Sunday, January 5, 2014

Coming to Terms With My Validity as a Unique Individual at the Aquarium

Recently I took my children to Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium at the Mall of America.  As we walked through, touching starfish and sea anemones, watching sharks get fed, I noted the difference in each animal’s ability or approach to aquatic life.  The rays, gosh, they just glide through the water with barely a flick of their fins.  It’s weird to even call them fins because they don’t look like what I think of as fins, I mean, sharks – now they have fins.  Or sunfish that I take off fishing lines in the summer, those are fins – I’ve felt the business side of them before.  But rays are so smooth and their fins are shaped differently than any other sea creature.  They're just, rays, I guess, but they aren’t what I’d call typical fins.  They’re different.  Even watching them eat was different from the others.  They could sort of trap food between themselves and the glass of the tunnel we were in and, without fingers or arms or even moving their mouths to the food, they were able to wiggle around and quick as a wink, scarf up their squid delicacy. 



One of the girls was watching the sawfish trying to beat out a turtle, maneuvering in some pretty tight corners, and she commented that it must be difficult to learn to get around with that nose.  It’s so huge, she thought, it must bump into things a lot at first, learning to exist.  



I wondered about that.  Maybe it’s like going from driving a Honda Civic to driving a station wagon or a Suburban.  That takes some getting used to, but if that’s how sawfish are when they are young, do you think they have to learn to be how they are?  Wouldn’t they just BE?  Similar to, does a fish realize that it’s in water?  Or does that realization only happen once they are out of water?  What is so close, what is reality for so long, is not thought of by the person or fish as odd or weird, is it?  Not until it’s compared to others?  Until they see a difference.  
I’m saying water to a fish is like my thought patterns to myself.  It’s hard to gain perspective when they are so close to me.  It’s not until I learn from other people what their thought processes/behaviors are that I’m able to see mine as being uniquely my own.  It's in that moment that I am given the chance to accept who I am in the world.
After our wandering through the ocean tunnel of this underwater world was coming to a close, I again looked at the differences of these creatures that all live their life in water.  Similar yet different.  I contemplated whether or not there was rivalry in the water.  What if there was competition, cliques in sea life?  The eels lamenting over how long they are compared to the turtles.  Those interesting fish with the bump on their forehead- are they ever self-conscious about it?  What if, after being told that bump-free foreheads are desirable, they were offered a no-bump cream to remove the unsightly lump, would they take it?  If eels could be rid of that creepy green wrinkled skin, would they change how they look?  Perhaps becoming more vibrant colors like, say, a clown fish.  Maybe the sea turtles are snobby and look down on the mere painted turtles.  Is there a possibility of marine bullying?



Entertaining these thoughts and how ridiculous it seems for these trivial matters to plague the animal kingdom, I’m curious how it happens so easily for humans.  To feel inferior because of someone else’s more shapely or lean body, financial situation, occupation, sexual orientation, or the kind of car they drive seems a little foolish with this awareness.  
Wouldn’t it be nice if all beings would be secure in the knowledge that our life is valid and perfect no matter where it lands on the line of continuum?  That, no matter how I live my life and the choices I make, there is no need to justify my existence.  That I don’t need recognition from anyone else to validate my right to be alive and exist as an individual.  That by having been created- being here, in this space, at this time- is all the substantiation that has ever been needed.  That ever will be needed.  It’s no longer negotiable. 
What would the world look like if I were able to see others as different and not feel threatened by that difference but embrace it?  Understanding that “them” being who they are makes me who I am?  Ahhh…the ability to embrace such beauty.  Such perfection.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Holiday sewing machine update


With the donations that I’ve received so far, we’ve been able to purchase two new machines for Umuregwa, or Mama Joyce, as she’s known in the market.  
My professor from the 2012 trip abroad recently returned to Rwanda and was kind enough to bring the money recently raised with her.  She gave it to our tour guide, Yván, and he visited Musanze and Mama Joyce on November 16th.  I appreciate beyond words how helpful and trustworthy Yván is because I’ve not received such a complete update on what has been happening there for her in a while.  Communication is difficult being such a distance apart, speaking different languages.  Here’s what he had to report.
Last spring Mama Joyce’s daughter was sick and in the hospital for two months, which kept her from the market.  The cooperative that was started soon after I was in Rwanda fell apart and the second woman I bought the machine for, who was her partner, went back to working in the market place independently.  It sounds like it was a stressful and disappointing time for these women.  Mama Joyce told Yván that she didn’t trust other women in the market place because they had been on their own so long, it is hard for them to comprehend working collectively.  She told my trusted tour guide that what she would like to do is bring in women with no experience with sewing to avoid these problems in the future.  Going forward, Mama Joyce will be training new partners to sew and they will grow together – being more loyal to their cooperative because it’s where they gotten their start.  After buying two more machines together, Yván left her in charge of finding the women and implementing the cooperative.  He is planning monthly visits to keep abreast of what is happening and will then be in contact with me about their progress. 
I feel confident that with this new start, their cooperative is going to take off.  Interaction between here and there will be easier now that Yván is involved again as a translator. 

Thank you to everyone who donated thus far.  Tell your friends about this endeavor and have a blessed Thanksgiving and Hanukkah week.




Sunday, November 17, 2013

Helping vs. Being in Service

Recently I came across this article, which talks about the difference between helping and being in service of life.  I thought I'd share it.  Tell me what you think.



                                                 In the Service of Life
                                       
                                              by Rachel Naomi Remen

In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people.  But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider.  Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?

Serving is different from helping.  Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals.  When you help, you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength.  If I'm attentive to what's going on inside of me when I'm helping, I find that I'm always helping someone who's not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am.  People feel this inequality.  When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness.  When I help, I am very aware of my own strength.  But we don't serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves.  We draw from all of our experiences.  Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve.  The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life.  The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me.  Service is a relationship between equals.

Helping incurs debt.  When you help someone, they owe you one.  But serving, like healing, is mutual.  There is no debt.  I am as served as the person I am serving.  When I help, I have a feeling of satisfaction.  When I serve, I have a feeling of gratitude.  These are very different things.

Serving is also different from fixing.  When I fix a person, I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act.  When I fix, I do not see the wholeness in the other person or trust the integrity of the life in them.  When I serve, I see and trust that wholeness.  It is what I am responding to and collaborating with.

There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing.  Fixing is a form of judgement.  All judgement creates distance, a disconnection, and experience of difference.  In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.  We cannot serve at a distance.  We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.  This is Mother Teresa's basic message.  We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

If helping is an experience of strength, fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise.  Service, on the other hand, is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe.  A fixer has the illusion of being causal.  A server knows that he or she is being used and has a willingness to be used in the service of something greater, something essentially unknown.  Fixing and helping are very personal; they are very particular, concrete and specific.  We fix and help many different things in our lifetimes, but when we serve we are always serving the same things.  Everyone who has ever served through the history of time serves the same thing.  We are servers of the wholeness and mystery in life.

The bottom line, of course, is that we can fix without serving.  And we can help without serving.  And we can serve without fixing or helping.  I think I would go so far as to say that fixing and helping may often be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.  They may look similar if you're watching from the outside, but the inner experience if different.  The outcome is often different, too.

Our service serves us as well as others.  That which uses us strengthens us.  Over time, fixing and helping are draining, depleting.  Over time we burn out.  Service is renewing.  When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.

Service rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose.  When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose.  Fundamentally, helping, fixing and service are ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.  From the perspective of service, we are all connected:  All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy.  The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.

Lastly, fixing and helping are the basis of curing, but not of healing.  In 40 years of chronic illness, I have been helped by many people and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness.  All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways.  Only service heals.

Reprinted from Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1996

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Launching: Sewing Machines for Christmas



The last time I spoke with Umuregwa, the first woman I bought a sewing machine for in Rwanda, the number of women she organized in her sewing association numbered ten.  Of those ten women, only two of them owned their machines, while the other eight are still renting.  

The reason I purchased the machines for two women, if you recall, is that rent for a sewing machine costs the equivalent of 33 USD per month, which is 66% of her gross income.  It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out most of what she is working for goes to paying for her machine and that in approximately four months she could buy a machine with what she pays in rent— if she were able to get ahead.  This is money that she could be using to buy food and clothes for her children each month, or money she could be using to reinvest in her community, making it a better place to live.  By building a park, for example.  Or maybe a kindergarten.  Or maybe medicine for her sick child.

My goal is to raise funds for purchasing eight sewing machines for the women who are still renting them, by December 25th, 2013.  Wouldn’t it be a nice to make a significant difference in someone’s life that won’t cost you more than a night out at a movie or a cup of coffee?  Now, I’m not suggesting you go without the pleasure of a buttery-popcorn-candy-filled night watching your favorite flick or a daily cup of pumpkin-spice-doughnut-flavored caffeinated deliciousness.  Consider matching what you spend on an indulgence to feel the gratification of doing something more-- be something more.  Right now.  Today. 

Make a donation in any amount as you appreciate the abundance in your life and then share it with others.  By empowering these women with more financial influence, I believe they will become a more commanding voice in their communities.  More money means more choices.  More money means economic stability and independence for Rwandan women. 

This holiday season, when your families are deciding to which charity to donate, please consider giving the gift of a sewing machine to a woman Musanze, Rwanda.    Do a little more.  Be a little more.  Begin today.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Sewing a Hopeful Future for Rwanda"



Follow this link to read about an article by Hamline University, Saint Paul, MN and the study abroad trip that inspired Begin..

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Be the Change...




During the last few days in Musanze, I spent a considerable amount of time at a local market because I was with fellow students who were shopping for fabric and having African shirts, dresses, and skirts made. I took advantage of the opportunity to ask the seamstress about her life. Yvan, our tour guide, translated for me. I found out that this woman, whose name is Umuregwa, has two children ages 2 months and 3 years. Her 2 month old, a sweet baby girl named Joyce, was sleeping behind her machine on the platform where fabrics are displayed. Joyce woke up while we were talking, Umuregwa nursed her and then another woman, who sold the fabric at this particular stall, carried Joyce on her back as Umuregwa went back to sewing. I learned the women at the market help each other and take care of each other's children, but are only friends, not relatives of any kind. Umuregwa went on to tell me that she makes 30,000 RWF (Rwandan francs) or about 50 USD per month, and from that she pays 20,000 RWF or 33 USD in rent for her sewing machine. Her husband is unemployed and working odd jobs since he was demobilized from the military two years ago. Her income supports the majority of her family's basic needs and definitely doesn't allow for anything extra. They net only $17 a month. I was astounded to learn that the cost to purchase her own machine would be about 70,000 RWF or 115 USD. Cripes. I spend approximately that much on my cell phone bill each month. 

Yvan introduced to her the idea of starting a cooperative in the market, telling her that, if women owned their own machines and had more money, they could reinvest some of it in their community to benefit their children - for example building a kindergarten or green space for kids to play soccer. Yvan's tour company focuses on community based tourism, working to establish associations and co-ops in order to bring visitors to see what local groups of people are doing. In this way, tourists are able to learn about local culture and purchase products directly from the people who make them, providing a personal connection related to product consumption. How often do you know who makes the products you buy? Usually as consumers we are so far removed from the source of the product it takes a herculean effort to find out where it came from, who made it, and what that person's life is like. 
I was bubbling with the idea of somehow helping these women by raising the funds to help them buy their machines, while Yvan could help them begin to understand what a co-op could do for them. Then it hit me. What if I could start right now?

Yvan took me to a local bank with an ATM, but we weren't sure that an international card would work - the availability of the international credit card network is still pretty new here. Guidebooks still say that it's not possible. I withdrew the amount I needed and we brought it back to her. Her response was priceless. After hugging me and crying and telling me she would never be able to find the words to thank me, she said she wanted to bring her three year old to meet me at the hotel before we leave Musanze. 

As I was going to sleep last night, I realized that I could buy one more machine before we left town. I had received a grant from the anthropology department at Hamline to do an independent study on surviving violence in Rwanda, but Professor Hoffman told me if it doesn't work out for some reason, to donate the money to a group or organization as I saw fit. After eating an early breakfast, I set out for the ATM again and was able to pass along the money to Umuregwa when I saw her this morning for another woman that we had talked with, so she could also buy her own machine with the Hamline funds. I feel like there were so many factors to how this worked out - the support of my professors, the shopping by students, the interpretation and ideas by Yvan, my desire to 'do' something, Umuregwa's willingness to converse with us, and even the timeliness of international banking options. The timing was perfect. 

Mothers help mothers. It's what we do. It doesn't matter where or who we are, we understand the work it takes to care for children and the struggle it can sometimes be. Who says a supportive group of fellow moms can't be global? Everything else in the world seems to be. Maybe the world will change one sewing machine at a time.