Saturday, January 8, 2011

January 2011, looking back.

I’ve been feeling as though I need to write a post, but I’ve not been particularly inspired.  2010 slipped out of her prom dress, and 2011 snuck in the window with little fanfare.  Today feels no different than yesterday, and I’m not looking forward to the coming year with any  particular anticipation.  This post is an edited version of the letter that went out with my holiday cards last month.  I like to use the holiday season as an opportunity to reflect upon the year that has passed and share some of the milestones with my friends and family, because even those with whom I speak regularly don’t always get all the information, and it is a nice exercise for me to review all that has happened.  It is very easy to forget what one has done!  

It’s hard to believe that it has been a whole year since I wrote my last annual winter note, yet at the same time, it seems like a distant memory.  I have survived more than half of my graduate program, though I think my sanity probably has a few more dings in it.  While I remain hopeful that this will lead me to good things, it has certainly not been a picnic.  I have 3 more classes to take—two this spring:  Economics for Public Affairs and Nonprofit Management, and then a capstone course over summer.  In the meantime, there is some talk of a potential new opportunity in my current job. 

Though my day job and my classes take up most of my time and energy, I have managed to do a few things this year.  I continue to serve as the Secretary of my neighborhood association.  In December, we had our 4th annual holiday party which was wonderful and delicious as always.  I truly love that seeing my neighbors (and discovering what delectables they have brought for my consumption) is one of the things I most look forward to in the holiday season.  A new holiday tradition for me is an annual party thrown by some neighbors to raise money for the local food bank.  The family lives just down the street from me and have renovated a turn-of-the-century farm house, restoring it to a single-family home and infusing it with their seemingly boundless creativity.  Among the many awesome things that they do, is this annual soup party, now in its 18th year.  They provide several amazingly huge pots of amazing soup, friends bring sides and desserts along with their own bowls & spoons (for which awards are given in various categories), and in the middle of their table is a large bowl for monetary contributions to the local food bank.  This year, the party raised $2200!  These are the kind of people whom I am astoundingly grateful and proud to count as friends and neighbors. 

Any recap of 2010 would be incomplete without at least a passing mention of SNOWMAGEDDON!  As noted in my last tome, the University of Pittsburgh rarely closes—even a Secret Service perimeter cutting through campus and snipers on the rooftops only caused afternoon classes to be canceled for one day.  Normally, we’re expected to show up for work like we’re the Postal Service (classes may be canceled, but staff still must report for work or forfeit a vacation day).  This year, however, Mother Nature finally beat Mark Nordenberg.  The epic snowstorm of February effectively shut down the City of Pittsburgh for three days.  Minus shoveling 3+ feet of snow off my 75ft driveway, it was actually a lot of fun to have snow days!  

In March, I again worked with a friend from Regent Square and the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh on our third community workshop to help homeowners make well-informed decisions about renovations that will accomplish their goals while avoiding mistakes that will lower the value of their home in the long run.  2010’s workshop focused specifically on energy efficiency, and in 2011’s will be on improving curb appeal.

In April, after the snow melted, I participated in the Amizade Water Walk for Women’s Rights which raised money to help a community in Tanzania have access to fresh, clean water which will not only have an obvious impact on the community’s health, but will free the women and girls from the arduous daily walk to fill cisterns of water that they must carry back to their village.  We walked 1.1 miles carrying 1.1 gallons of water to represent the estimated 1.1 billion people in the world who do not have access to clean water.  Thanks to the great generosity and support of my friends and family, I raised over $400.  I called upon their kindness again in October, and they helped me raise $335 for Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue and advocacy group, by sponsoring me in the 2010 Walk for Farm Animals

Also in Spring, I had the weighty honor to officiate the wedding of two dear friends on Memorial Day.  It was an amazing experience (I had never done such a thing), and I am truly humbled that they asked me to participate in such a special way in this important occasion.  Based on the feedback, I think the ceremony was a success, and I am hopeful that it marked the beginning of a wonderful lifetime of love for my friends (and now their new baby!).

Last year, I reported on the wonderful visit I had with my friend, D, who came to see me from Slovenia.  This summer brought another European visitor, M, this time from Sweden.  My Swedish friend came to see his Pittsburgh sweetheart (also my friend), and I was very happy to spend some time with them over dinner and exploring a bit of Oakland, including a tour of the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  I’ve known M for about eight years through the web and letters, so it was a true delight to get to spend time with him in person, and I’m so very happy that my friends found one another.  

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended in late August/early September, as the nation was in an ignorant furor over the proposed Cordoba Community Center in midtown Manhattan.  I was happy and most grateful to accept the generosity and friendship of the Turkish Cultural Center and join them at their Iftar tent to celebrate community at the end of their daily fast.  Each night for the last week of Ramadan, members of the TCCP sponsor a meal and invite the public to come break bread with them, serving 100-200 people a day.  TCCP actively participates in interfaith and intercultural dialog in Pittsburgh, and I thank them for their tireless work to promote peace, friendship, and understanding, even as they often must face bigotry in their own home. 

The following week, I enjoyed my annual pilgrimage to the Scottish Highland Games in Ligonier, and later in the month, one of my cousins and her boyfriend moved in down the street.  It has been great to get to spend time with them and get to know my cousin better.  I’m hopeful that they’ll be staying in town for a few years so we’ll have some more time together before they most likely head back west.  

I was delighted to spend Thanksgiving with my mother, a good friend from India, and her mother who spends 6 months a year with her.  It was an honor to cook my friend’s mother’s first American Thanksgiving, and to share pullau and kheer with mashed potatoes, mushroom barley soup, and winter squash gratin.  In the America for which I am grateful, we are blessed to know friends from many places, break bread together, and get to know one another so that we can make sure that peace is always more important than chauvinism, and that love will ever cast out the seeds of war and ignorance.  

 My America also tastes a heck of a lot better.  ;-)

I hope that whatever celebrations you have this winter season are filled with light, food, friends, and family, and that they have called you to embody that greatest of all human aspirations—agapé love.  May the winter chill curl you inward to reflect, restore, and renew your soul so that you may greet 2011 with clear eyes, an open heart, and vigorous spirit.  

With much love and great gratitude for the amazingly beautiful, brilliant, kind, generous, creative, and compassionate people in my life—I wish you all health, wealth, and happiness in the coming year and always.

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.