone I know, I think can characterize a very good friend. I have encountered and connected with quite a few soul mates in my life due to my penchant for travel (you know who you are) and remembering all these people today made me feel a little sad. I wanted to write a little poem—an ode—for all those wonderful souls in my life that have been my root system as I seem to be always lacking that which keeps people in one place. You are my foundation, you give me direction, you give me the strength to grow bigger and stronger. I love you all!

Here in Guadeloupe, I have had the pleasure of living with such a soul and the experience has been marvelous, albeit short and soon coming to a close. Additionally, I have had the privilege of connecting with some very interesting people, one of which, has given me some balance, as we are probably on quite opposite ends of the spectrum in numerous characteristics. Nayra, hablo de vos, ¡gracias por la perspectiva y los lindos momentos que hemos pasado juntas hasta ahora!

That poem has not yet been written, but I wanted to just give you all a shout-out so that you know how much I value you! Much love!DSCN2125

Poetry writing as a remedy for living in the PRESENT

My first memory of writing a poem (that was really mine and not mimicking some Valentine’s Day love gibberish or imitating a poem that I liked and I just changed a few words) was in 6th grade when I wrote a poem about baseball, or maybe it was softball. A rather stupid poem about rounding the bases (not because of a home-run, but I think it talked about making it home, one base at a time). I say stupid because it didn’t really have much depth, or probably any aspects that would define it as a poem with substance (i.e. alliteration, figurative language, metaphors, form, etc.) It was, to say, a very elementary poem both literally and figuratively. Nonetheless, the principal liked the poem, (I don’t know how he got a hold of it) and asked me to read it during the morning announcements.

I was very excited that the principal liked my poem and I was overjoyed, albeit hella nervous, that he wanted me to read it on air. I stepped up to the challenge and I read my poem to the entire school. In the end, I have to say it was a good experience. I am one of those people who are very sensitive. I don’t really like others critiquing me, mostly because I am the one that is constantly criticizing myself and when someone says something to me that I could change or do better I am annoyed at myself that I didn’t think of this particular advice sooner and already incorporate it in my life.

Writing is complicated because you have to put yourself out there and take anything that people will say about it–the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is why I like poetry. People can critique you, but poetry is not the same as other forms of writing because it always evokes some kind of emotion and it’s harder to poke holes into raw emotion. That said, I don’t really share much of my poetry because it is mostly very raw–in terms of emotion, but also in terms of how much I edit it, which is to say, I don’t. It would probably be good for me to have someone edit my poems one of these days. All the same, I would like to share a short poem I wrote just now about homesickness. It doesn’t really have a title yet and it isn’t really finished but all the same, here goes:

When I get homesick I stream NPR

brew some tea

o me cebo unos mates.

I nibble something sweet and I imagine

eating my mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

adapted from the Mennonite, More with Less Cookbook.

2 cups of sugar, not one.

(Those Mennonites don’t know how to enjoy lo más dulce de la vida.)

The sounds of familiar reporters and news anchors

are muddled with the chirping of birds

mating. Encouraging Spring.

I realize my time is once again coming

to a close. The next journey is always on my mind and I

get anxious, stressed, irritated. Why

do I need to move so often? Why not

Stay.

The truth is I don’t get homesick. It’s just nostalgia that is always following me

like the stray dog in my neighborhood that doesn’t seem to have a home, but

misses his owner.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Monday I said “goodbye” to my sister at the airport. She and my parents came to visit me for les vacances de Carnaval. Lo pasamos re bien, creo. It was really interesting because it really affected me when I said “bye” to Hannah. I got really emotional and even cried, which I never do when despidiéndome de la gente. Then I started thinking about it and I talked to Francelise when I got home. She noticed right away that my voice was wavering and that I had a hard time speaking without tearing up. She gave me a hug and suggested that it may be harder because I am in a different country. It’s true, this is the first time my family has visited me in a foreign place, I thought. At the same time, when I was telling Francelise this, she was telling me how difficult it was for her when Maé went off to college. Francelise only has one child and this August she went away to university in Lille, in northern France. Francelise concluded that it was good luck that we had found each other, that way I can have an authentic experience in Guadeloupe and at the same time I could keep her company. That made me feel better.

Even now, as I start thinking about my next move (no idea where that will be yet), I can’t help but think how nice it would be to pick a place and just call it home, but that has been an issue for me for a while. It’s hard to just stay in one place when there is a whole world out there to get to know. I feel drawn to different places, but at the same time I feel the comforts of the many places I have called “home,” calling me back. It’s difficult to know whether or not I should keep blazing new trails or if I should go back to something familiar, something comfortable, something less unknown.

This week I was swimming my regular route (see previous post to learn more about that) and I decided I wanted to go further than what I normally swim. I noticed that as I swam just past the point where I typically turn around, the current shifted, the water grew darker, and the fish grew more numerous. It was remarkable. Just a few meters away from where I normally swim was a completely new experience. As I kept swimming further things started becoming less fascinating and they became “normal” again, but I was really captivated by how this scenario translates naturally in my own life at the moment. Sometimes a new world lies just around the corner of where we are now and we haven’t even discovered it. This makes my wanderlust spirit want to go a little further and a little further each opportunity I get. It definitely isn’t easy, but my need for discovery makes me want to keep moving.

It certainly comes with a cost. Like saying “goodbye” to my sister ‘til who knows when, when I started my swim back to shore I realized that I was a bit sea-sick. This never happens to me either. I’m sure I can attribute the sickness to being overly excited about swimming again after two weeks of only exercising on land, and the fact that I went farther than normal, and that I had to battle two different currents. But nonetheless, I didn’t feel good, and the whole way back I was trying to keep my mind off the nausea and on the wonderful act of swimming in a sea full of beautiful fish and clear waters. I staggered out of the water and went to where my friend was waiting for me on a nearby picnic table. I laid supine with a towel over my face until I felt normal again.

Le saute d'eau de Matouba
Le saute d’eau de Matouba
 Pointe des Châteaux
Pointe des Châteaux
lounging at La plage de La Perle
lounging at La plage de La Perle
Les Saintes
Les Saintes
Le saute d'eau de Matouba
Le saute d’eau de Matouba

Going it alone

La plage de Rivière Sens

Almost since I got to Guadeloupe I have been thinking about the theme of “aloneness” which I know is not a word, but in this case I would like to use a made up word and not a noun like loneliness or solitariness or isolation, or any number of other words that deal with being alone that have negative associations. Aloneness, has been a problem for me, because I lack the confidence to make things happen individually. I could use many examples to illustrate this, but since I’m on an island, I’ll use the metaphor of swimming in the deep.

The woman I live with, her name is Francelise, goes swimming every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. I started going with her to the beach every time my schedule allows, which has become quite a fulfilling routine. I had never really swam (for exercise) in open water before, and it turns out that it is quite relaxing, freeing, and really enjoyable. The first day I swam, I swam with a group of people; it was Francelise, her coach (tall, skinny, exercise-addict, who is always talking with an English accent in French just to be funny), and a few other assistants. The coach (G.P. which is pronounced “GEE pay”), suggested we swim to “La Barre,” a random metal bar that juts out from the ocean about twenty meters from the shore. It looked kind of far away to me, but I was down for whatever. We stopped one time before getting there to catch our breaths and make sure the whole group had not drowned or given up. When we reached the bar I looked back at the beach and felt a great since of accomplishment.

Ever since I have progressively gotten more bold in the water. After this first pilgrimage to the bar I went along with another friend. This was a bit scary because I drifted out to very deep water, I saw a giant sea turtle, and then I couldn’t locate the friend that I was swimming with. I swear if anyone was looking on during this particular swim they would have thought I had Turrets because every time I touched a piece of seaweed or I saw a fish that might have been a little bit bigger than I had expected I jumped or twitched or did an-about turn that startled me even more. I got to the bar with heart pounding and really hoping that no sharks roamed in this part of the ocean. En fin, the water world was foreign to me and I was lost at sea (figuratively and literally).

Since these first trips to the bar, a distance that is not that far, mind you. It’s only about 2,5 km or so, I have become more comfortable with the water world around me. The first couple times I went to the bar alone I wore my flippers. “For protection!” I told Francelise whimsically. “Next time I will go without flippers, but this time I need to feel safe. In case of attack or something weird,” I added. My training wheel tactic worked and now I can go to La Barre sans problème. On the way, instead of jumping at every little foreign object I can enjoy the fish swimming alongside me, feeding at the bottom of the ocean, and I can feel the water on my skin as I swish through it with precision and purpose. I am by no means an expert, I still ask Francelise’s coach about the currents, different strokes, the usefulness and the dependency on flippers, etc. It’s always a learning process, but I have become comfortable with the activity and environment and no longer feel so intimidated.

I suspect this is how I approach most new challenges and new things in my life. I jump right in, thinking that there is an adventure ahead and I would love to participate—to stretch my limits, to realize the scope of the possibilities presented to me, but then there is a period of adaptation that is scary and that is quite unnerving. Getting past this point is key in continuing the path to realization. I am currently on this challenging path in other areas of my life, and it’s hard to keep a goal in mind when it seems so far away. Additionally, I feel as though this period of adaptation is ridiculously long for me and I become frustrated with myself for being cowardly and too precocious. This is an area that I need to work on, so if anyone has tips on being more confident in areas where you are not an expert, send them my way!

Going back to the word aloneness. I think that many great things we do in our life are in the company of others, but the older I get the more I realize that the things we do for ourselves, all by our lonesome, are the ways in which we actually integrate what we have learned and make it actually happen. In this way, I want to use another word to describe “going it alone”: oneness. Oneness is a word with positive connotations that can mean harmony, unity, integrity, wholeness, etc, etc. A word that I always hear in my yoga classes and have come to really appreciate, because oneness also implies a link to solidarity (something that I have valued more than oneness, maybe because of my Mennonite upbringings, but we’ll save that for another post). As I embark on the next periods of going it alone I want to keep in mind the positive way in which we can become one with our surroundings by getting out of our comfort zones (albeit in a zone of proximal development) in order to then, eventually, tackle things on our own to become more comfortable, confident, and courageous with what was before an absolute unknown.

The sounds of “home”

Last weekend I watched and later led a discussion about the film Invictus with some students and parents of the international section of the middle school here in Saint Claude, where I live. The international section is normally composed of students that have a higher level of English than other students. It is exciting to work with this level because you can practice critical thinking and analyzing skills, whereas with other groups these opportunities are few and far between and I have to exercise great restraint when planning lessons. With students that are just beginning their studies or whose English is limited I need to plan precise vocabulary lists and have a very focused objective in mind. Cosa que me re cuesta, but it’s good to have this kind of focus because I think it translates into real life as well.

It so happens that, as I was watching the film, I found that I was really moved by it, even though I had already seen it before, and even though I don’t like to give out too many accolades for films, directors, and actors who are already well-known (i.e. Invictus is a major production, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon). Nevertheless, I was moved by the music, of Nelson’s Mandela’s optimism; of his vision for peace through forgiveness and compassion of the people that had so violently oppressed his country and him personally, since he was incarcerated for nearly three decades.

In particular, I really enjoyed the music because it made me feel at home. It gave me goose bumps all over and made the hair on my arms stand up, even in this hot, dry climate I currently live in. African music in general makes me sentimental. Some of the songs on the movie soundtrack reminded me of the tapes my parents sometimes used to play when we were kids, and then later as an adolescent and as an adult I played them, always when I was feeling nostalgic and I wanted to remember things that were no longer. One tape in particular, with songs of Freedom from South Africa came to mind when watching the film today with the students. You can feel the spirit and the heart of the people shining through the words and rhythms that depict their struggles and their desire for freedom. The songs have the clicking characteristic of Bantu languages, a cappella rhythms, themes of non-violence, and lyrics that describe a firm faith in God. This melange brought me back to what times might have felt like when I was just a baby.

For the most part, being born in an African country as little known as Botswana and having an incomprehensible, at least in English lexical terms, middle name, normally just gets you some “really?’s” and some “what?’s”, but for me, this connection to Africa is something that is in the depths of my being and it’s really hard for me to understand it personally, let alone try to communicate it to others.

What might help to best describe the feeling was really made more concrete to me one day this past summer (Californian summer, in case anyone is ever confused to my whereabouts), when I was talking to a friend of mine about these very facts of my life and she was excited to tell me about a hypothesis she had and really wanted to eventually test out. I was once a scholar in some capacity and I know the risks of letting others know about your big ideas for fear that someone will steal your ingenious concept and you will not get the credit you deserve. However, I am going to rely on the fact that no one really reads this blog and that if they do and they like the idea, they will contact me and we can work something out.

En todo caso, her hypothesis was that the diets that expectant mothers’ eat are closely intertwined with what your palate later has a taste for, enjoys, and craves. In short, your tastes in food now can always be traced back to what you ate in the womb, or what your mother consumed during the nine months of her pregnancy. I told my friend, who had studied genetics in undergrad, that she had a fascinating idea that she should definitely test out in some way. I’m going to generalize her concept to our sense of hearing. I’m curious to know if there is a connection to the sounds that we like now and the sounds that were a part of our daily lives inside the womb. Who knows? Maybe this is the case.

As I am now in Guadeloupe, a country that has it’s roots in Africa as well, I’ve found myself really touched by many of the different sounds I have encountered here. Specifically, this weekend I had the opportunity to attend a concert of a Haitian Vodou singer and dancer. His stage presence was remarkable. He sang with a voice that used the depths of his diaphragm to articulate his message in such a way that you had to listen, you wanted to listen, you were captivated (almost put into a trance), and you wanted more. Even though most of the lyrics he sang were in Haitian Creole, I was still moved by the words that surely depicted the Haitian’s own struggle of slavery and eventual freedom and independence.

I wish I had the gift of music to share, but I really don’t. In fact, it’s hard to know what gift I can give the people around me that will really stir up their feelings like music does. Ever since Martin Luther King Jr. Day I have been focusing most of my lessons on African American history and have been reading a lot about the Civil Rights Movement in order to refresh my own memory. Right now, in my room I have a quote of MLK Jr. up on my white board that says,

The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

I put that quote up because I feel that having a challenge in front of us is a way of always moving forward. I have a yearning to stand in the midst of challenge and I want my voice to be heard. My voice may not be a moving rendition of “Freedom is Coming” but at the very least I can help to teach the history of the struggle of the many peoples in this world as well as the message of peace and a need to love more. Right now, focusing on my love of music as a way to promote what I feel, inwardly and outwardly has been very liberating. Specifically, my challenge to myself is to love more, my challenge to you all is to love more, in the best ways we know how, but also in new and different ways in which we may not have loved before.

Later, I will write more about the different music experiences that I have experienced here, but for now, what kind of music moves you? And, what kinds of music make you feel at home?

Multi-tasking and Globe-trotting: One and the same?

Today I read a couple of different articles and was troubled by the sense of not making much of myself. I became worried that my teaching skills are, in deed, lacking, that I’m not progressing as much as I should with my French, and that I have no idea what the hell I am doing next in my life (mostly the latter deals with career aspirations but also with where in the world I will land as well). After reading one article in particular, maybe I can attribute some of this negative energy to technology. Let me see if I can successfully put technology on trial, but first, I want to talk about my current predicament.

I’ve recently been thinking about how much I move around and how much I change employment and I have been thinking during the last several weeks a lot about what I’m going to do after my time here in Guadeloupe. This notion of decision-making, followed by recurrent change, and subsequent adjustment time has been really wearing on me. Maybe I just need to relax a little and enjoy the sunshine (which is something I should do, regardless). It turns out, however, that I think that this constant need for changing environments, jobs, cultures, languages, might be somewhat related to a problem that the world is facing now with technology and the way that we constantly multi-task. This is not news to anyone, let alone me, but that does not change the fact that I am a victim. Let me explain a bit about what I am trying to say.

First of all, an article I read today that a friend forwarded me that talks about the fact that modern technology, like the internet and social media forums, has a profound effect on our ability to concentrate. In fact, our constant need to check different sources like our email, FB, Twitter, and Instagram is related to a real addiction:

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.

Yes, I concur. Even just reading this article I found myself switching from texting friends, answering a few emails, and checking Facebook, and WhatsApp because notifications had popped up and I knew that I needed to respond. Multi-tasking is addicting because every time I see that I have a new communication from someone, it feels good. At first I thought that this just meant that I was becoming more social, more connected with people, more connected with the world in general. But really, I find that this is not the case at all. As it turns out, it’s even been difficult to stay concentrated on something that really gives me a lot of pleasure, like yoga or swimming, because I’m constantly thinking about the next lesson plan that I need to create or the next email that I need to write or the next Instagram picture I’m going to post. No good.

What’s more, Glenn Wilson, one of the professors who has researched the concept called info-mania, has said that even marijuana has a lesser effect on our concentration and memory loss than muti-tasking does:

[Glenn Wilson’s] research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot‑smoking.

Let me compare this addiction of info-mania with what I am experiencing right now with my struggle for the future. If anyone knows me at this point in my life, or at any point, really, they will know that I have been struggling with being present. In my defense, I’ve found it really difficult to be present when I am constantly on the move and always looking at what I should be doing next, since for the last several years my projects have been rather short-lived (i.e. first my Master’s program which was always burdened by the pressure of finding employment and a way to pay my way through grad school; second, my too-short yet sweet sojourn in Argentina followed by my return to the Bay for yet another short period of time; and finally, here in Guadeloupe, a stay that will last only until the end of April with the possibility of remaining until my visa expires in June). En fin, I think my life is a bit riddled with multi-tasking that has crossed over from the realm of technology to that of real life.

So, my solution? Well, first of all I’m going to ease my way out of this addiction by smoking more cannabis and using less technology. I’ll let you know how that goes! In the meantime, however, one thing at a time. Something else to add to my list of New Year’s resolutions.

Thoughts from my mini vacation in Les Saintes (hella old news but relevant all the same)

Les SaintesDuring the two weeks of vacation we had for Touissant I was able to do some writing and reading as well as visiting places in Guadeloupe. This post is coming very late because Touissant was about two months ago, but better late than never. I just finished reading La Náusea by Sartre and loved it! At the same time, I was really disappointed that I hadn’t read something like this earlier! I must say that I don’t think I have taken a single philosophy class and probably the closest class that I’ve taken that even resembles this discipline was Post-Modern Literature (while studying abroad in Ecuador). To tell you the truth, I have no idea what the hell I learned in that course aside from stumbling through some articles by Foucault (Hilary, maybe you can remind me what else we did?)

En fin, while reading the book, (in Spanish, because a Spanish friend from here loaned it to me and my French is most definitely not at the French-novel level yet) I began to realize that there were certain parts of existentialism that were super interesting and that I had thought of before but never really had the words or examples that Sartre was unveiling in this book, which also happens to be his first novel and an epistolary account. I was also struck by the fact that the main character is a 30-year old, single, guy, who has just returned from traveling the world. While trying to write a historical novel, the protagonist realizes the absurdity and the emptiness of life.

I feel like I was kind of in the protagonist’s shoes a few months back, and maybe to some extent, now, as I grapple with, for the lack of a better phrase, the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of my life at this point in time. As Sartre describes the basic tenants of existentialism and the will of humanity to make choices freely, independent of the structures of religion and society I began thinking of the underpinnings of this kind of thinking. As he explains that existence precedes essence I found that, in principle, this made a lot of sense. We create experiences for ourselves that, subsequently, we are able to find the value or essence of what we have done. As he writes, he creates for himself, an experiment in living, of sorts. I am also doing the same here in Guadeloupe. He describes that an action, or what we decide to do with our life is an individual responsibility and it is independent of the rules and other humans around us. By simply committing to an action we are making a decision and leading a life of meaning and authenticity and, in turn, accepting responsibility for our actions.

I had a small debate about something related to La Náusea this past week while at Les Saintes, a small island about 30 minutes away from Basse-Terre by boat. During the first week of vacation for Touissant, or All Saints Day, I spent some time with a family that has two girls—Amethyst and Jade, age three and the twelve respectively. My only real job was to speak English to them, and with the rest of the family I could speak French.

Les Soeurs
Les Soeurs
La plage de Pompierre
La plage de Pompierre

Amethyst and Jade’s grandfather, an avid swimmer, jogger, and historian (he used to be a swim coach and gets up every day and runs or swims for 2 hours or 1 hour respectively), sang praises about Michael Phelps and how great of an athlete he is. I agreed with him and said he was a really good swimmer, very true.

“It takes mental preparedness, grit, and stamina to be an athlete like that,” he said, pointing to his temple. “That’s the most important part of being an athlete,” he ended, smiling rather seriously.

I tried to explain to him that I thought the same but I was under the strong impression that such great athletes needed the monetary backing and a vast amount of resources in order to be such world-renowned figures. I reminded Gilbert (a name that always reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, anyone else with me on that?) that a poor child in the U.S. who didn’t have the means of going to swim-practice every day or even have access to a pool in which to swim, would not have the same outcomes as Mr. Phelps. If I have learned anything in this short life of mine is that resources make all the difference. A resource is a hard term to define because it can involve a person who shows you the ropes or money that helps you realize something. At the heart of the matter however, is that resources to anything necessarily implies privilege–we can talk more about that later : ) I can have all the responsibility and determinism in the world, but if I have no material wealth or social capital to back it up, many of my dreams and aspirations will not come true, no matter how long I work at something.

All this to say that for me, the structures that surround us, at least those of the human race who are less privileged, are more powerful, at times, than our personal mindsets, decisions, or actions. So, returning to the idea of existentialism, it seems as though, in an ideal world, this philosophy would work pretty will. We all have certain decisions to make and we can take actions in order to propel our life forward. At the same time, being that the world is not perfect, and some people are at a disadvantage, it seems as though many of our decisions and actions are based on our life circumstances and our place in a classist, capitalist, racist society, which many times has already predefined our destiny without our knowing it. If I am a poor African American child growing up in East Oakland, can I really rise to the occasion given all the cards stacked against me? I think not. It’s not simply will, but the forces and structures around you, and personally I don’t think human will is a strong enough force to deconstruct the structures of inequality that the unprivileged among us are forced with every day. Unless, of course, there is a group of people that are willing to sacrifice and to help those people around them that are in need.

Although I wrote this as a journal entry a few months back, it definitely brings out the themes that have been present recently in the U.S. around Ferguson and all the injustices that are happening currently with African American arrests and murders and the protests that are happening as a result. From afar, I have been trying to follow as much as the news as possible and it deeply saddens me that the structures of racism that I thought were really becoming less concrete, are really just less visible to the naked eye because they are so embedded into the fabric of this country and it’s messed up justice system. I wish I had a good note to end on, but I’ll just end with a quote that I had up on my desk during my time at my last job with the United Way that I try to remember especially when I’m around people that might not think the same way I do:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King

La promenade avec les filles

Where in the world?

So, full disclosure…before coming to Guadeloupe (no, actually, before applying to come to Guadeloupe) I had really no idea that the island existed or that there was any kind of affiliation to France. Now, of course, I know better, but it might be worth it for some of you for a little geography lesson in order to really understand where in the world I find myself. Below, I present to you, a map of the Caribbean. Take a close look and see if you can locate Guadeloupe or any other islands that you might not have noticed or even knew existed. Guadeloupe is part of the Lesser Antilles:


Caribbean Map


 

If you want to dig further into the geography of France, check out this map of other regions or territories that are also french.

Guadeloupe is in the shape of a butterfly or “papillon” and is technically an archipelago because there are several islands that are part of the Région d’outre-mer or DOM:


Guadeloupe map


I live in a small town a few kilometers inland of Basse Terre (you can see it on the map above; it is located in the southwest part of Guadeloupe), which is technically the administrative capital of the island but is smaller in population (I think around 15,000) than the economic capital, Point a Pitre. Basse Terre, in comparison to Grande Terre, is very lush and green. Waterfalls or “chutes”, and hikes, or “randonnées”, abound. This is good because I’m already noticing that it would be pretty easy to become comfortably fat here. The heat and the delicious food, which is also readily available, especially since I live with a Guadeloupian woman who loves to cook, make for a perfect recipe of consuming calories and not making too much of an effort to move about. At the same time, I sweat constantly, and since I don´t have a vehicle I walk everywhere.