House Concerts

Big LIttle Lions here September 2018.

Our home seems made for house concerts. This place is open in an unassuming way. Plenty of space for people eat and talk, then find a spot to sit when musicians begin to play. I feels to me as if a glow hovers around everyone at these events, intensifying as the evening goes on.

It doesn’t matter that our carpet is three decades old, that portions of the kitchen floor are in ruins, that there are several different colors of siding on our house. What matters is making very real connections in an era when we’re ever more likely to be distracted and rushed.

Two years ago my husband wanted to cancel our scheduled house concert. He insisted it would be too much for me. I’d recently gotten several frightening diagnoses and he was worried. I told him every crisis reminds us how radiant our lives already are and we were absolutely going ahead with the concert.

Our performer that autumn was veteran singer-songwriter Doug MacLeod. Doug had long performed the blues as a story-teller and won many  national Blues Music Awards. When he showed up we were all in his thrall. Can you remember the hippest guy in school, exploring the best music and coolest haunts but too laid back to brag? Doug was that guy, all the more awesome for each of his years. Doug sat down to play, man and guitar, his sandpaper-y voice wearing off our sharp edges. His stories and songs held us . Late in the evening he told us about his son Jesse’s cancer diagnosis and how they had begun composing together.  Quite a few of us were madly in love with him by evening’s end. Maybe, from sheer proximity, a little more hip too.

Our most recent house concert happened this weekend. We are honored to host amazing musicians from around the country, around the world (many found through the Concerts in Your Home network). I send out invitations well in advance, ask for RSVPs, try to have a houseful of around 30 people all donating a decent amount (100% to the musicians) to make it worth the musicians’ while. Many musicians stay here overnight, our breakfast conversations a rich new element to this experience. I tend to stress over RSVPs, probably because so many musicians performing in our rural home travel long distances to get here.

Maybe it’s a symptom of our times, but increasingly the 70 or so people on our invite list do not respond. Or they say they can come but cancel a few days before the performance. Recently a friend who cancelled actually paid for the two seats she and a friend would have occupied. Otherwise people don’t seem to understand that this is opportunity to engage with live music on the most direct terms —- literally feet away — with established, talented, extraordinary artists. The audience for this weekend’s concert, including family members, came to only 14 people in attendance.

My spouse says that our house concert experiment has run its course after nearly four years. I disagree. I did my share of active worrying when I got cancellation after cancellation for this weekend’s show, many of them less than 24 hours before performance time, but those who came told me it would be perfect exactly as it was.

They were right.

Artist Noah Derksen and his accompanist Abby Wales made it an all acoustic show to accommodate our small audience and it was perfect. Nothing will stop me from continuing after the marvelous energy of this show.

The community we all need is  in front of us. Miss your village? Maybe it’s right here, waiting for you to show up.

 

House Undivided

political opposites get along

This isn’t an accurate representation of the house I’m describing! CC by 2.0, photo by Michal Osmenda

When I drive into town, I go past a house that never fails to interest me. The house itself is entirely ordinary. I’ve never met the inhabitants. What’s fascinating is the dichotomy on display out front.

Take the driveway. Most evenings a pickup truck with mud streaks from off-roading is neatly parked next to a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Or take the landscaping. For over a decade and a half, the garden bed under the front window has sported a perennial planting — two equally large logos for rival teams Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines. This is a brave statement here in Ohio.

But the lawn is my favorite. Each presidential election season a competition is waged right there on the grass. A regular-sized Gore/Lieberman sign appeared close to the street in early autumn of 2000. The next time I drove by, a Bush/Cheney sign was placed directly in front of that sign. As weeks went by the signs were moved like two parrying chess pieces until a much larger Bush/Cheney sign appeared. That was followed by a larger Gore/Lieberman sign. A similar dance of political signs took place for the Kerry vs Bush race, the Obama vs McCain race, and the Obama vs Romney race. (This year, two very small signs….)

The couple in this house surely eat at the same table, sit on the same couch, flush the same toilet, and sleep in the same bed. They’ve managed to live together all these years while holding widely differing opinions. I thought I lived in a household of contradictions but these two are an inspiring example of publicly embracing their differences.

We’re told we live in an ever more divisive country. We tend to choose news sources that amplify our own worldviews. We tend to delete social media friends who don’t share our opinions. We tend to live in areas and move in social circles with people very similar to us. Yet insulating ourselves from those who are different just strengthens the perception that we’re irreconcilably different.

Research shows us that diversity sparks more innovative and energizing approaches to building strong communities and successful businesses.  Diversity can lead to some invigorating soul-searching  and growth on a personal level too. One of the main principles of nonviolence is finding common ground with each other. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, individual purpose, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

This house reminds me we can express our differences and still laugh.  We can challenge each other and in doing so, learn from each other. We can get beyond the urge to assert the superiority of our viewpoints by respecting each other, helping each other, and collaborating with each other. This house is who we really are as a nation. May it be so.

“Society evolves not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.” ~Lewis Thomas

Gifting a Week of Meals

giving meals, cooking for others, meal sharing,

Yum. (CC by 2.0 thebittenword.com on flickr)

Soon after my second baby was born, I was informed that I’d be receiving a week of meals delivered by my friends. The next seven nights our doorbell rang and there stood someone dear to me holding warm dishes filled with delights.

A break from planning and making dinner was a blessed relief. It also exposed my family to a wider array of foods. More importantly, each night we sat down to eat a relaxed dinner lovingly made for us.

We were given so much food that we tucked lots of it in the freezer, spreading the bounty of kindness into the following weeks. One friend came laden with two different kinds of lasagna, one with garlicky white sauce and spinach, another layered with black beans and lots of veggies. Years later I still make both of her recipes.

A week of meals for families with new babies became a tradition in my circle of friends and my Le Leche League chapter. Here’s what worked for us.

1. Someone particularly close to the new mom and her family usually broached the idea to their mutual friends. We never designated a person in charge of planning. But your group of friends, or church, or neighborhood may decide that putting one person in charge of noting who will make a meal which night makes it easier.

2. We contacted the new mom with some basic questions such as best days and times to drop off food, food preferences, and if she wanted food brought ready to eat at dinner time or in advance to heat up later that day. Some moms preferred to have meal deliveries every other day.

3. Then we verified the plans with all potential participants. It worked best to accommodate a variety of needs among people contributing meals. Some preferred to drop off bags of Mid-Eastern salads or trays of sushi they picked up on the way home from work. Some didn’t have time to deliver a meal during the week but happily provided brunch on the weekend. It helped to jot down what people were planning to make so the family didn’t end up with three enchilada entrees on three consecutive nights.

4. We sent out a full schedule to everyone participating. It functioned as a reminder, listed who was bringing what, and offered suggestions such as labeling pans and including recipes. A shared Google doc can uncomplicate things. Or use one of these online meal scheduling sites to make this easier:

Meal Baby

Take Them a Meal

Meal Train

Care Calendar

Lotsa Helping Hands

Caring Meals

Of course, a new baby isn’t the only reason to provide a series of meals. It’s a great way to welcome someone home when they return from service project or military assignment. It’s a godsend when people are dealing with illness or injury. And it’s remarkably helpful during the time a family is undergoing a major home renovation. Mix it up. Rather than arranging a week of steady meals, you might offer a meal every Wednesday or set up a regular potluck date to eat together.

There may be no more basic gesture of kindness than feeding people. Food sharing is a tradition found in every culture, stretching back to our earliest history. It’s a stomach-filling, community-building kindness like no other. It can also swing back around remarkably. By the time my fourth child was born I was gifted with a full three weeks of meals, nearly all made by people I’d once cooked for. It was an embarrassment of riches but oh how those delicious foods warmed our hearts.

Other ways to build community:

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Engage the Window Box Effect

It Really Does Take a Village

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation 

Welcome Kids Into the Workplace More Than Once a Year

Odd Second Saturday Suppers

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

This is a repost from our farm site

Welcome Kids Into The Workplace More Than One Day A Year

role models, peer segregation, children in workplace, take your child to work day,

Finding out about real world work. (Clarkston SCAMP)

Twenty-some years ago, a radical idea was launched. One day out of the year take girls out of school and bring them to work for Take Our Daughters To Work Day. The practice was intended to give girls a glimpse into possible careers and break down barriers to success. From the start many parents brought both boys and girls. Then the project was officially expanded to include boys. Today it’s wildly popular. Last year 37 million people participated in the U.S. alone.

It’s hard to know how much impact one day a year has on a child’s career aspirations, let alone determine if it breaks down any barriers. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity,

The wage gap persists at all levels of education. In 2011, the typical woman in the United States with a high school diploma working full time, year round was paid only 74 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart. Among people with a bachelor’s degrees, the figure was also 74 cents…A typical woman who worked full time, year round would lose $443,360 in a 40-year period due to the wage gap. A woman would have to work almost 12 years longer to make up this gap.

Inequality remains firmly in place for women in business and the sciences. There are larger issues going on here, but spending more than one day a year observing the real world of work might help.

Throughout nearly all of their childhood and teen years our kids are segregated in day care, school, sports, and other activities. Even when they benefit from the very best programs, if they’re restricted to the company of same-aged peers they are deprived of the riches found through fully engaging in the larger community.

This subverts the way youth have matured throughout most of human history, when children learned right alongside people of all ages as they gathered food, built shelters, and performed every other skill necessary to sustain a community. Young people learned more than carving spears and tanning hides, they picked up character traits that would hold them in good stead through life.

Today’s kids still have the age-old desire to gain mastery in areas of interest and to model themselves after those they admire. There’s nothing like being exposed to people engaged in meaningful and useful activities to spark those desires. That’s why I’ve made a point of making sure my kids get the chance to see as much of the working world as possible. Along with members of our homeschool groups and 4-H club, my kids and their friends have gotten the chance to see, up close, the work of chemists, wood carvers, bankers, blacksmiths, forensic investigators, geologists, boomerang athletes, farmers, engineers, chefs, potters, horse trainers, entrepreneurs, and many other adults who are passionate about what they do.

Interestingly, when I’ve asked for our kids’ groups to observe or even take part in the work-a-day world people rarely turn us down. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes.

Age segregation goes both ways—adults are separated from most youth in our society too. After an afternoon together we’ve gotten the same feedback again and again. These adults say they had no idea the work they do would be so interesting to kids. They marvel at the questions asked, observations made, and ideas proffered by youth that the media often portrays as disaffected or worse. They shake hands with young people who a few hours ago were strangers and say, “Come back in a few years, I’d like to have you intern here,” or “We could use an engineer who thinks the way you do. Think about going into the field,” or “Thanks for coming. I’ve never had this much fun at work.”

If you want to help your kids benefit this way, here’s how to activate your knowledge networks and reconnect kids with the larger community.

Hijab Games & Pink Shirt Days

bystander effect, stand up for others, hijab soccer, pink shirt day, anti-bullying,

“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.”  Gloria Steinem

A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.

Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.

bystander effect,

Samah Aidah and her teammates smiling together at Overland High School in Denver, Colorado
(aquila-style.com)

These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.

When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.

We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?

1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.

2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.

3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.

That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions.  For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:

How To Get Involved When It’s None of Your Business

And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.

A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up.  No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts.  The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.

 

Resources

books

Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil

Keeping the Peace: Practicing Cooperation and Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers by Susanne Wichert 

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso

Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years by Carl Pickhardt

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner

Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Dermond

books for kids

Bystander Power: Now with Anti-Bullying Action  by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein

Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson

Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper

other resources

Erase Bullying videos

Stop Bullying site

 

 

I Heckle, You Heckle, Let’s All Heckle

heckle, roots of word heckle, change the world,

I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.

That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.

I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).

Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task.  People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.

Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news.  There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.

When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.

Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.

Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.

Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.

PITY THE NATION
(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except  to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.

I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.

We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.

social change, heckler,

Heckling combs. Image: nimpsu.deviantart.com

Odd Second Saturday Suppers

Odd Second Saturday Suppers, potluck inspiration, easiest party ever,

Image: 8o-clock.deviantart.com

The happiness glass fills when we spend time with people we love.  It’s startling and appalling to me how many friends I adore, but almost never see. When we do get together we can pick up right where we left off, laughing as well as diving into the deepest topics, yet we don’t make time to see each other very often. That’s just wrong. (I’ll keep myself from using the newest curse word although it applies here.)

Years ago we spontaneously invited friends over for dinner all the time. We hosted wildly silly kid events like BYOB parties (bring your own box) and pig pen parties. But lassitude set in after years of constant financial strain and the sadness of dealing with our parents’ last years. Lately I’ve been fighting back.

At the start of 2013 I decided to commit to a series of events at our house. I named them Odd Second Saturday Suppers. Last January I sent emails to a few friends who live nearby inviting them to potlucks here on the second Saturday of every odd month. That meant we committed in advance to hosting parties in January, March, May, July, September, and November. Because they were planned well in advance, I bypassed the vague “Oh we really should get together” intentions that are unlikely to happen. Here’s the invite:

Odd* Second Saturday Suppers

We’re starting a new tradition.

We are inviting friends to a regular gathering at our home for food, conversation, and simple relaxation. These will take place the second Saturday on odd months.

 I’ll send out reminders at the beginning of those odd months. We’ll provide an entree or two. Bring something to share if you can: beverage, appetizer, side, or dessert. Not sure about the time, I was thinking around five-ish but let’s stay flexible. Different months may offer different possibilities. You are invited to all but of course, come to the ones that best fit your schedule.**

 We also welcome new friends, so feel free to bring along a guest or two.

 Here are the dates:

January 12th

March 9th

May 11th

July 13th

September 14th

November 9th

*Odd as in quaint, funny, unusual. Also odd as in unevenly numbered months.

**If you abhor the idea or plan to be busy every one of those Saturdays let me know and I’ll spare you the reminders.

Sometimes as the date got closer we didn’t feel ready to have a houseful of guests. But when the day arrived we were eager to see everyone. Each event has been slightly different. We’ve sat out back to enjoy a bonfire, we’ve played Cards Against Humanity, I even cajoled people into playing absurd outdoor games, but mostly we’ve focused on eating and chatting. Because these are potlucks there’s minimal fuss. (Also, my husband and kids are great about hustling in advance of events to straighten the house, mow grass, and generally help prepare.)

By the last scheduled Odd Supper we weren’t sure if we’d continue. Difficulties cropped up as they do—a house needing repair, a job lost, a refrigerator that no one wanted to clean even if the Queen herself might be arriving.  But really, it’s not hard at all. It’s wonderful. (I was kidding about cleaning the refrigerator, we don’t invite people who care about my semi-awful refrigerator.)

So in 2014 year we’re throwing the invite list open a little wider and asking friends from a little farther away. And they won’t all be Odd Suppers. I’m plotting that several dates will be art parties or adventures far from our little farm.

How are you fighting back against the forces that keep you from enjoying friends near and far?

For A Fresher & Juicier Experience, Mix It Up!

This doesn’t bode well. I’ve been talked into a day-long workshop and I don’t know where to go.

There are two large conference rooms at the Cleveland Marriott. Their doors open across the hall from each other. There are also two different groups convening today, but someone has neglected to post signs at either one.

Now, to figure out which group is mine.

On one side waiters roll in carts of muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee. A tray of bright red strawberries passes tantalizingly close to me. I long to taste just one from the tray, but show uncharacteristic restraint due to the press of people entering that conference. Through those doors walk people who are impeccably dressed. Not only suits on the men but shined shoes, not only dresses on the women but elaborate hats. The attendees are all African-American.  I spy a few Bibles.  Seems to be an evangelical gathering of some sort.

On the other side there’s a lone table with water pitchers and glasses.  Folks are moseying in slowly. Their clothing is more diverse than their skin tone.  I spot Indonesian, African, and Japanese prints.  In front of me a man with long gray hair in a pony tail is saying something to a companion about “passing through a portal of enhanced energy.” I assume he is making an ironic comment about walking through such a blandly generic doorway, but he goes on to remark that this was the name of a workshop he’d attended in Phoenix recently.  Yup, this is my side of the hallway.

I find the friends who invited me and silently promise myself to sit still. (I’m not much for staying put.) Music starts, we sing, and I’m ready to have my consciousness raised.

I’ll give her this, the speaker is interesting.  She sets off my “Oh sheesh” meter a few times thanks to her quasi-scientific quantum physics references, but I already agree with what she’s saying. Each of us can be light workers who spread hope, and ultimately greater peace, through our daily words and actions.  We participate in group meditations, activating ourselves to take on greater responsibilities for uplifting others.  While not new, her message is certainly valuable.

But all that time we’re stuck in a meeting room. I don’t know how anyone can sit that long. I tend to wiggle and my mind wanders when my body is uncomfortable. I wonder how our brethren across the way are faring. When the fidgets get the best of me I excuse myself for a hallway ramble. I notice through open doors on the other side of the hall that those participants are also chair-bound, staring straight ahead with the glazed look that comes from hours of immobility.  Likely we are gathered in both conferences for similar purposes—-to enliven our spiritual lives and bring greater harmony to our bit of the planet.  And surely the experience is enriching.  But both meetings could be so much more if only we weren’t locked into a school-like format.

We humans learn as we make discoveries and face challenges. We learn by translating our experiences into story, song, art, into something created.  We learn through the wisdom of our bodies. We don’t learn as fully when passively sitting still and shutting up for long periods of time indoors. Opening conferences (and any educational venture) to more direct involvement lets the lessons sink in deeper, making whatever we’ve learned more easily applied in our real lives.

I’ve worked for years teaching non-violence techniques to teachers and community groups (and I hope making the workshop experience a lively one).  A key ingredient is finding common ground with those you perceive as dissimilar to yourself.  Connecting with others leads to rich possibilities.  The new combinations can be awesome.

Returning to my chair I can’t help but remember an old 80’s advertisement for candy.  Chocolate and peanut butter collide and find that together they are more delicious, creating a whole new confection that the world loves.

I imagine the doors to both conference rooms bursting wide open and the participants merging. Meditations combining with prayers.  Affirmations mixing with hymns. Our mutual dislike of sitting too long in these chairs turning into a joyous celebration that dances beyond the doors.  How much we all have to share with each other.

And yes, maybe I do imagine tasting those strawberries at last.

child

International Hosting: How Strangers Become Family

Children of Chernobyl, host a child,

Tanya’s portrait.

“It’s a decision of the heart.”

Director Patty Knable sat at our kitchen table interviewing my family as potential hosts for the Children of Chernobyl Project.  It had taken almost two years to get the Ohio branch of this non-profit to consider us (based in Youngstown, they preferred families nearby). I hoped we passed muster.

The Children of Chernobyl Project brought kids each year from contaminated areas in Belarus to stay for the summer with host families. Vast amounts of radiation were released in the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Radionuclides spread from the Ukraine across Europe, leaving 23 percent of the territory in Belarus highly contaminated. Food, water, even the dust exposed people to radiation. (It will continue to do so for countless generations.) The result? Much higher risks of cancers, genetic mutations, and other health problems. Getting kids out of that area for a few months each year to live with host families helped to boost their immune systems. We were told it had to do with eating uncontaminated food and getting medical care. Patty said extra happiness helped too.

I asked how she matched a child with a host family. She said it was hard to explain. She looked at the names of the children on her list, thought about the families who had applied, and let something past intuition guide her. “It’s amazing how it works out,” she said. “It’s a decision of the heart.”

A few weeks later we were told the little girl who would stay with us that summer was Tatiana, seven years old. We learned very little about her in advance other than she was an only child.

I knew she had to be a very brave little girl to travel thousands of miles away from home to stay with strangers, people who didn’t even speak her language. I knew her parents must be even braver. I wondered if I’d be able to muster the courage to send my children away if I were in the same situation. (Our home is closer to two nuclear power plants, along the shores of Lake Erie, than Tatiana’s family was to the ruined Chernobyl plant, so the consideration is important.) I’d long been driven to act in opposition to the splitting of the atom, but preparing to host this little girl felt entirely different than petitions and rallies and lobbying. It felt like simply extending a hand of friendship from our family to hers.

Finally the day arrived. We’d set up a bedroom for her with art supplies and puzzles, some new clothes, and simple wrapped gifts.  I’d ordered all sorts of Russian language kid’s books and audiotapes from the library. We’d hung a banner over the front porch with WELCOME in Cyrillic letters as well as English. And we’d prepared by learning Russian words and phrases. I even taped cheat sheets in the inside of cupboard doors so I could ask her questions like what she wanted for breakfast.

It was a long drive to the Youngstown airport, although nothing like the trip this little girl had been enduring. She’d been traveling with a group of other children and volunteers. The last leg of their trip would be in small aircraft flown by volunteer pilots. The tiny airport was aswirl with families welcoming kids returning for repeat visits. As each plane landed we stood at high fences watching their young passengers disembark. When seasoned host families,  carrying balloons and gifts, spotted a returning child they waved and screamed their names. Many planes landed before I saw a little girl with a honey-colored ponytail and a red baseball cap get off the plane. My heart leaped. I’d never seen a picture of her but I was sure this was our child.

When our names were finally called to the room where the children were waiting we were introduced to a different girl. Okay, I thought, my intuition was wrong. I knelt down to say privet to her. Just then she was pulled back by the volunteers, who apologized for the mix-up. Another girl was brought forward. The girl with the honey-colored hair and the red cap. Yes, my heart said, yes.

From the very first day this darling little girl’s personality shone brightly. She made it clear she preferred to be called “Tanya.” She told us, almost entirely through gestures, about her first plane ride by showing us that her seatmate Yulia cried for her Mama, that Yulia retched, that the stewardessa droned on in “angleesh.”

We thought we’d learned enough Russian to speak to her. We were wrong. But our pronunciation gave her something to laugh about, which helped. We spent a lot of time flipping through our illustrated Russian/English dictionary pointing and giggling at each other’s languages. My kids adored the Russian words she taught us (the belly button is called “poop”) and the Russian drinking songs she sang for us. That first night, thanks to library materials, we danced to the Hokey Pokey in Russian.

Tanya was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred, and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained!

Children of Chernobyl.

Amusing my new daughter from Belarus.

My scruples fell by the wayside. Like anthropologists to our own culture we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas, even bought some fast food meals. Tanya picked up English quickly. She displayed her brilliance in many other ways too, typically beating any of us at board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned.

She made friends in the neighborhood and particularly adored spending time with my daughter, her American sister. Her time here changed all of us, especially my four kids. She became a member of our family, a family that now joyfully extends to Belarus.

host a child, international hosting, homestay programs,

She stayed with us every summer until she turned thirteen.

That last summer she’d been hosted as many times as the program could allow. We did our best to stay in touch by sending letters as well as holiday and birthday gifts. We got a few letters back from her, each one ending with how much she loved and missed us and hoped we remembered her. Then those letters didn’t come any more. Finally she got computer access and got in touch. We learned she’d received none of our gifts the last few years and thought we’d forgotten her.

This year we managed to help her get a travel visa, not easy in a country like hers, and flew her here to stay with us. She’s a new university graduate now, a gracious and lovely young woman. She just left to return home few days ago. We can’t wait to visit her some day, to meet her parents and immerse ourselves in her culture. She’s a forever member of our family, a daughter of our hearts.

Children of Chernobyl, become a host, international hosting opportunities,

Our beloved Tanya, all grown up, enjoying one of our favorite restaurants.

Become a Host! 

I think we all need to love specific individuals in different places in the world instead of staying on our own little street corners. One way to do this is by hosting people in your home. You can do this informally, inviting far-off online friends or people you’ve met through other long-distance connections to stay if they come your way. There are also plenty of programs that bring people to your door, people who may very well become family to you in a short time. Here are a few ways.

Host a child:

There are many organizations with the name Children of Chernobyl operating in the UK, Canada, and the US, most with similar guidelines for hosting families.

Urban kids in the US are matched up with families living outside the city, where the kids stay for a week or two, via the Fresh Air Fund. This link is for the NYC program, but you may find one in your area. We hosted an engaging little boy through a similar Cleveland program, called Friendly Town, which no longer seems to be in operation. He came one summer, then a few weekends, but moved out of state before we could host him the next summer.

Exchange students are a lively way to connect. Some programs are short stay, others are a full school year. Check out well-established programs with support personnel in your area like American Field ServiceYouth for UnderstandingRotary Youth Exchange, or World Exchange. Friends of ours have hosted a high school student every year for the last 11 years. They stay in touch with these young people and their families, and have visited nearly every student in his or her home country.

Host an adult:

Check out groups you are affiliated with such as religious institution, charity, or club. Oftentimes these groups will need short term lodging for a speaker or visitor.

Welcome a visiting professional through the Fulbright Scholar Program. We know a retired couple who have opened their home for years to educators and researchers from dozens of countries around the world through this program.

Register with the AFS Intercultural Program to host young people performing community service or teachers doing foreign exchange service at a nearby school.

Sign up with the National Council for International Visitors. This organization connects visiting leaders from other countries to people in the community. You might welcome them for a meal, show them the highlights in your area, or host them for a few days.

Join Servas, the oldest of international exchange programs. You can serve as a day host or offer a homestay.