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A Continued Intention

colinvandenberg:

For those who have been following my blog, I have every intention of resuming in the near future. For now, my focus remains on my Dollar A Day Diet and my intention to raise money and awareness for The New Life Center with whom I worked in Malawi.
Thanks for reading,
Colin

Originally posted on Food for a Day:

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished my 30 days of hunger solidarity. Near the end of the 30 days I shared here that although I would no longer be restricting my diet to a dollar of food per day, I had every intention of continuing to work towards supporting the New Life Center in Malawi and raising awareness of hunger issues in the world. Over the last two months I have raised $1408 for the New Life Center and hope to raise the remaining $1592 of my $3000 goal within the next three weeks. 

During the 30 Days I spent eating only a $1 of food per day, I learned this:

- Without being intentional about the food I eat, it is very easy to use food primarily as a source of pleasure, to eat more than I need, to eat food that is taxing on my…

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Day 24 – Decision Fatigue

A few months ago my friend shared an article with me from The New York Times about Decision Fatigue. Essentially, as a person goes through his or her day, making decisions as they go along, their ability to make sound decisions eventually begins to diminish. This isn’t because of a lack of character. The brain just gets tired, like any muscle would. At one point, the article cites the grocery store checkout aisle, where stressed out individuals stand in line waiting to pay for the dozens of decisions they just made. Available to them in that moment of exhaustion is a special arrangement of chocolate bars and candy, just when their sense of judgement is at its weakest. The brain is ready to resign to cravings and escape. It wants relief. It wants to be reckless after so much careful scrutiny.

I’ve had a stressful few days, wrestling with challenging decisions, and trying to discern the next step in my life. Stress and hunger make poor companions and I’ll admit that I was tempted to abandon my Dollar a Day Diet in order to cope with the accumulative stress. Knowing that hunger – a temporary and merely physical affliction – was contributing to my levels of stress, did nothing to alleviate that stress. The decisions felt more difficult. The stress felt more unbearable. I did not abandon my intention but it did give me something to think about.

We all experience stress at various points in our lives, and I wouldn’t claim that one situation is more stressful than another. There are many factors, and there are many different methods of coping available to many different people. A person in my city earning $300,000 every year might experience more daily stress than a person in Malawi earning only $300 every year. They might experience stress for different reasons, but it’s a hard thing to quantify.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that stress is a lot harder to deal with when your stomach is empty and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to eat for the rest of the day. Maybe Malawians are used to these physical sensations and it has less of an impact on their feelings of stress, but maybe not. I know that I am not used to it. I get a little grumpy when I’m hungry. Sometimes I feel stressed out and then I realize after eating that I wasn’t actually that stressed out but just hungry. 

I don’t mean to diminish the stress that is experienced in the midst of affluence. Certainly there’s a lot of stress buzzing around between all of our heads. I don’t know that it gives much perspective to say that there are some who are stressed by much more morbid decisions, like whether or not they are able to feed all of their children. This doesn’t make me feel any less stressed out about my own life, but it does remind me that affluence or poverty do not determine peace of mind. Peace does not come from having more than I need. But in knowing that I have enough I can experience peace. And in sharing with others I can have peace.

I would ask this of you: if you are able, spend a day eating only a dollar of food. And, if you are able, take the money you would have spent on a meal out, and give it to an organization addressing hunger issues. Donations to The New Life Center, where I spent time in Malawi, can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar donated goes directly to empowering Malawians to experience the life of abundance we all deserve.

 

 

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Day 14

As I reach the end of my second week I remain cognizant of my unavoidably privileged position. I’ve been eating less than a dollar’s worth of food for the last fourteen days and still I haven’t come close to the experience of hunger that the majority of people in this world experience every day. I know I will eat again today, I know I will eat tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next. In 16 days I could go back to eating whatever I want, whenever I want. I’m not starving.

On one hand, I think, maybe a dollar a day isn’t so bad. But then I note that my weight has dropped a few pounds. My energy has been low. I’m less able to focus. And I imagine what it would be like to survive like this if I had to spend ten hours in the fields each day, if I had a family depending on me, or if I was sick. A dollar a day might be survivable for a time, but is it sustainable? The truth is, I don’t want to return to eating in excess. I don’t want to return to eating more than my fair share of what this earth can provide for our current population and the generations to come. I want to eat what makes sense on a global scale, not what I’m privy to merely because I live where I live and was born to the family I was born to. I don’t know what this will look like, but I want to imagine what it might look like.

I will continue now as I am, eating less than I’m accustomed to, with the intention of standing in solidarity with the majority world poor, but I will not know what it truly means to be hungry. Even if I continued living like this month after month I would still not truly know how hunger, for many, is not experienced as a mere nuisance, but as a deepening fear, and a gnawing pain.

There are many reasons to understand why some are given their choice of food in excess and why others are struggling just to survive. But none of these reasons offer an excuse. None of them justify such a gross imbalance. Hunger is not some mysterious disease that we are unable to cure. It is not an enigma waiting to be solved. The problems around hunger on a global scale are interminably complicated, but when we have the power to offer a meal to someone who would otherwise starve, or, better yet, the power to enable that person to provide themselves with continual meals, we possess a simple solution to a simple problem and we have little excuse not to act. 

As I continue this experiment in hunger solidarity, intending to play my small part in improving the lives of other by living more responsibly with the excesses of wealth available to me, my hope is that others will also set their own similar intentions. To become involved with what I’m doing, send me a message at colin@colinvandenberg.com, or donate directly to The New Life Center in Malawi through Groundwork Opportunities, where every dollar goes directly to successfully improving the lives of Malawians who struggle with hunger daily.

Thanks for reading,

Colin 

 

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An Experiment in Hunger Solidarity

I’m taking a brief hiatus from my writing at Sons of Ash. I’m in the middle of a thirty day Dollar a Day Diet and I want to focus my attention there. I’ve been posting at www.foodforaday.wordpress.com and hope to raise funds for The New Life Center in Malawi.

I’ve written a little about my time in Malawi and my relationship with humanitarian work on my post Our Kin, published here at Sons of Ash.

Thanks for your interest.

Colin

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Without Conflict

I walked today, in the rain, and peered through the trees to lock my gaze with an apprehensive doe. I knelt for her in the wet earth and she stepped toward me, and then paused, and stepped again. She stepped through the grass between the oak and the piled anthills that littered the ground and I wanted only for her to know the calmness of my presence and my intention of peace. I wanted her to be at ease in the clearing between us. For several moments we remained like this, and the other doe, the one standing guardedly nearby, watched us both. I slowed my breath, and focused my awareness on my own inner stillness before seeking it also in her. She stepped toward me. And I must have turned only slightly where I knelt but it was enough that her own slow movement was apprehended and then ignited as she turned and leaped away, silently. Airplanes flew overhead and the steady drone of traffic passed behind me. The trees trembled and their leaves spilled water down my neck.

 

In the city I become a different person. I come here every week and every week I feel an inevitable shift as I drive along the highway and the traffic becomes dense and buildings appear with increasing frequency. The shift occurs in an instant or in a gradual pull that leads to an eventual release. Colin by the Lakeside becomes Colin the urbanite and something inside of me sinks low and goes to sleep in a moment that gives rise to restless responsibility, manic productivity, and the absence of stillness. Again, as in so many aspects of my life, I experience a polarity in my perception and become lost to the gravitational pull of a world in which I feel estranged from myself, and oddly compelled by things that I am told should motivate me, though in truth they do not.

 

When I lived here permanently I was apt to forget myself. After months in the city I would find a rare chance to leave and I would feel something awaken in myself that I had, until then, forgotten. It was then Colin the urbanite that would go to sleep and someone different, someone distantly familiar that would come to life. He would breathe in the air made fresh by the exhalation of trees. He would feel around him the energy of natural forms and forget those contorted by the hands of industry and progress. He would return to himself and wonder how he could have forgotten this true and holy sense of being.

 

I am disheartened to admit that among the few reasons I come to the city, the most pressing is the need to make money. There are the more valuable incentives of connecting with loved ones and occasionally taking necessary steps toward the actualization of brewing dreams, but these are things I could, with lesser convenience, do apart from this place. The truth is, if not for my need to earn money, I would come here only rarely. I know that for many the adherence to urban norms is not born of necessity. For some people it is a joy and a pleasure to spend life indoors amidst the amenities to which we have all become accustomed. For some the thought of a forest is an inhospitable milieu rife with discomfort, fear, and isolation that they would rather not entertain. And I will admit that the conveniences and the comforts of the city do continue to have pull on me. But even the most urban-bound citizen must take some pleasure in the form of a tree, the sound of a creek, or the smell of a meadow in the coolness of a summer’s night. Everyone must recall some moment in their life when nature called to something deep within their hearts.

 

I have been bound to the city for the past several days, sleeping in a basement surrounded by brick walls that fail to omit the sound of traffic steadily rolling by. My spirit sinks, and if I am not careful it continues to descend until it seems to escape my reach. How did I survive this feeling in the past? How did I endure this absent-minded noise? The answer is there. I feel it creeping in and my recollection of it induces fear in my heart. I have lived here before. I can survive this place – but at a cost. I must simply go to sleep. Let Colin the urbanite awake and perform as Colin of the Lakeside becomes silent and forgotten. Let them both admit their elements and submit to polarity and the nights will pass without effort and the days will disappear in time. Let the city define me, and the rest will fall away.

 

The clouds came in and the air became cool and the day was mine and the walls around me were made of brick, and I did not wish to be contained. My heart was not hardened and my spirit was not silent and I clung to both with love and desperation, believing that although my past experiences had often been defined in these moments by a resignation to the dullness that pressed against my mind, I need not be defined by it any longer. I listened to my spirit with a pliant will. I quieted the voice of fear. I obeyed my heart and heard the weighted door close behind me as I walked into the air made softly damp by a cool mist.  

 

We live in cities where once the meadows filled the spaces between the wooded dells. We covered the rivers with concrete passageways and filled the earth with veins of electric current and raw sewage. We built our homes and our factories and our retail outlet malls. We took over and said yes, we will dominate this place. We left the thought of wilderness behind and made comfort our primary goal. We were happy to be rid of the nuisance creatures, and the nuisance weather, and the arduous tasks our ancestors once endured. We created a place in which to prosper under the protection of our civility. We came into a new era.

 

We tried to leave discomfort behind, but what we could not leave behind was our sense of belonging. Nature was full of harshness and pain. But the urban myth did not negate our connection to the fields and the trees that lay beyond our borders. We longed for them and found solace, in rare moments of celestial perception, in the sky that moved slowly overhead. We remembered, in fleeting moments, the origins of our birth and were then drawn to come to life. We stepped out from our shelters, from their comfortable distractions, and pressed our soles to the earth. We wandered to the river’s bend were the city became invisible and surrounded ourselves with the patience of sedentary trees.

 

Lest I be caught in the shadow of my own idealism, I must remember: in this city, the trees outnumber the people ten to one. Pure wilderness may not surround me but there is a way to survive in this place without silencing my inner voice, which calls to the wild with a yearning I cannot ignore. I stepped out from behind brick walls, and the city was all around me, but in the air the rain was wild, and the trees were no less themselves than they would have been in any other place. I walked along the sidewalks and even rode a bus. I returned to the forest I had frequented in my youth, nestled quietly between subdivisions. I filled my mouth with berries and my hair grew damp in the rain and the sounds of the city were silenced in my mind and all that remained were the trees, and the furtive creatures, and the tall grasses. Colin the urbanite held his tongue and had no qualm as Colin by the Lakeside began to speak. There was no conflict.

- C

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By Lack of Stillness

In the absence of certainty, the steps I have not yet taken become to me a potential curse. The words I have not yet spoken rest beside fear at the back of my tongue, anxiously awaiting their delivery. I speak, at times, without knowing. I step, at times, blindly. I am, at times, lost.

When the lake appeared I was at first relieved to have a bearing. I had awoken at dawn after hiking 35 kilometers the day before. I passed through several flooded sections of trail, ate little in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, and spent the night waking periodically to remove ticks from my body and listen to the sounds of beasts outside my tent. When the lake appeared the following day I was relieved to have a bearing but in the same moment my relief gave way to the realization that I was on the wrong side of it. I had already hiked five kilometers outside of my way along an old trail that was overgrown and in some places no longer visible. I stood on the rocks high above the lake and the feeling of exhaustion became emotional. I looked across to the place I was supposed to be. I looked ahead, wondering if I should stay my course, or double back, or cut a new path. I was seventeen and alone and I did not know what to do.

Knowing that I am on a path is not the same as knowing that I am where I belong. There are many days when my steps are uncertain and many days when my uncertainty prevents me from taking any steps at all. Too often I have held my tongue or held my step, worrying that to chose one path, or one perspective, is to forsake another. In high school a teacher once told me that each path precludes all other paths available in that moment. I remember resisting this when he said it. I may have even openly disagreed with him. I was then preparing for infinite possibilities. I was then of the perspective that I could make any choice, and that every path could lead me back to any other path. I was then certain that following any choice, there would always be the opportunity to choose differently.

Time passes and I cannot say whether it passes slowly or quickly. It moves like lightening and yet is static in its infiniteness. A nanosecond is of minimal difference to an eon when considering the infinite breadth of time. Time is infinitely expandable and infinitely divisible. We experience a moment of it, but if every moment is infinite, do we not then experience it all? Are we not then a part of eternity? And being a part of eternity, are we not then ourselves eternal?

Our understanding of the decisions we make is bound to our understanding of time. There is something restrictive about both. Time passes and the past immediately becomes lost to us. We have only the present into which we can reach our hands to touch and to mold our experiences. It is only in the present that we can speak and act. It is only now that we can choose. The decisions we have already made are lost to us. They are no longer a part of the present, though the outcomes of those decisions may be. And it is because of this that I am so often arrested by my uncertainty. It is because of this that I so often hold my tongue.

There comes a moment when a decision must be made. Something must be said, or a step must be taken, and when that moment arrives it may not always arrive in the hands of certainty. There is a difference between belief and knowing. There is a difference between doubt and denial. When I pass the threshold of uncertainty, I do not necessarily leave doubt behind. When I speak, I do not necessarily speak with absolute conviction. In these moments, I believe in my words and my actions but I do not always know that they are right. Were I to allow this unknowing, or this doubt, to rule me, I would remain silent and still. I would do nothing.

Like Frost, contemplating the two roads in the yellow wood, I have often remained still not for fear that the path I was about to follow would lead to some great peril, but knowing that there would always be the other path, the one I did not take. In his poem, Frost approaches the final, familiar words by first saying, “I shall be telling this with a sigh…” He projects into the future his anticipation of regret and by doing so imbues his decision with doubt. He scribes a whisper in the air to haunt his steps with the illusion of greener grass and thereby limits his experience of the present.

There is value in stillness and silence. There is something deeply good about it. When we remain in quiet contemplation, when we meditate on a possible action or word, we are able to bolster our resolve while simultaneously releasing our expectations. In this posture our stillness is paradoxically dynamic as our interiority moves and shifts in response to the mutterings of our will. When we have taken the time to make a decision, we can release ourselves from the haunting whispers of regret. We can experience the path we are on as the only path. We can speak and act with a deep knowing that dismisses all doubt.

There is a shadow to stillness and silence, and I have often sat waiting beneath it. Time passes and the decision goes unmade, or the intention goes unfulfilled. When fear, rather than contemplation, holds us, our stillness becomes one of inactivity. We are no longer being contemplative. We are being idle. In idleness, we are afraid to speak, not because we are afraid that we might say something stupid, or say something wrong, but that we might say something so deeply true that we will demand something profound of ourselves, and those around us. We are afraid of stepping forward into the truth we deeply believe in. We are afraid to take that step or say that word.

There are days when I wonder about the paths I have chosen, and the words I have said. None can be retracted, and neither can the moments of their conception be returned to and altered. I sit down to write and there is at times a reluctance knowing that once offered my words are free from me. They become their own beings, for a moment, and are then relinquished to those willing to read them. They are claimed and taken. They become so far from me that I can do nothing to change them. Our decisions are like this. We offer them to those around us, to the universe, to God, and they are no longer ours. In that moment they become lost to us.

I followed the path a short ways through the woods before reaching an impassable river. I was on the wrong side of the lake and the only way to correct my course was to go to the place I wanted to be. I followed the unworn path and veered toward the lake. I stepped into the water. For two hours I walked through along the shoreline, feeling the peace of the lake and forgetting the moment of my indecision. I took my slow steps and felt both relief and certainty in the water that had, by then, filled my boots. The discomfort was irrelevant. The importance and the acceptance resided in my resolve.

Arrested by our fears we find ourselves in unnatural stillness and silence, which, touched by our passivity, can then endure for years. We stand upon the rocks, peering across the lake to the place we want to be, and the distance and our feelings of separation overwhelm us, but our steps are taken one at a time. No distance is beyond our reach. We need not feel overwhelmed by the gravity of our decisions, nor by the myriad alternatives we must release. There is only the place where our feet rest and, in our immediacy, the place where our feet will rest next. Decide and see then the place where you stand. Listen then to the words you have spoken. They are now.

-C

Permit me Love

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In the corner of a crowded bar I sat down with a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. It wasn’t the first time we had met there and as usual we shook hands upon meeting and then gripped the tall glasses of dark beer that stood between us. The weather was cold that night. The winter had barely begun and the beer immediately chilled me. At first, our dialogue closely mirrored the conversations we had had the year before, and the year before that. We revisited past events – contemporizing our understandings – and introduced one another to the details of our new relationships, jobs, and homes. It was a good dialogue, and it interested us both, but there came a point when I broke away from our usual anthology of themes. There came a point when I chose to deviate from what I knew to be safe and introduce our friendship to a new level of vulnerability.

We did not know each other very well. Our meetings were infrequent and though our experiences of life had often been eerily similar we had experienced them quite separately. There was a sense of innate understanding, but it had only been communicated at an exterior level. We sat across from one another, gripping our tall beers, and I chose to share with him the happenings, and the thoughts, and the questions of my interior life. I chose to be markedly more vulnerable with him than I had been before and in doing so I not only allowed him to see me more clearly but I gave him permission to respond to my vulnerability with his own. By my own decision to be vulnerable I introduced the possibility of vulnerability to our relationship and permitted him to participate in it.

Last week, I sat beside a stretch of rapids along the Bird River and absent-mindedly lifted a piece of deadwood from the water’s edge. At first I saw the chrysalis, which was perfectly intact so that it appeared to be its own fragile creature. A few centimeters away the dragonfly clung to the upheaved wood and slowly unfurled his wings, which were then barely visible, pinched and gathered as they were against his shoulders. He had no choice but to remain where he was, patient in the light of his own becoming. And I – fascinated and apart from him – watched in wonder until it was time to move on and I returned him to his place by the water. I continued to paddle along the river, and all along its edge; on the rocks and the limbs of fallen trees, I saw them in tremulous repose, waiting for their wings to unfold, and I wondered what bell had rung to signal this chorus of revolution. Who had permitted them to change?

In the early spring I watched the crows arrive and then the gulls. Later the leaves emerged and the grass turned green. The mosquitoes came in what seemed a single wave and the dragonflies followed. Last night our windows swarmed with a breed of flies I had never seen before. They seemed to come all at once, but in each case there must have been a first. Even if only by the slightest of moments, one blade of grass began to turn before all the rest. One mosquito hatched before any other. We are listening, all of us, all the time, for the moment when we are allowed to begin. We are listening for permission to act, to speak, and to think. We are listening for permission to live the life that we want to live and be the people we want to be. We are listening even when we do not know it.

I stood across from a man who I perceived to be my enemy. I stood in silence at a distance and I saw him do the same. At his approach, I built a wall to defend myself and the presence of that wall permitted him to build his own. When I raised my voice against him I permitted him to shout back. When I reached forward to strike him I initiated the possibility of violence and gave him permission to strike me in return. The more harm I did to him, the more harm I permitted him to do to me. My attacks carried intrinsically with them the words “you may now attack me.” And after years of hatred, and distance, and fear, I finally fell, exhausted and defeated. I let the walls around my heart fall. I unfurled my fists, forgot my hateful words and chose instead to be utterly vulnerable in front of him, without fear. In that moment, I gave him permission to do the same. I introduced the possibility that we are not enemies at all, but dear friends. I opened my arms, and he opened his. We embraced. We were redeemed.

When we are gracious, we permit those around us to be gracious. When we are malicious, we permit others to be malicious. When we smile, we permit others to smile. When we cry, we permit others to cry. When we curse, we permit others to curse. When we hate, we permit others to hate. When we fear we permit others to fear. When we attack, we permit others to attack. When we are vulnerable, we permit others to be vulnerable. When we forgive, we permit others to forgive. When we love, we permit others to love.

I awoke in the dead of winter, when the lake was a frozen plain and my heart was laid bare on its bed of ice. I listened, through the din of voices permitting my escape, for the single whisper offering me something more. I listened for the voice that gave me permission to exist not in fear, but in love. I listen even now, and though against this love my ego offers its continual consent to escape reality and enter the delusion of self-hatred and the fear of inadequacy, my true essence, my divine nature, continually permits me to live the life that I deserve. Fear says, “I permit you to escape, to abandon love, to disregard truth, to hide, to despair, and to slowly die.” Love says, “I permit you to embrace your life, to love freely and generously, to speak your truth, to follow your dreams, and to experience the fullness of life.” In everything we do, we have the choice to be the voice of love in the lives of others, or the voice of fear. By our words we can grant others the permission to experience life, or to experience death.

We live amidst a myriad voices, each with its tone, its volume, and its frequency. There are those whose permissions we seek and obey with unwavering readiness, and there are those whose permissions we consistently resist. There are the people to whom we are closest. There are those on the periphery of our lives. There are the strangers with whom many of us spend much of our time. We sit and we stare and we listen to the steady stream of permissions embedded in the movies and television we watch. We permit one another to do so by the normalcy of our indulgence in it. We are given permission to be materialistic, to strip sex of meaning, to do violence to one another, to abandon our purpose in life, to destroy our bodies, and to mock truth. We are given permission to waste the hours of our lives as if we had nothing better to do with them.

I want to stand beside the people in my life and speak truth, that they would also be permitted to speak truth. I want to abandon fear in my relationships, that my companions would also abandon their fear. I want to love and permit those around me to love. I want to be vulnerable, that I would permit others to also be vulnerable. And when I am permitted to hate, I want to respond not with willingness, nor merely with silent passivity, but with reactive conviction.

I know that it can be easy to remain in patterns that do not serve me. It is easier still when I enable those around me to do so, or when they enable me. We permit one another to live out our patterns of fear. However, we are permitted by love to abandon all patterns that do not serve us. We are permitted to learn new patterns. In moments, I must have the courage to defy the permissions of my egos and my fears and choose instead to permit love. In moments, a radical voice must cry out within our own hearts that we would have the courage to be the first, that as we act in love, in defiance of fear, we would grant permission to others to do the same. Life is brief, and it is eternal. We exist as mere children in the midst of children, forever listening to the voices that surround us, forever waiting for permission to be the love that exists in all of us. We need only listen, and in turn speak its voice.

-C

Nothing is Lost

06.12.14

I withdrew from my father when I was young, long before I was aware of what I was doing, long before I was conscious of fear. I do not remember the moment it began. I do not remember if it was because of something that happened, or something that I imagined. I do know that it continued by degrees intermittently through every year that followed and that every degree perpetuated the next. Some moments are memorable and others are forgotten. Most of them happened quietly within my own perceptions. I believe that all of them left my father feeling partly confused and saddened. I believe that it was my silence that created the most distance. I became less available and maybe he did too. My father is a deeply loving man. I always admired him and was always grateful to have a father that was both consistently present and consistently kind. My withdrawal from him was not warranted, and I do not fully understand it. But I can say with confidence that we have continually loved one another unconditionally despite our varying degrees of separation. At the heart of our feelings for one another I know there is perfect love. And yet, there is this quiet distance, as if we remain unsure of one another.

 

When I was young I loved being in the woods. I had dreams of living in the country where I could take myself on adventures through wild fields and across shallow creeks to encounter creatures in the trees and climb up to meet them. I had dreams of breathing life into my own natural spirit, which felt cloistered and out of place in the city. I had dreams of a feeling of freedom I so rarely encountered amidst the bungalows and the hum of streetlights, the cars driving by and the pavement beneath them. The closest I came to experiencing my vision of idyllic boyhood was along the length of an old railroad line at the outskirts of my neighbourhood. In the summertime my father would wake me early Saturday mornings, while my sisters still slept, to ride our bikes down the trails between the trees, through the cool air and the shadows cast by the dancing leaves that consumed my vision. These were quiet moments. These were the moments when my father and I were closest to being one, the moments when our presences were most intertwined.

 

I cannot say that my father has failed me without admitting that I have also failed him. In our twenty-nine years there have been times when I felt disappointed and even hurt. There have been times when he was not the father that I wanted him to be. But there were also times when he felt disappointed and hurt by me – long before I knew I even had the power to disappoint or hurt him. There have been times when I was not the son he wanted me to be. I can say that he failed to be a perfect father and that I failed to be a perfect son, but that would be to accept the perspective that we are both inherently flawed. More truthfully we, who – stripped of all our egos and our fears and our false perceptions – are inherently perfect, share a relationship that has not always reflected our deepest truth. He and I are, most truly, perfect. And our true desire, and our true nature, is to express perfect love to one another without reserve, without anything getting in the way. I try to remember this.

 

When I was sixteen, I spent a day with my father in London. He had invited me to travel with him to Bulgaria where he had been asked to sing with a group of musicians. He invited me with an expectation and a hope that this shared experience would bring us closer together and restore us to the father-son relationship we had both so often wished for. He envisioned companionship and closeness. I imagine he prayed for these things. I had my own selfish vision, born of my growing sense of seclusion. After a day of walking through London, jet-lagged and desiring solitude, independence, and freedom, I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder and heard his saddened voice asking me to stop. I had been walking ahead of him all day and when I turned to meet his eyes I could see his disappointment and his hurt. I felt tears rising in my own throat, but more than the compassion that was then welling up within me, I felt afraid. I was tired and in a strange and busy place. I have never liked crowds and Trafalgar Square is far from sparse. I was overwhelmed and I knew that he was too, but in that moment, when my own exposed vulnerability could have been an opportunity for love to unfold, I chose to harden myself again, despite my tears, and withdraw even further. We walked the rest of the evening side by side, but I was apart from him. We were no longer standing within one another’s presences.

 

I love my father. I am blessed to have grown up with a man that has been present and available, caring and thoughtful, and ultimately loving. I have seen his weaknesses and his strengths and know that I can still embrace him. When I reflect on our relationship I am aware of all the times when our relationship has suffered from delusions of separation. I see the times when I have needlessly withdrawn from him. I remember the disappointments that I have felt, of which there are many that are completely unfair. Maybe all of them are ultimately unfair. I remember the way I looked up to him as a child. I think of the ways I have not become the man I imagine he wanted me to be.

 

A father is a powerful thing and we must have all, in some deep-rooted way, in our earliest years and maybe even now, expected something divine from them. Whether they are in our lives or not, the idea of a father carries an archetypal weight that promises strength, authority, love, kindness, wisdom, integrity, and steady goodness. We want a man in our lives that models divinity, one that will teach us perfect truth, guide us away from every danger, and love us without fail. We want a man we can look up to, a man we can aspire to be, and a man who fills us with awe. We want a god. Some part of us expects it, or did once. But what we have is inconsistent. We have felt their love, and seen something god-like in many of their actions. We have heard the deepest truths in their words and we have admired them in moments. But we have also felt disappointed in the moments when they have not been god-like. They have not always understood us. At times, they have not truly seen us. As much as we have held them hostage to some idyllic version of what it means to be a father, we have sensed the times when they have tried to impress upon us their own idyllic version of what they imagine it means to be a son, or a daughter. We feel disappointed, and we believe they are disappointed in us, and we push one another away sadly, angrily at times, failing to realize that our disappointments are born not of failure but of expectation.

 

My father and I spent two weeks together in Bulgaria. It was memorable and impacting and I will never forget it. But although I walked beside my father down the same streets, although I saw the same things he did, and although we smelled the same unfamiliar smells and heard the same unfamiliar language, I remained silently insistent on having my own experience apart from him. I was taught, subversively and without accountability, to believe that it was natural for me as a young man, coming of age, to intentionally set out on my own, to become a man independent of my father and begin to develop an understanding of my own identity apart from him. I was taught to believe that at a certain age, boys become men and everything must change, that distance must be maintained, and vulnerabilities protected, that other men represent the threat of disappointment, and pain, and competition, and that to be a man, I must stand alone, firmly, defiantly at times, without wavering. What I have learned now, is that on that day, looking into my father’s eyes, standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square, seeing his pain and knowing that my years of distance had caused it, I should have let down every guard, released every fear and false perception, and yielded to the love of a man who wanted nothing more than to be in the presence of his son. I should have wept in his arms and known his closeness.

 

Nothing is lost. Moments pass and are swept back beyond my reach. Trafalgar Square is far from me and it is unlikely I will ever stand there again with my father, seeing in his eyes the pain of separation and knowing the same pain in my own heart. It was a missed opportunity, and when I think of it now I feel saddened by my failure to respond in love. I imagine what could have been. I imagine how every moment since then could have been different. But nothing is lost. Every missed opportunity remains in safekeeping. Circumstances change and opportunities take new forms, but whatever it is that could have been; the love that we failed to reveal; the closeness we failed to return to, remains held for us within gentle and willing hands, waiting for the moment when we finally discard our fear and embrace the love we truly believe in.

- C

Our Kin

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I planted a garden in my yard by the lake. I tore up the earth, shook the soil and the worms from the roots of the grass, ran my fingers through the dirt until it was clean, and then deposited rows of vegetable seeds across the back of it. In the front of the garden I planted broccoli plants, tomato plants, and onion plants. I took water from the lake and soaked the soil until it was dark and muddy and when the mosquitoes became unbearable I went inside. The following morning I went out and discovered that all the broccoli plants had been eaten and half of the tomato plants were torn out of the ground. I was a little disappointed, but mostly amused. Half a dozen animals ran through my mind as I tried to determine the culprit. A chipmunk scurried out from beneath the steps leading down to the boathouse. I decided he was too small. I recalled the skunk that had passed through the yard a few days before. I sniffed the air. Nothing. I went back inside. The Internet told me it was slugs. I was doubtful. Later that day my partner alerted me to the presence of a deer standing contemplatively over the remaining onion plants. I ran out the door to chase it away, not mean-heartedly, and I watched it run into the neighbor’s yard where it stood, dumbfounded and innocent.

I live a privileged life. When I fail at gardening I can laugh at it, knowing that I am not at all dependent on success. I have access to nutritious food, clean water, and safe shelter. I have this every day and I never question it. In fact, I have access to such an abundance of food that I can regularly consume more calories than I even need. I can choose food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and I can consume it in excess. I can let food spoil and then discard it. My home is large enough to shelter at least eighteen people. I live there alone with my partner. I have so much clean, drinkable water that I can fill my toilet with enough of it to keep a person alive for three to four days. I urinate in it, and then flush it away. I have so much clean water I can do this several times a day. In a week, I can use enough clean, drinkable water, just by flushing my toilet, to keep a six-year old child alive for eight months. This makes me privileged. Even before counting all the extras of luxury, pleasure, and comfort, I live a life that only a small percentage of the world will ever be able to experience.

I traveled to Malawi in November of 2013. It was not my first time in Africa. It was not my first time witnessing poverty or living within an impoverished context. I spent only three weeks in the country, during which time I traveled to several hospitals, rural villages, and urban homes to photograph, discuss, and hear stories about the effects of poverty. Malawi is ranked 170 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Their GNI per capita is $320, meaning the average income is $0.88 per day. This is the average. Many live on far less and some have no income at all, surviving only on the maize that they can grow for themselves. For the 85% of Malawians living in rural areas, and for many Malawians living in urban areas, their crops keep them alive. When the rainy season is delayed or when drought replaces the rainy season all together, many Malawians do not survive. By the time the rainy season does come, the food supply is low and the hospitals fill with malnourished and starving children.

I grew up watching World Vision commercials with a sick feeling in my gut. When I turned nineteen I went to Ghana for six months where I lived in a small, rural village and did my best to experience the life of a poor man. I had a simple life and I loved it. And then I had the luxury of returning to the complications of excess wealth and living again in its familiar and comfortable context. I went back to Ghana twice in my early twenties, first to initiate a small, community development project in the village where I had lived, and later to document several stories in other parts of the country. The community development project had partly succeeded and partly failed by the time I returned in 2009. I sat in an honored place under the neem trees with everyone that had been involved and they nervously confessed their failures and expressed their fear of my return. I felt heartbroken. They feared that I would come back and see the vacant poultry farm we had built, that I would react with anger at their failure, and that I would demand the return of the money I had given them. They were relieved to know that I was not angry, that I was disappointed, but not with them. They were relieved, and my heart sunk recognizing the power they had given me, which I did not want. They owed me nothing and I owed them far more.

I have not been back to Ghana since then. I have wanted to, but have often been paralyzed by the confusion that fills my mind when I consider the word “help”. I always remember Dickens’ claim that charity serves only to further degrade the impoverished. My mind fills with all the reasons why helping others is an impossible task: handouts create dependency; NGOs are untrustworthy; money corrupts; my desire to help is actually selfish; it is arrogant to think that I can improve their lives; they are better off without our interference. These thoughts offer valid and cynical perspectives, and they fail to excuse my idleness.

I sat down at a small wooden table in a rural village in Malawi. Acts, the son of my host, sat with me. “Dear God,” he prayed, with a tone of sincerity that immediately arrested me, “We thank you for this food. We know that it comes from you and we are grateful”. His words were simple, but the depth of them went far beyond any feeling of gratitude I have ever felt. For the next three days we ate together and before every meal his prayer, and the tone with which he prayed it, was the same. Whether it was tea and bread or a roasted cob of maize, this young man prayed with an understanding of hunger that I will likely never know. His gratitude expressed an awareness of the necessity and the unparalleled value of food, which our privileged society has completely forgotten. I ate with him quietly and did my best to understand the meaning behind every bite we took, to experience it as precious life and not a means for pleasure and personal satisfaction. I tried to understand what food could mean to someone who had grown up in its scarcity.

Many of us have grown tired of poverty. The child starving in Africa has become a cliché for which we have amassed dozens of dismissive and cynical responses, which let us off the hook. We have become so involved in the dramas of our own lives and in the spiritual poverty that keeps us there, that we fail to see beyond ourselves. We fail to remember that although the poor may always be among us, the suffering of others is not something to resign to. Poverty exists and we, the privileged, exist to respond to it. The child starving in Africa is a cliché. But the actual, individual children, who are starving in Africa, are not clichés. They are real people in need of help. And our lives are inextricably connected to theirs.

I know that the clean, drinkable water in my toilet means nothing to a child dying of cholera halfway around the world. I cannot viably bottle it and send it on a plane to save her life. There is too much imagined separation, too much complication, and too much uncertainty to feel fully confident in my response to poverty. I have wondered, even in the moments when I am walking through their villages, even when I am looking at the frail body of a starving child through my camera lens, who am I to interfere? Who am I to think that I have a place here? I walk between their mud homes. I pass the night on their mud floor. I eat the food grown in their muddied fields. And I wonder what it means to help, and if that is even my place. I philosophize and theorize, plaguing myself with paralyzing doubts. I fear that I will leave an unsavory mark, or that I will make a mistake in my desire to help that is ultimately more destructive than healing, and while I remain idle and in fear their children are going hungry, or are severely malnourished, and many of them are dying.

The idea that my life is separate from the lives of Malawians, or Ghanaians, or any of the 54,000 children living below the poverty line in my own province, is a convenient and powerful illusion. It excuses me from action and responsibility. It permits me to indulge in abundance while others go without. It enables me to live my life in ignorance of the rippling effect that my life-choices are having on those around me and in far-off places. I flush my toilet here, or I do not, and still a child in Malawi is without clean water. But the fact that I have a seemingly endless source of clean water and he has none at all is a call to action that we would be careless to ignore.

Our separation is a convenient illusion. We have planted it in our minds like a hedge around our privileged lives believing that it will keep us from experiencing the poverty we have witnessed in the lives of others. But our imagined separation does not exist. We are as connected to the impoverished as we are to our own children, to our own mothers, to our own partners. Every child is our child. Every woman is our sister, and our mother, and our grandmother. Every man is our kin. So long as we continue to live under the illusion that we are responsible only for ourselves, our world will never heal. And if our world never heals, how can we expect to find peace in our own lives?

I have felt the sensation of hunger, but I have never felt afraid that it will result in my death. I have seen mothers holding their dying children, but I have not known their pain. Real hunger is something I have only ever witnessed. Real hunger is an idea that I can only imagine. When I get lost in the idea of hunger I do nothing. I become paralyzed or confused by the politics, or the potential of failure, or my own misguiding cynicism. I become paralyzed by possibilities of my own imaginings while the reality remains the same. I do not know the answer to this reality, but I do believe that it is more than idle disregard. I do believe that a real response is needed and not just by a few, but by everyone.

- C