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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Taking Stock— Kristof, Generations, and Tererai Trent


On an evening news weather update during a weekend visit home to Connecticut, the weatherman called for an early season overnight frost, a warning that had not escaped the green ears of my mother, who no sooner took sweeping action. As if commandeering the 56th battalion, she called to duty my brother, who quickly moved adolescent porch set plants inside, while she strategically draped comforters and sheets brought from the upstairs closet— burgundy, black, and floral— atop her most vulnerable crop, tucking them in from nature's temperaments. For a night, they were hidden away from the astronomy above. I ran into them the next morning. I thought them funny looking— three unusual, draped masses in the front vegetable garden. For some odd reason they reminded me of three fortunate realizations— touchstones of clarity.

***

A few months ago, I had the privilege of listening to double Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist and personal hero Nicholas Kristof speak at a healthcare innovations conference. Kristof spoke for over an hour, funny, touching, and edifying, on his off center travails in China and Cairo, blunt realities in Nigeria, and highly technical challenges and nuances of international development. Through all of his anecdotes, two clear messages came to a head in his discussion on a psychology study on happiness. The study revealed that generally, everyone possesses a baseline level of happiness and at any given moment, happiness fluctuates above and below the set line— almost as a sine wave. Illustrating this were new wheelchair bound quadriplegics, as well as newlyweds, who when interviewed, at first, were extremely low and ecstatic, respectively. However, when interviewed a year later, many expressed being back at their usual level of happiness. While this theory and these findings were certainly nothing new, what was fulfilling was Kristof's means to elevate this baseline— to 1) internalize a world beyond oneself and 2) shake out of one's comfort zone. The one true way of getting out of the same old cycle, of breaking free of a seeming lifelong pattern, would be to serve a happiness outside of oneself. For the comfort zone, he gave the example of his fellow Times columnist Thomas Friedman's daughter, who decided to work abroad in Zimbabwe, forking from traditional study abroad forays that her classmates took in London, France, Italy, and Spain. Breaking the boundaries of thinking beyond oneself and overcoming one's internal boundaries, those of fear, uncertainty, self doubt, and comfort, are two sides of the same coin.

***

We've come to learn to keep our eyes and shoulders to the sky and our feet on the ground. However, the more I look down, the more I notice my feet are not on the ground, but rather on the shoulders of giants— my ancestors, my ocean voyaging family. While it was important not to forget where I came from, it was more valuable to remember where my ancestors came from— a deep generational underpinning. The unfathomable path of the older generation inspires endless and constant awe in me, especially thinking of a starting point two generations ago to a world of unbelievable wealth, privilege, and opportunity today. Now, our family belongs to an unspeakably tiny, virtually imperceptible, sliver of the pie of the world—not only in wealth, but in size, proximity, education, good fortune, bond, constitution, and opportunity. The ability to transcend circumstance— this is a constant barometer for even my most mundane decisions, a measure of cool earth under bare feet.

On the day before Navarathri, a pooja was held for three generations of men and women who carried my own blood. Thoughts swirled of endless red dirt roads flanked in haze, my father's long walk to school, a 5 AM pitch for water, and a Saturday walk to a lazy Indian river. I think of these things not only as my grandmother offers me counsel on how to graft a bougainvillea plant or starting each morning with an act of creativity, but also as I carry a bag of groceries from the corner deli, catch the 4 train, or thumb through a magazine before my flight.

***

Tererai Trent is a Zimbabwean recently profiled by Nicholas Kristof in a Sunday New York Times article ("The Women's Crusade"). With a limited family income and brothers who took priority, she was not given the chance of much of an education. Despite this, she taught herself to read and write. She was married off at eleven and denied any reach toward literacy by her husband, even a peak at a scrap of newspaper. Household expectations and brutal subjugation kept a woman's mind in the dark. Spirited, persistent, boundless, and undaunted, Tererai set out on a concrete path of lining up hopes to goals. While raising five children, Tererai studied in secret from her husband, started taking correspondence classes and excelled. She enrolled in Oklahoma State University, took her five children across the ocean, and completed her degree while working nights. Soon enough, she went on to earn a Masters degree and Ph.D. from Western Michigan University.

Tererai's is one of many endearing, forceful stories of unbound aspiration brimming out of darkness that churn on, mostly in obscurity. In a world of unauthentic, imported, artificial ideals of success, sickening vanity, cynicism, useless peeve, and daily strive for self seeking pleasures to no end, here was a story I could lean on. It is more than the adage "to whom much is given, much is expected." That our education is a privilege is oft forgotten, but the bigger blunder is to think that it comes with entitlement. In reality, it offers no entitlement, only responsibility.

***

These are the patchwork sensibilities and stories, these sacred truths that help me stay in tune with my intuitions and the distances between them, help me see the distorted certainties, false choices, hollowed retributions, thoughtless reflex, and ungrounded flash judgment that wash up regularly on the shores of our ambitions. They help to remain aware of the rootless prides and self applause that abound, as well as to iron out my still wrinkled measures of social justice.

My boarding pass typically coasters my espresso and moonlights as a bookmarker, a stark reminder that where I am heading allows for coffee rings but not for a loss of place. Strangely, the points connected in my mind to a vision— one of a cool, sturdy Kenyan dawn.