Girls Rising

small world

Note:  This post was mostly written before the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, which, as I as write this, is still underway. Condolences to all the victims and to the residents of Boston and its surroundings. May “positive disruption” expand so that alienated young men can find non-violent ways to express themselves and politicians can find the courage to support gun control.

Female empowerment has dominated our household for the past few weeks.  On April 3, Daughter #1, who has been volunteering at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attended a TEDxChange talk there on “Positive Disruption”  – a term used to describe making catalytic changes to society, agriculture, technology and communities.

tedxchange-2013

Afterwards the teen volunteers got to meet with the presenters. D#1 was particularly taken with Halimatou Hima, a sweet and soft spoken young human rights activist from Niger.

image courtesy of Unicef

image courtesy of Unicef

She was also impressed by Melinda Gates.  (I couldn’t help but wonder aloud whether Melinda Gates is spared eye-rolling from her kids, who are around the same age as mine.  The consensus  among the teens present in my minivan was that no parent is immune to eye-rolling).

Say it ain't so, Michelle.

Michelle, say it ain’t so.

TEDxChange is a program dedicated to spreading ideas in the areas of global health and development. It was created in 2010 out of a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and TEDx, a program designed to give communities, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. This talk was TedxChange’s annual global signature event.

D #1 also met Salim Shekh and Sikha Patra, who are featured in the film  “The Revolutionary Optimists,” which describes children who are saving lives in the slums of Calcutta.  That evening, she attended a screening of that film.

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The next night, Jeff took Daughters #1 and #2 and me to a screening of Girl Rising, the story of nine girls from nine different countries, who fought for the right to be educated.

girl rising

It’s a moving and powerful film and my girls could relate to the girls it depicted.  Except at 6:30 the next morning. “Remember how determined Wadley was to go to school?” I asked, as I tried to pry my sleepy, grumpy  daughters out of bed, invoking the impish Haitian girl who, post-earthquake, staged a sit-in at her reconstituted school, so she would be allowed to study there, even though her mother could not afford to pay the fees.

When your kids are exposed to such stories and when they tell you they were inspired by them, you can feel good, as a parent and as a global citizen.  Isn’t this the kind of leaning in we really want?  For our daughters to be part of a global movement for the betterment of all?

After the excitement of the TED talk and movies died down, we spent the rest of the week and most of that weekend preparing for Daughter #1′s trip to Japan, as part of a school exchange program. There were two mall forays (which, thankfully, turned out better than the first one) and an exhaustive hunt for a travel-safe shoulder bag with zippers that “doesn’t make me look like a forty-year-old woman.” (ouch)The trip involved traveling with a dozen other eighth-graders and two teachers, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and then staying with a Japanese family and attending school in the town of Izushi.

izushi1
I’ve tried to take advantage of daily opportunities to expose my daughters to other cultures:
Them:  What are we having for dinner?

Me:  Chicken
Them, warily:  What country?

Bathroom renovation #2 is underway.  Whenever Ds #1 and #2 sit on the toilet, they will look down on a floor embedded with the Talavera tiles we brought back from Mexico.

There has been some eye-rolling about this.

There has been some eye-rolling about this and about my proposed choices of hacienda-inspired wall colors:  fuschia, orange and bright blue.

But this would be the first time one of my daughters would venture into the world without us.

In the background, we were aware that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new young leader, perhaps seeking his own noteworthy method of “leaning in,” was threatening to test-fire a missile and that Japan’s Ministry of Defense was assembling anti-missile defenses.

I contacted Foreign Service friends with connections to Japan and Korea in an effort to establish a personal in-country connection. I encouraged the teacher to register her group with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  I scanned travel advisories and alerts and was relieved that Japan was not one of the countries on the list.

My mother told me that when I was an exchange student in France, she used to read my letters, filled with tales of mishaps and near-catastrophes, over a bottle of wine.  “How can you do that,” people would ask her. Because of the time lag with international communication in the pre-Internet age, she knew that by the time she received my letters, I had weathered the storms (though likely had embarked on new adventures).

Daughter #1 left for Japan and Daughter #2 and I went to Los Angeles with friends.

We took full advantage of technology

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and were able to Snapchat and Instagram pictures of the set and one of the stars of Pretty Little Liars

Spencer's mom.

Spencer’s mom.

and look at pictures of D#1 and her friends buying toy swords, riding the subway and gorging themselves on Tokyo sweets.

D#2 and I were in Disneyland when we learned the extent of the Boston Marathon bombings.  It was surreal to be at “the happiest place on earth.”

We embarked on boats and rode through the timeless and, that day, timely classic ride, It’s a Small World, and I almost didn’t mind having the song stuck in my head.

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D#1 will be back this weekend.  I know she will be forever changed by this experience.

I can’t wait to see her.

Just after I started writing this post,  Anne Smedinghoff, a young Foreign Service Officer, was killed in Afghanistan.

Having been a young idealistic Foreign Service Officer in a country that had been devastated by war, I could imagine what she was feeling as she drove down that dusty road. She must have been anticipating the delight of the children who would receive the books she was donating and how impressed they would be that she could speak a few words of Dari. She would drink the tea that was offered to her, pose for pictures and return to her compound, confident that, history notwithstanding, on that day she had made a difference.

I wrote a book about my experiences, but my Foreign Service stories are  only the first section of my memoir.  Anne Smedinghoff’s life story stops prematurely.

To her parents, who supported her desire to engage in positive disruption,  I extend my heartfelt condolences.

My Three Sons

” I have mountains to look at, stars at night to gaze at and it’s so dark that you can see every star in the sky. Also, the people here… everyone wants to help each other.”

“When I arrived here, nobody knew me. Nobody looked at me and associated anything besides the connotations of being American. It’s like someone just hit the ‘reset’ button on my life, and I get to build a name for myself from scratch again. It’s a great feeling to know that anything people think of me before they get to know me comes from questionable stereotypes and nothing else.” 

“Best of all, we got to experience life under a philosophy that’s different from today’s norm. Rather than “keeping up with the Kardashians” and constantly working more in order to buy more, our hosts worked comfortably with what they had. As a result they’ve ended up with a beautiful home, two grounded and fun-loving sons, and best of all, the time to appreciate it. “

Three young men that I have known since birth are on extended forays in Afghanistan, France and New Zealand.  These sojourners — a soldier, a “sheap traveler” and a student — are sharing their impressions of the world, and their place in it, via Facebook and blogs.

(To be fair, the insights about appreciating what you have were written by the sheap traveler’s girlfriend and travel companion.  He’s lucky to be sharing his life and this adventure with such a grounded, healthy “shiny” young woman).

More than thirty years ago, I launched myself into the world.  There was no Internet back then, and therefore no Facebook and blogs, and the only way to share one’s impressions was via tissue paper- thin aerogrammes. It usually took two weeks for them to reach their destination and two additional weeks to receive a reply.

By the time the response arrived, you might have forgotten what had inspired you to write in the first place, having moved on to new experiences and corresponding new emotions.

I like this real time communication.  Yesterday I chatted on Facebook with my sweet, strong nephew A, who is serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan.  He regularly Skypes with his wife, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and I imagine it is a great comfort to them to know that he feels safe and happy under the stars and that the previous night he shared a delicious meal with his Italian friends.  Rather than feel isolated, A can participate in home life and share the sweet mix of pumpkin patches, soccer games, doggy love and memories of good food with the people he loves.

I had to laugh when I read K’s accounts of student life in France.  Not much has changed since I attended a lycee in 1978.  His blog reminds me of the highs and lows I felt each day, as I, too, struggled with stereotypes and the reserve of the French students at my school.

I spent a second year attending college in France in the company of E’s parents.   Reading his stories of living and working in New Zealand on the cheap brings back memories of sleeping in parks and youth hostels, drinking inexpensive red wine and taking endless train trips throughout Europe.

E did a stint living and working in New York, so he’s experienced one version of “grown-up” life.  Now he’s seeing contrasting views of what a satisfying life can be. I can’t wait to find out what he decides for himself.

A few weeks ago, when the Canadians were here, Jeff pulled out his journals from his 1990 Everest trek.

That’s where he met S, aka “Cheesehead” (we’re not talking about Wisconsin here.  Jeff says this is the term used in Bellingham, Washington in the 1970s to describe Canadians who crossed the border in search of dairy products).

More than twenty years later, we laughed as Jeff read us his impressions of S and tales of their adventures together in Nepal.  Twenty years and two very different life paths, yet we marveled after the Canadians left, that Jeff and S still feel a sense of connection and of shared values, as well as a mutual acknowledgement that their international experiences  shaped the way they chose to live their lives.

I’ve been reliving my own first tentative steps into the world as I put the finishing touches on the cover and interior design of my book Ruminations from the Minivan, musings from a world grown large, then small, which should be out by the end of next month (stay tuned for details).

I know of what I speak when I tell these young men that their lives will be forever changed by their international forays.

“Kids, today,” one generation is fond of sighing about the next.

Judging from the tales from abroad I’ve been reading, I’d say, the kids are alright.  They are scaling mountains.  They are making informed choices about their values.  They are not sheep.

If my two daughters  explore the world and show as much insight, sensitivity and open-mindedness  as my three spiritual sons, I will have fulfilled my most important goal as a parent.  Their parents should be very proud of them.  I know I am.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of cooking going in in our house because we are still adjusting to a busier schedule.  One night, tired of quesadillas and pasta, I vowed to make the Garum Factory’s Roast Chicken with Muhammara, but was thwarted by a Justin Bieber-related incident that it took most of the night to resolve (this time it’s personal, Bieber!).  A few nights later I did make that blissful chicken and the night after that, I used the stock I’d made from the chicken carcass to make one of my favorite standby soups, Ezogelin Corbasi, Turkish Red Lentil, Bulgur and Mint Soup.  Recipes for this soup abound. I used the recipe from Turquoise, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s beautiful book about their culinary travels in Turkey.  Here’s a link to the recipe.

You can find some additional fabulous Greg Malouf recipes here.  

Lentils are one of those ancient foods that provide sustenance all around the world.  May these young men continue to find sustenance and broadened perspectives  through the people they meet and the meals they share.