Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Letter from the Congo

From my friend Josh, currently working in the Congo.
By the way, there's also an editorial in the New York Times about Darfur today.


The e-mails asking if I’m still alive have started coming in again. I’ve intended to write to you all for a while, but was often busy with work.

Since many of you asked me what I’ve been doing in DRC, I thought I’d write about my work but ended up writing about something else. (See attachment.) Besides what I mention in my update, I also report on the human security and human rights situation in certain areas, write project proposals, and investigate individual cases of abuses outside the courts.

Since I don’t cover everything in this update, please feel free to write me back. It’d be great to hear from you and I’ll gladly respond.

I hope you are all well and enjoying life.

Best wishes,

Monday, 30 May 2005

When I first saw her body, I thought she was dead. She was lying motionless under the midday sun outside the health center with a thin shawl draped over her face and torso. A peasant woman of 60 years, Lwakasi was one of the latest victims of a group of bandits who had been kidnapping villagers from the Walungu territory in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Known as the Rastas, these bandits had mutilated or killed over a hundred people in the territory of Walungu in the past six months alone with the cooperation of the FDLR, a rebel group that’s at the center of the Congo-Rwanda conflict. The number is relatively small compared to other areas of the DRC, but this group had succeeded in sinking the already destitute population into deeper misery. Demanding ransoms upwards of $2000 per group, the Rastas had stripped most villages of their savings, obliterated many of their crops, and had raped, mutilated or killed hundreds of their children and adults. Those who were spared the nighttime attacks live in constant fear of being the next targets.

Undisciplined Congolese troops added to the toll of pillaging and rapes, committing some of these acts in front of villagers by daylight. And nature—which had blessed this area with fertile ground and beautiful weather—also played a role, ruining swathes of this year’s harvest with the mosaic virus.

The elderly woman I saw, though, was alive but exhausted from the previous day’s journey. She had walked all day through the forest to offer the ransom to release eight of her family members and neighbors that were held captive by the Rastas. Since she had only collected $1050 instead of the necessary $1500, the bandits kept a 14-year old girl, one of three adolescent girls whom they had been raping about four times a day for the past two weeks.

On the long journey home, her husband was too weak to walk from spending two weeks in the forest with little food, regular beatings and being tied up violently. She had to carry him on her back and, at some point during the walk, he died on her back. Those remaining were an elderly man, two adolescent girls, and their parents, who were forced to watch their daughters raped each day for two weeks.

Drained from the experience of the last two weeks, Lwakasi would fall in and out of consciousness when I interviewed her. She wouldn’t cry although she stifled a few sobs when I placed her husband’s half-covered corpse into our jeep next to her. The elderly man who was held captive with the same group rode emotionless in our vehicle, even though he had bone-deep rope burns and lash marks from being been beaten with chains and burning sticks.

Sadly, this woman’s experience is similar to others I had heard over the past few months. Women would speak of having guns and other objects inserted inside them, of having their parents forced to spread their legs while they were raped, of being forced to lie down between rotting corpses to remind them of their imminent death. One adolescent girl I had met asked matter-of-factly if we were going eat her baby, the first of two to be born from rape. Previously a bright student in school, she had been raped or held as a sexual slave since she was 13 or 14. Now at 18, her eyes had the glazed look of someone out of touch with reality. Only the cries of the baby she carried on her back seemed to pull her back to life.

Since November, I had been writing reports on the human rights and the human security situation in Walungu for work. The reports have required regular field trips to the area, about 45 km southwest of my home base in Bukavu, and meetings with military, civil society, local government, rebels, and people like Lwakasi.

Although I have taken risks to meet with rebels in no-go zones, the most indelible experiences have been with these women and with others who’ve gone through the kidnappings. Coming from the West, it’s difficult to comprehend the depth of such suffering and these people have brought me closer to the human reality of the conflict that has wrecked the eastern part of this country.

Others who’ve also seen the conflict upfront are outraged by the inattention the DRC receives. “People don’t know the suffering of the Congolese. Because if they did, they would do something about it,” said a missionary friend who’d been in DRC since 1982 after I had recounted the stories from my most recent field trip. Her comment captured the frustration many humanitarians feel at the inattention the DRC receives. Earlier this year, for example, a survey of top humanitarian officials, activists, media professionals and academics placed the Congolese conflict as the most forgotten humanitarian crisis, ahead of Uganda, Sudan, and West Africa.

The ignorance of the problems in the DRC, though, is not so surprising. Faced with such unfathomable devastation from a country so far away, it’s easy to take a head-in-the-sand approach while living in the West. It strains the imagination to comprehend what’s going on and, unfortunately, the fact that black people from the bush are dying makes it more difficult for many to empathize with this suffering.

Besides, those who do try to help are often disillusioned by the seeming intractability of the conflict. Unlike the tsunami catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands, the Congo crisis, which has resulted in over 3 million deaths, is man-made and thus more difficult to control. Donors pledge hundreds of millions of dollars for the DRC only to see the creeping progress jerk back several paces because of the actions of the principal actors.

Despite the complexity of the Congo crisis, we can do more. Donor governments and institutions can hold both the DRC government and its neighbors more accountable for their actions. The U.S., the European Union, Belgium, and others can pin their pledges to concrete measures of progress in the transition, such as beginning election registration and more transparent use of government funds. On paper, donors have already promised to take such actions but, in reality, they’ve been dithering in their responses. Many of those same donors can also press Rwanda to hold to its word to facilitate the return of Rwandan rebel refugees from DRC.

Citizens of western countries can do something, too. You can help fund several outstanding organizations that work in this region, including Doctors Without Borders and International Rescue Committee. (If you e-mail me, I can send you information on various organizations that work in my region.) While it will be the will of the political and military leaders in the DRC and the heads of its neighboring countries that will steer this country toward peace, the individual actions we all can provide do mean something. Whether it is through donations or through aid work, they save lives.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Knock down little girls to the ground

I biked home from work two days ago in a teeth-grittingly hellacious mood.

It was one of those free-floating, petty, bad moods - I don't know if you're familiar with them, dear reader - which aren't even ameliorated by the knowledge that you have something to justify them. Nope, it was just a cavalcade of low-grade annoyances: the grizzly, rainy day, the slightly annoying living situation, the amorphous worry about my future direction and continent of choice. I was hungry and my blood sugar was low. I'd been working since 7am and I was about to teach two more yoga classes. My thigh muscles, already sore from a week of intense yoga practice, screamed at me as I grunted up the 16th st hill, splashing myself in a mud puddle on the way. The traffic was heavy and cars were honking at each other. A taxi swerved out of its lane and cut me off, prompting a bus-accident flashback. So I switched to the sidewalk.

Now, pedestrians are very easy to avoid if they move in a predictable way - just check out the streets of Amsterdam if you want proof. But sometimes you encounter bike-phobic pedestrians. They see you coming from twenty feet away, their lips clench, and their little eyes fill with paranoid, passive-aggressive fury: "That bicycle should be on the street! It's clearly only on the sidewalk for the express purpose of barrelling into me and grinding my bones into the sidewalk! I must prepare defensive maneuvers!" They stop walking, glare at you, and then they jump to the left. Just as you start to swerve to the right to avoid them, they change their minds and jump to the right. This continues for a couple of beats until you screech to a halt in front of them. They glare at you for a final few moments - channelling the combined hostility of a suburban fetish gardener watching adorable children play on his obsessively-watered lawn, and perhaps Laura Bush watching W. do the tango with Condi at the White House Christmas party - and then they continue walking. Meanwhile, you've lost all your momentum on the hill and have to get back on your bike again.

So yeah, there were a couple of those anal pedestrians. And I was wet and tired and hungry and cranky. I was hardly noticing anything around me, so wrapped up was I in my internal narrative of woe and self-pity. Every detail in the universe seemed designed to annoy me.

When I finally reached the stairs leading up to my apartment - sweet 15-minute catnap! Hot tea and taking my shoes off! - I eagerly picked up my bike and swung it around the corner to start climbing. Then I heard a faint noise behind me.

This noise was absolutely indescribable: subtle, somehow anthropomorphic, and also, somehow, definitely bad. I turned around.

There was a small girl in a bright pink sweatsuit lying on the ground. Sunk in my absurd funk, I hadn't noticed her behind me, and I'd knocked her down with the back of my bike as I swung it around to start climbing the stairs.

All the competing noises in my head vanished, like fog in the wind, to be replaced by just one thought: OH SHIT. I KNOCKED OVER A LITTLE GIRL BECAUSE I WAS DISTRACTED BY MY BAD MOOD. I'M SUCH AN ASSHOLE. And then a series of imaginary images: the little girl's bloody mouth with all the teeth I'd knocked out, her black eyes, her sad innocent face, her dawning realization that the world was out to get her...

"Omigod omigod omigod, is she okay?" I said, putting the bike down. "I'm so sorry, omigod..."

Then the little girl sat up. She laughed.

Her family, who'd been walking behind her, also laughed. Her dad made a waving motion at me as if to say, "Don't worry about it." Her sister began yelling something at her in Spanish; I'm not sure what it was, exactly, but from the tone of voice it seemed to be along the lines of, "Ha ha, you got knocked over by a bike!"

My panicked tongue was a bit late in catching up with the situation and it continued to blabber. "Oh my god, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, are you okay?"

The little girl jumped up and ran over to take her sister's hand. The whole family was laughing now - perhaps at the farcical physical comedy of the situation, or perhaps at my flustered distress - and they all waved goodbye at me.

I have to say, I'm a fan of instant karma. It's nice to just get it over with, y'know?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Support the World's Only Imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Recipient On Her 60th Birthday

TIME: June 17th, 2005 from 9:30 - 11:00 am LOCATION: 2300 S St, NW Washington, DC 20008 EQUIPMENT: Yourself, your friends, and your voice


Just as the world rallied around Nelson Mandela when he spent his 70th
birthday behind bars as a politcal prisoner in South Africa, every
single person in the world who cares about human rights should take
action to support Aung San Suu Kyi on her 60th birthday. On June 17th,
two days before her birthday, activists in one dozen countries from
Africa to Europe to Asia will protest at embassies of Burma's military
regime to demand her release. Join us in Washington, DC!

Let Us Know You're Coming: write to info@uscampaignforburma.org

US Campaign for Burma
1612 K St, NW #401
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 223-0300
(202) 466-5189 fax


More Information on Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th Birthday

For Immediate Release: May 20th, 2005

Contact: Aung Din and Jeremy Woodrum at (202) 223 0300

30 Days to the 60th Birthday of World's Only Imprisoned Nobel Peace
Prize Recipient

Campaign to Honor Aung San Suu Kyi Growing Rapidly As Activities Planned
in US, Asia, Europe, Africa

(Washington, DC) A global effort to honor the world's only imprisoned
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi on her 60th birthday has gained
rapid momentum over the past month as scores of individuals and organizations
have signed up to participate in activities around the world.

The effort is modeled on global demonstrations and rallies in 1988 to
free former South African leader Nelson Mandela when he was still imprisoned
on Robben Island.

A brief summary of activities taking place:
--US Campaign for Burma has collected pledges for 6,000 birthday cards
for Aung San Suu Kyi on her 60th birthday. USCB will attempt to "deliver"
these cards to the Burmese embassy at a demonstration to be held on June 17th.

--The city of Edinburgh, Scotland will award Aung San Suu Kyi its
"Freedom of the City" award.

--Protests are planned in front of 16 embassies and consulates of
Burma's military regime, in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy,
South Africa, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Switzerland and Thailand.

--The organization WITNESS, founded by musician Peter Gabriel, will
release a new film on the plight of internally displaced persons in eastern

--A major university in Thailand will award Aung San Suu Kyi an honorary
doctoral degree.

--The city and county of San Francisco have officially declared June
19th "Aung San Suu Kyi Day". The cities of Berkeley and San Jose are
considering similar measures.

--60 individuals have pledged to "Arrest themselves" at home for 24
hours in solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi. While at home, they will host "House
Arrest Parties" to raise awareness and funds for the international
struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma.

--Irish musicians Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan released a press release
stating that he planned to release a new song dedicated to Aung San Suu
Kyi during her birthday celebrations.

--In the United States, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and
leading US Senators will host an event dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi.

--Two women's organizations, San Francisco-based "Burmese American
Women's Association" and New York-based "Women on the Move for Burma" are
hosting events to honor Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday. Burmese democracy
activists in Korea and Japan are also planning to hold the events on
June 19th, 2005 in Seoul and Tokyo.

Since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi has led an international campaign to end
over 40 years of brutal military rule in the Southeast Asian country of
Burma. After a nationwide uprising was crushed in 1988, she led her political
party the National League for Democracy to an 82% victory in a national
election in 1990. The ruling dictatorship refused to recognize the results and
has kept her locked for ten of the past 15 years. In the meantime, Burma's
regime has recruited up to 70,000 child soldiers (far more than any
other country).

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Krishna Das in Alexandria on Thursday

TIME: Thursday, May 26, 8pm LOCATION:George Washington Middle School, 1005 Mt. Vernon Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia EQUIPMENT: Yourself, vocal chords, sense of devotion, $20

Krishna Das, the fusion devotional chanter, will be performing this Thursday. His shows are absolutely wonderful, intense experiences. Bring a cushion or blanket to sit on the floor; there'll be audience participation.

Information here:

One Big Dinner in the Washington Post today


Looks like I underestimated the attendance - they claim 40. Jocelyn, the girl quoted in the last paragraph, is the one I chatted to, by the way...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

One Big Dinner - and One Long Reading List

I went to the potluck dinner for members of the LGBT community and evangelical Christians last night, and had a blast.

The dinner was held in the basement of the Unitarian Church on 16th and Columbia St - conveniently two blocks from where I live, so I made a big pot of bulgur pilaf and carried it over, still warm. There were maybe 25 or 30 people there, and two big tables full of peoples' food contributions. It was fun to look at the food and guess which of it had been made by whom - the Christians or the gays. A salad of field greens with purple edible flowers (SO DELICIOUS! I went back three times to pick out more of those tasty spicy flowers) turned out to have been brought by a gay man who got it at the local farmer's market, and there were some appetizers in the shape of little circles, made of bread wrapped around ham and American cheese, that I recognized from the recipe oeuvre of some Christian family friends of mine. So that was predictable enough. But another Christian girl brought some dumplings with steamed edamame beans, carrot and ginger; so much for my prejudice.

It was equally fun to look at the guests and guess which camp they were from (not as obvious as I'd assumed it would be.) There were also the obligatory DC-is-small moments: I ran into two people I knew, Jeff (who I met with Kaelan at the Art-o-matic), and Jesse (a friend of Jamia's I'd met at her clothing swap last year).

Everyone was very friendly and many people got up and switched tables halfway through dinner so as to meet more people. I had conversations about living in Indonesia and how it feels to have roots in life, sign language and the deaf community, clothing swaps, thrift stores, the health benefits of fasting, Western imperialism and genetically modified crops. At the second table I was sitting at, a blond girl called Jocelyn was speaking very animatedly about the failings of Western capitalism, and the unfair way in which the US treated the rest of the world. At first I assumed she was from the gay side since her politics seemed so liberal (and hence scoped her out a little bit, I have to admit) - but as she continued to speak I noticed a certain passionate fervor in her words that seemed undeniably religious.

Sure enough, she was a Christian. She told me that her parents were both hippies - her mum a yoga instructor and her dad a drug addict - who'd both had religious experiences and moved to the country and lived in a house with their eight children and a series of house guests. Most recently their guests had included an opera singer who was going crazy as a result of a brain tumor, and a physicist who'd sworn a religious vow of celibacy since being a teenager but had unfortunately recently fallen in love with Jocelyn, she said with a hint of complacency, which was disrupting his whole worldview.

Jocelyn said that her mum had become a born-again Christian after she'd been meditating in her bedroom, looked out the window, and saw the face of Jesus in a dogwood tree. (I mentioned to her that the dogwood tree is a Christian symbol, as explained here - the four-bracted red marking inside each flower is supposed to represent the cross.) Her dad found God when he was shaving one morning and heard a voice: "If you get high tonight, you'll lose the sight in your right eye." He ignored the voice, went on a binge that evening, and when he woke up he was missing part of his right retina. Her parents founded a Christian church together along with some of the members of the rock band her dad had played with (who'd also all found God one night when they were sitting in a jail cell) and their church had been growing rapidly over the past 30 years, now with 60 chapters across the world.

We had a VERY long conversation about the notion of Absolute Truth and whether all religions are ultimately expressions of the same Absolute Truth once you gain a high enough perspective (my belief), or whether there are enduring differences (Jocelyn's belief; she thinks there's a notion of "grace" in Christianity that you don't see in any other religion.) Jocelyn hadn't read many non-Christian religious works and had a lot of questions about Islam and Hinduism. I mostly know about yoga philosophy and a bit about Sufism and Hinduism, so I promised to send her a reading list. We pledged to keep in touch and continue our inter-religious dialogue.

Here's the email I sent her this morning:


Dear Jocelyn,

It was very nice to meet you last night! I'd love to continue our conversation... since it's basically about the most important thing there is to think about :)

I became interested in religion about two years ago after an experience during meditation, which was an intense feeling of divine connectedness and oneness, and also completely independent of any particular religious symbolism (perhaps since I didn't know much about any religion at that point.) Anyway, my overwhelming intuition is that every human being throughout history has always had equal opportunity to the divine, and that therefore a good angle for a search for the truth is to assume the ultimate union of truth, and then examine not only the similarities between religious paths, but also their differences, and try to think about what sort of paradoxical leap would be necessary for those differences to reconcile.

However, my sense is from my reading so far is that you can only compare religions for so long and it's helpful to eventually settle down with one particular spiritual path, even if you continually draw inspiration from others. The Dalai Lama once said that he didn't want any Christians to convert to Buddhism; if they were familiar with Christianity, that was the path that they should stick with - and ditto for Muslims and Hindus. This is tough for me since I'm a naturally eclectic and interdisciplinary person (double major English and Economics in college, for example)...so far yoga philosophy and Sufism have spoken to me most strongly, but there is so much beauty in so many different religious traditions. Anyway, a reading list for you - this was a great excuse to get out all my books...if you can't tell, I'm a huge bookworm!

I'd love any reading suggestions from you, such as parts of the Bible you think would interest me, or books about Christianity. To be perfectly frank, a lot of the books on Christianity I see on the shelves in stores are ridiculously shallow. I do love CS Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle, though...as well as a few others listed below.

Best wishes,
Zoe Konovalov

"The Holy Longing: the Search for a Christian Spirituality" by Ronald Rolheiser

I'm in the middle of this now, and it's *very* well written. He's got a great bit in the beginning about how spirituality is a channeling of eros, the erotic energy within us, and he compares the lives of Janis Joplin, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa, all of whom had a great deal of eros energy, but who each chose to channel it in different ways.

"Spirituality is about what we do with the fire within us, about how we channel our eros. And how we do channel it, the disciplines and habits we choose to live by, will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds and souls, and to a greater integration or disintegration in the way we are related to God, others, and the cosmic world."

Sufi poets:

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and focuses on a personal relationship with God. It's very inclusive and Sufis honour holy leaders from all religions.

Hafiz and Rumi are both so wonderful. For Hafiz I would recommend the Daniel Landinsky translations and for Rumi, Coleman Barks.

There are some Hafiz poems on the internet here:

So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure
Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.

And Rumi here:


Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of

spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At

night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its

face against mine. Breathe into
me. Close the language- door and

open the love window. The moon
won't use the door, only the window.


Bhagavad Gita -
This is one chapter out of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic. Most scholars think that it was a poem written much later and inserted into the middle of the Mahabrata. Most of the Mahabharata is a series of action packed stories; the Gita has a very different style, it's a long philosophical discussion that occurs in a split second, when Arjuna sits down on the battlefield and refuses to fight, and Krishna stops time and comes to talk to him. It includes the first thorough explanation of some of the most important concepts in yoga.
The Stephen Mitchell translation is very poetic, but other translations by Indian Swamis provide more explanation and context.

From the Gita:

"The Blessed Lord said,
Although I am unborn, deathless,
the Infinite Lord of all beings,
through my own wondrous power
I come into finite form.

Whenever righteousness falters
and chaos threatens to prevail
I take on a human body
and manifest myself on earth.

In order to protect the good,
to destroy the doers of evil,
to ensure the triumph of righteousness,
in every age I am born.

Whoever knows, profoundly,
my divine presence on earth
is not reborn when he leaves
the body, but comes to me.

Released from greed, fear, anger,
absorbed in me and made pure
by the practice of wisdom, many
have achieved my state of being.

However men try to reach me
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel
It leads to me in the end."


BKS Iyengar:

One of the first people to bring yoga over to the West. It happened when Yehudi Menuhin, a classical violin prodigy, had a block in the middle of his career and couldn't play music anymore. He tried everything and eventually one friend suggested he travel to India and study with Iyengar. He did and the breathing techniques and meditation he learned there were so powerful he was able to start playing again - Menuhin is quoted as saying that Iyengar was "the best violin teacher I had in my life." But the yoga made other differences to his life and he started to become much more interested in helping the world. He paid for a plane ticket for Iyengar to come to theStates and introduced him to many of his friends. He also founded a lot of educational institutes for young musicians to ensure that they had healthier and more nurturing training methods that included meditation.
I would recommend Iyengar's book "The Tree of Yoga" which is a wonderful collection of essays about yoga philosophy. His other books "Light on Yoga" and "Light on Pranayama" are much more technical and not as accessible.

I don't have "The Tree of Yoga" with me, but here's a quote from the introduction to "Light on Yoga":

"As water takes the shape of its container, the mind when it contemplates an object is transformed into the shape of that object. The mind which thinks of the all-pervading divinity which it worships, is ultimately through long-continued devotion transformed into the likeness of that divinity."


Japji: Meditation in Sikhism (Translation and Commentary by Swami Rama)

I don't know much about Sikhism but picked up this book in a used bookstore - it includes a primer on meditation and some poems by the first Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev.

From the introduction (I like the last paragraph on the connection between grace and personal responsibility):

"Every word of the mul mantra, starting with Ek Omkar Sat Nam to Gurprasad, has profound meaning, so these words should be pronounced mentally with reverence. When the entire human being becomes an ear, then he hears Omkara. One can never imagine such a joy unless he directly experiences this stage.
Ek means "one." Here it refers to that infinite and eternal Reality that is One and Absolute without a second. That One is self-existent and ever deathless.
Omkara is the mother sound, perennially hummed in the cosmos. Sat Nam is used because among all the names and forms of the animate and inanimate, the word sat is the highest. Sat means "essence"; sat alone is self-existent, not subject to change, decomposition, or decay. Nam means "name". The Truth is infinite and eternal, and to attain this Truth the grace of the guru, who is accomplished and one with the Divine, is required.
Sri signifies the feminine gender, singular in number. It represents the feminine principle of the universe, the first cause of manifestation of the universe, without which the universe cannot exist.
The phrase Wahe Guru is also profound. The word wahe means "awesome." Guru is a combination of the words gu and ru. Gu means the darkness of ignorance, ru means the light of knowledge; that knowledge which dispels the darkness of ignorance is guru.
There are four aspects of grace. The grace of the Adi Granth is received by reverently repeating the sayings. The grace of God is equally important. The third, the grace of the guru, leads a student to a state of freedom from the bondage of karma and the sanskaras.
The fourth aspect is the grace of the self. If the aspirant does not have his own grace, he cannot retain the grace of the guru, of God, or of the Adi Granth. Therefore, before expecting to have the grace of God, guru, or Adi Granth, one should tap the resources within oneself.
Sankalpa - a full zeal for attainment, a burning desire, a perennial fervor, and a burning flame - should be lit."

Nanak Dev's first poem:

The nature of God eludes the soul
Who seeks through thought the final goal.
In silent trance, through eons spent,
Mind's restlessness may not relent.
The desire of man may never cease
Though wealth and worldly goods increase.
From a thousand, nay million feats of mind
No closer is man to God sublime.
How then for man to be pure in soul,
Transcend illusion, and achieve the goal?
Nanak says:
Self-realization requires surrender
To the pre-ordained will of God, the defender.


Thomas Merton, "Zen and the Birds of Appetite"

I haven't read this yet but it's on my list. Thomas Merton was a priest and Trappist monk who also lived and studied in a Zen monastery. This book is a collection of essays about the connections between Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism.


Miguel Unamuno, "Tragic Sense of Life".

Unamuno is a Spanish philosopher and a Christian, and sometimes a Christian philosopher. I have dipped into this book in a few places but haven't tackled the whole thing yet. He's got a good perspective on the necessity for worldliness we were talking about - for example, the first chapter is entitled, "The Man of Flesh and Bone."

"For me the adjective humanus is no less suspect than its abstract substantive humanitus, humanity. Neither "the human" nor "humanity," neither the simple adjective nor the substantivized adjective, but the concrete substantive - man. The man of flesh and bone, the man who is born, suffers, and dies - above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and heard; the brother, the real brother."


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz - "Poems, Protest, and a Dream"

Sor Juana was a nun who lived near the place that is Mexico City today, from 1648-1695. She wrote many religious poems and love poems, but her most famous work is a letter to a bishop defending the right of women to intellectual pursuits.

"That I study not at all is not within my power to achieve, and this I could not obey, for though I did not study in books, I studied all the things that God had wrought, reading in them, as in writing and in books, all the workings of the universe. I looked on nothing without reflexion; I heard nothing without meditation, even in the most minute and imperfect things, because as there is no creature, however lowly, in which one cannot recognize that 'God made me,' there is none that does not astound reason, if properly meditated on."


Walt Whitman - "Leaves of Grass"

A poem to return to again and again in different ways! There is a lot of influence from Eastern philosophy here.

"A child said, 'What is the grass?' fetching it me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? ..I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?"


Rabindranath Tagore

An Indian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

From his long poem "Gitanjali":

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary
desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


The Dalai Lama, "The Art of Happiness"

A series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and a Western journalist. The journalist is not a Buddhist, and it's cute to see him try to wrap his mind around his encounters with the Dalai Lama.
He intersperses each conversation with a review of various scientific proofs of the benefits of meditation. It's a pretty accessible book, but ultimately limited by the fact that the author doesn't have a very deep understanding of Buddhism.


Rilke - Stephen Mitchell translation

Stephen Mitchell is a wonderful translator for these very difficult German poems (he also did the Bhagavad Gita.) Rilke is mysterious and mystical and absolutely beautiful.

"I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life;
as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small
and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

The wondrous game that power plays with Things
is to move in such submission through the world:
groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
and in treetops like a rising from the dead."


Thomas Moore

A wonderful Catholic writer. Lots of his stuff here:


I like this interview, on "The Care of the Soul":


Friday, May 20, 2005

Dance on-stage at the Dresden Dolls concert

I went to see the Dresden Dolls, a band I love, tonight; they were playing at the 9:30 club. As I was standing in line to get in, I noticed rather more exotic plumage around me than I was accustomed to seeing in DC. There was also a certain restless, simultaneously exhibitionistic and anxious, pulsing energy around me that I hadn't experienced since...since...since...high school.

Yep. I'd thought to myself before, offhandly, that the Dresden Dolls, piano and complex rhythms aside, basically represented the harnessing of turbulent teen-angsty feelings in a complex and sophisticated way. I was now witnessing the concrete confirmation of this observation: they had a huge teenage fanbase. There were all these gaggles of young people around me! They were giggling and talking loudly amongst themselves. One girl came up to me and complimented me on my rainbow striped stockings. "Those are great," she said. She was one of those confident teenagers who practiced striking up conversations with strangers. She hadn't quite perfected it yet, but she was going to get there.

The show, of course, was wonderful. Amanda was riveting as usual, and there were blistering drum solos from Brian. At one point halfway through the concert, Amanda pointed out that Brian had broken four drumsticks already. "That's so rock n' roll," she said, teasing him. "Well guys, I'm not trying to be a role model here," he said, addressing the audience. "It doesn't mean I'm manly, or anything."

At one point, Amanda asked some people from the audience to come up onstage as backup singers. I'd brought a book to give her: "Gods and Devils," a book of poems by Charles Simic. Simic is a hauntingly akimbo visionary and he seemed like the kind of thing Amanda would like. From his poem The Great War:

"You never saw anything as beautiful
As those clay regiments;
I used to lie on the floor
For hours, staring them in the eyes.
I remember them staring back at me in wonder.

How strange they must have felt
Standing stiffly at attention
Before a large, incomprehending creature
With a moustache made of milk...."

I wrote a long and heartfelt inscription for Amanda on the title page, all about how I'd first seen the Dolls at Iota more than a year ago, at a tiny show with about fifty people, and I was so glad that she was becoming so successful, and that she should treasure and preserve her talent.

I wasn't sure how I'd be able to give the book to her, but I figured I could just throw it on-stage. When she asked for volunteers, though, I eagerly jumped up and handed her the book. "Thanks," she said, and commented to the audience, "Somebody just gave me a book! It smells good..."*

It was a good vibe up there on stage and at one point we got a can-can going. I kicked my rainbow-striped legs high in the air.

Is it an insult to say that the Dresden Dolls are teenager music? They are very good teenager music; the best of teenager music. When we are teenagers, it seems that all the experiences of life are more vivid, perhaps because we are having them for the first time. Love is overwhelming and all-consuming; disappointment threatens to wrench our very selves away from us. Over time, it seems, we accumulate psychological scars from these vivid disappointments and decide that a safe trade-off to make is just to feel everything less vividly, both the highs and lows. Well, that's one solution. I believe that another solution is to try to cultivate detachment from those happy and sad emotions. You can still experience them; you can acknowledge them and sit with them, but you also acknowledge that your true self is essentially untouched by these experiences - not only the bad ones, but the good ones. Hence detachment actually contributes to the maintenance of a richer emotional texture in life. There's a more extensive discussion of detachment here, by the way, at my friend Ben's blog.

I looked around at all the teenagers at the concert and my heart went out to them. They were so alive; they cared about everything so much. They were so sensitive! This music really meant something to them; they sang along lovingly with the lyrics and many had dressed along with the goth style of the band. Their eyes were so bright and active, watching all of their friends, noticing other people watching them, noticing other people watching other people. And it broke my heart to think about how much pain many of them were going to go through, because you get hurt when you care about things that much. And some of them were going to make the decision to die a little bit, just so they could avoid dying all the way.

I hope some of them start going to yoga class.


*I keep bottles of aromatherapy oil in my bags, for anointing purposes. Sometimes the lids come off and over time my bag has accumulated a complex blend of odours that also scents anything I put in there. Basically I am like a wee version of the massive smell factory Salman Rushdie describes in his book "The Moor's Last Sigh."

Ode to My Keys

When I found out about the crack dealers
Living in the house across the street
And the brisk business they were doing
I called my landlady to complain. She said, "Oh,"
in her sweet old lady voice. "We've had problems
With that before." I said indignantly,
"They harassed my roommate
As she was walking home!" "Ok, well," she said,
"Just make sure not to call the police
To complain." She said
One of the neighbors
Had done that and then
One of the crack dealers
Confronted him on the street and repeated
The same words he'd used in his call.
So she thought they had contacts
In the police station. Then the crack dealers
Called the neighbor bad names when they saw him
On the street. Until he had to move away. "So,"
said my landlady, "If you want to complain
Let me know and I'll call for you.
I'll use an unmarked pay phone."

I thought that was pretty rotten
That she never warned me before I moved in.
I'd asked about the safety!
All my friends agreed with me.
They were very indignant, too.
What a naughty landlady she was!
Our apartment door has a lock on it.
And then, the entryway door we share with next door
Has a lock too. Outside that door there's a steel cage
And you can lock that too.
None of the locks are that impressive.
I bet you could break them with a big hammer.
But I guess the fact that there's three of them in a row
Would discourage people.

Our apartment in Moscow
Had only one lock, but it was a big one,
Huge steel bars inside a steel door.
That door was designed so you could shoot it
With a machine gun
And you still couldn't get in.
There were all these dangerous people everywhere.
One businessman got shot in the Mayakovskaya metro
And you could see the bullets in the walls the next day.
Our door in that apartment was so good
Because there were a lot of Mafia people in the building.
The apartment building knew what its clients wanted.

All these naughty people in the world!
And what's more
They know that they're doing the wrong thing.
Me, sometimes I know I'm doing the wrong thing
But it's not as wrong as the things THEY do.
Although, where is the measuring stick that lets me know?
It would be a funny kind of measuring stick
And not, I think, very precise.

Sometimes I think I'd like to move far away
To a place without any other people.
I could run through the trees all day
And smell the flowers.
Insects jumping in the grass
Would devour each other horrifically
But it wouldn't be any of my business.
Not the way it is with people.

I don't enjoy locking doors.
I'd like to give a key to all my friends
So if they ever needed anything
They could come and get it. Or, maybe
Just stop and take a shower
If they happened to be playing frisbee
in Meridian Hill Park. Just think of my useful apartment
Sitting empty all day! Except
Sometimes they might come to visit
When I wanted to be alone. Perhaps
That would be inconvenient. Also, perhaps
I'd be writing in my journal, and leave it open on the table
And then they'd read all of my secret thoughts.

I can see that there are many reasons why
I carry around this heavy keychain.
It looks like a sodden, bedraggled sea anenome
Washed up, green and sandy, from the high tide.
When I run it jingles in my jacket pocket.
Ja jing cling cling! Ka ka ko king!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Attend a potluck for the LGBT community and the Evangelical Christian Church

TIME: Saturday, May 21st, 6:30-8:30pm LOCATION: All Souls Church, Unitarian (1500 Harvard St. NW, 3blocks southwest of the Columbia Heights Metro station. Enter through the side door) EQUIPMENT: Food to share OPTIONAL: Bible, rainbow scarf or both NOT OPTIONAL: "Positive attitude"

I met the incomparable Kaelan for ladies' night at Chaos tonight. They had live performances of drag kings and burlesque strip shows, which may have been good, but we were so far in the back of the crowd that all we got was the sound of the songs they were singing karaoke to, and an occasional peep of jiggling lesbian flesh. "Want to get up on my shoulders?" Kaelan offered. "Sure!" And so I leapt onto her adorable shoulders, and she stood up, bringing my head perilously close to the ceiling. It's pretty fun, teetering on a 6' tall chair with a Southern accent that drips molasses, and I was just starting to get into the swing of things when a man tapped Kaelan on the shoulder. He wasn't wearing a uniform or anything, but he had that indescribable pompous air of the undercover police officer, or the hallway monitor that enforces water fountain time limits, or the Soviet customs official who checks your passport. "You have to stop that," he said.

A little bit later, as I was talking to Adam, his eyes widened. "Look behind you," he said. There were two beautiful women, dressed in bikinis and big boots, grinding away with some rather hypnotic hip wiggles. From what I could tell, their dancing was quite a bit better than what was going on on the stage. Adam amused himself by watching the women in the mirror, but I eschewed such pretense and just stared.

But, sure enough, within about five minutes, Boris Hallway Monitor slithered out from whatever greasy stone he'd been hiding under, and tapped one of the girls on the shoulder. I stomped up to him angrily. "Why are you telling them to stop?" I asked. "They're distracting people from the show on the stage," he said. "But the people who are watching them are the people back here," I said. "We can't see anything on the stage." "Well, that means you should have showed up early," he said. "That's not the point," I said; "the point is that they're not distracting me from anything since I can't see the show. Why can't you let them dance? They're having a good time." "No way," he said. "If I wanted a show like that I would have hired strippers." The women shrugged their graceful gazelle shoulders and melted into the crowd, as my mournful eyes followed their delicious booties, waving good-bye.

I hate people who spoil other peoples' fun! For heaven's sake, it's hard enough to enjoy ourselves in this life full of pain and suffering and disease and disappointment, without party poopers rushing to squelch the delight you've been enterprising enough to find. Any expression of creativity and pleasure should be cherished and appreciated, not crushed out of some kind of twisted repressed jealousy. Gosh, that guy really pissed me off. It reminds me of the time I was waiting in line at the INS office in New York to apply for my first Social Security number, the summer that I was interning for a dot-com. It was a very long and boring line in a hot office, full of annoyed people; not a good scene. Standing in front of me was a family with two young girls who were on the verge of going bonkers, much to their mum's distress. I winked at the girls and pulled a bottle of bubble solution out of my bag. Pretty soon we were all giggling and blowing bubbles into the air. The girls were ecstatic and having a great time, and all the people around us replaced their irritated expressions with that slightly moony look you get when children are being adowable. Then, just as I was about to blow the totally hugest bubble ever, a uniformed official came up and tapped me on the shoulder. "You can't do that here," he said.

Why is it always a tap on the shoulder? People never tap me on the shoulder for anything good. Usually they hug me or they put their arm around my waist. Those stupid shoulder taps never bode well.

Anyway, as I was walking out of Chaos, breathing and trying to remove the chip from my shoulder, a couple of wide-smiling girls on the street handed me a flyer. It reads, in its entirety:


A potluck meal and more for members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community and members of the Evangelical Christian churches
Saturday, May 21st, 6:30-8:30pm
All Souls Church, Unitarian
1500 Harvard St. NW
3blocks southwest of the Columbia Heights Metro station. Enter through the side door

Purpose: To bring together members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community and members of Evangelical Churches for an evening of relatedness and fun! It is a night to put aside differences/agendas and delight in the commonalities we share as human beings!

What to bring: Please bring food to share. Homemade or store bought - anything is welcome. Beverages will be provided.

Cost: Event is free!

Sponsored by: A very small group of individuals who dreamed this up and committed to making it happen. We are not affiliated with any particular organization or church. Contact Kelli at 240-413-1070 or send email to relatednessandfun@yahoo.com for more information or to RSVP.

Agreements of the evening: Participants will be asked to initial a board with the following agreements as they enter the dinner:
I am here to be related to other people and to enjoy a good meal and a good time. I will treat everyone I meet with respect and positive regard.


Would anyone like to come with me?

Earth Water Fire Air

Earth water fire air, beloved:

When you press me with your weight.
The gravity of mass to mass.
On our heavy road from birth to grave
We long to be together.
And so on Einstein’s universal rubber sheet
We trampoline!
And we rest.
We squelch
Into the mud.
Your solid hand upon my waist.
Our hair sheaved together.
That is called earth.

And when we’re licking mouth
to mouth a juicy
flicking ooh-la-la, a
serpent’s coiling play of hips that
follows our red waterways, our
Amazons of blood rising
to our cheeks, flowing down
waterfall necks, dissolving our
grudges...that is called water.

When just a wink kindles a spark and your hands ignite
from palm to palm and I race to you my legs pump
heart burns like a coal on the bellows krik krak
lickety split and I fling myself into your arms the room crackles
with possibility and all past woes seem
to burn in the....that is called fire.

And when
your loving
the edge
of my anticipation
- the breath
that’s ours,
that inhales
from dust
of million years past,
that exhales
to the corners
of the stars
Beloved ...
that is called air.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Dresden Dolls are back this Friday...

Early show at the 9:30 club.

I wrote about them here.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bohemian Caverns on Saturday

From a friend...


behold! the arts collide in one great party of unknown climax.

Saturday night, May 14, 9 p.m. -- 3 a.m. upstairs of bohemian
caverns, 2001 11th Street (corner of 11th and U St, NW), near the U
Street Metro. only $10.

the top two floors of bohemian caverns (aka Club 2001). music:
featuring laura burhenn, the monorail, dj william, and the art of
alicia k. cosnahan and evan zimmerman.

this is the first of a series of events, where we bring live music to
mix and mingle with all sorts of media...video, visual, voice...

dance floor, couches, balconies, two bars, two floors, beaucoup of
acts, special guests.

bring the whole city.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Need to lubricate your loom? Try a Trojan!

Working in the field of development economics can sometimes make you depressed. You're constantly reminded of the soul-crushing misery afflicting so many people across the world and the string of failures people have encountered, both in trying to alleviate it, and in motivating other people to want to alleviate it if they themselves are comfortable.

But reading newspaper stories like this give me hope. (Registration required; Login: funthings Password: todoindc )

Humans are so goddamn entrepreneurial, resourceful, and creative, aren't we? We take lemons and make lemonade. We take overwhelmingly numerous and rather patronizing gifts of free condoms from NGOs, we grin shit-eating grins, and then we make orchid headdresses out of them.

Perhaps we're gonna make it after all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I thought we lived in an information economy

I've been on a course of antibiotics in connection with an accident I recently had (a bus hit me as I was riding my bike on 16th St; I was mostly fine but had a few cuts that got badly infected.) My sensitive, yoga-licious, earthy self does not enjoy taking pills, especially pills with a name that literally translate as "anti-life," but I must admit that although the natural path is overwhelmingly preferable, for a few ailments (such as a gigantic, throbbing staph infection in your foot) the best course is to go into the garden with a bazooka, obliterate the monsters, and then worry about replanting all the delicate little flowers.

So I did some obsessive internet research on the side effects of these "anti-life" pills - most of which connect to the balance of your natural intestinal flora. Although some bacteria are harmful, some are very beneficial to the body, and live in our stomachs and intestines and help us digest food. When we take antibiotics, these benefical bacteria die and our digestion gets shot. However, a good remedy for this is to eat a lot of yoghurt, kefir, cottage cheese, or anything else with live active bacterial cultures (especially L. acidopholus and L. bifidous.) There are also "pro-biotic" pills you can buy at health stores with extra-concentrated doses of these good bacteria.

Women have an additional problem, which is that we also have the same benefical bacteria in our vaginas that help us stay healthy and clean ourselves. Taking antibiotics changes the pH of our vaginas, making them slightly more alkaline, and kills off those beneficial bacteria - leaving an open playing field for the nasty bacteria in a yeast infection or thrush. Fifty percent of women get a vaginal infection after taking a course of antibiotics. Fifty percent! I never knew this - I'd never taken them before.

Well, I was very proud of my new knowledge and my resolution to diligently protect my health while taking these harsh, alien Western medicines. And as any of my friends who've suffered through my ministrations can testify, I love playing doctor. So when one of my colleagues mentioned that she was taking antibiotics to deal with a lung infection, I practically glowed with the chance to help.

"Oh, I've just been doing all this research about dealing with antibiotic side effects!" I said happily. "You know to eat yoghurt, right?"

"Yeah...I never quite understood why, though."

I rocketed my schpiel about the beneficial bacteria in our gut.

"Ah, that seems to make sense."

"And, unfortunately for women, the same is true for our vaginas - the good bacteria die there, making room for unhealthy bacteria."

My colleague's cheeks flushed. "Yes...I often get yeast infections after taking antibiotics," she said.

I was almost jumping up and down with excitement. "Well you know, you can fix that! All you've got to do is stick a little yoghurt up there once a day. And maybe a weak solution with some vinegar, to make it a bit more acid. I like to break open one of the pro-biotic pills I get at Whole Foods, and mix it with the yoghurt."

The cheeks were getting redder. And the body language was becoming closed (you know that way you can tell that people at a cocktail party don't want to talk to you any more?)

I added, "If it makes you uncomfortable to touch yourself you could just dip a tampon in some yoghurt and..."

The body language situation was getting too obvious to ignore, even with my health proselytization enthusiasm. "Well, sorry if that was too much information," I said.

An awkward smile from the colleague. "I think I'll just eat some yoghurt. But thanks!"

Gosh, you know, I really don't understand our culture. We've all been intimately familiar with the vagina at least once - yes, even you, flinching male reader! - when our heads slid out between its walls in an avalanche of mucus, blood (and sometimes shit). And our existence and the continued existence of other human beings depends on the intricacies and vagaries of its physiology and chemistry. Yet although it seems to be okay to let other human beings, some of whom are relative strangers, stick things into it, and it's okay to touch it to shave it or get it waxed, things that relate to its health, to its function or dysfunction, seem highly taboo.

I'm sure that feminist theory - which I'm not very familiar with - will have a world to tell me on this subject.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Meridian Hill Park drum circle...

has started again. And it's just as wonderful as it was last year.

I went yesterday, with a book called "The Idea of Pakistan" I wanted to read as background for some research I'm doing. I didn't intend to actually read it at the park; it was more as a totem, in the way that you put a picture of your boyfriend in your wallet.

I did some yoga and then danced. The drummers all congregate on the concrete flat space just in front of the steps that separate the two halves of the park. I was dancing in the grass, slightly separated from the main group. As I danced, a man in the center of the circle smiled and waved at me, meaning that I should take a turn dancing in the center of the circle. This may astonish some of my friends, but I turned him down because I felt shy. There are some amazing capoeira dancers who dance in that circle, and I just didn't feel worthy. But I will, eventually.

When I turned around I saw that a small group of friends had set up a tightrope tied between two trees (about two feet off the ground), and were practicing on it. One guy - who was short, had very long toes, and seemed somehow elfish - jumped on and ran back and forth. He was wonderful, just like a monkey. "Can I try?" I asked them. "Sure," the elf said. "Why don't you put your hand on my shoulder." Even when using him for support, I couldn't stay up for more than a few seconds without toppling. It was astonishingly challenging - and I like to think that yoga has given me an excellent sense of balance. "You'll get the hang of it," he told me encouragingly. "You can buy the rope for it at any climbing store."

I thanked him and went back to my yoga practice. As I was resting in downward facing dog, two kids came up to me. "We know you!" the girl said. "You can put your feet behind your head!" They remembered me! They were astonishingly taller and bigger and older and I felt a brief pang of mortality before I began playing with them. "Show us more, show us more! I know that one, I can do it!"

Children have a marvellous energy and I believe that all children naturally love to learn. If I ever teach children in any way, I hope that I'm never arrogant enough to believe that my job is to instill them with a love of learning; my job is to teach them to figure out how to satisfy the love of learning they already have in the context of what I want to teach them. If a teacher is boring or uninspired about their subject, it quickly becomes obvious to children that they'll have a much richer experiential learning curve by making noise or creating some interesting social interactions by throwing a paper ball at the kid next to them.

In BKS Iyengar's wonderful book "The Tree of Yoga", he describes teaching a rowdy class of children, who had daunted all the other teachers who tried to work with them. He says, "I allowed them to play with me. If I had been very strict on the first day, the next day when I went to the class I would have found an empty classroom, because the children would have skipped the class and would not have come at all. But when they started making mischief, I said, ‘You are very good at making mischief. Come on, a little more! Perhaps you should make a little more noise. It’s not enough!’ That gave them a shock. Then I conducted the class. Then I say, ‘I love you. I like you because you are very mischievious.’" Oh, that BKS Iyengar, he's so cute.

So I played around in the grass with the kids for a while. We did some yoga moves, and then we invented some dances with soundtracks: "Peanut - (pump arm) - butter - (kick leg) - and jelly (jump up and down)! Fried (stretch left) bananas (stretch right) and HONEY (Big jump)!!!"

Then the kids noticed the tightrope. Naturally they dashed over there faster than a spring lamb leaping in a paddock. "I can do that! I can do that! Let me try!" So the Elf Man gave them a little impromptu lesson and I have to say their teamwork was remarkable. One kid would try the tightrope while his or her two siblings each held a hand and gave a running pep talk. "Just focus...concentrate...get in the zone! The zone!" Michelle kept chanting.

After the children had left I danced a little while longer and a guy came up to me and gave me a lesson in breakdancing: popping and locking. "It's all about isolation," he said sagely. "Just follow each movement of your limbs with your other hand." He led me through a baby exercise and then broke off into this amazing dance routine with the complex rhythms of the drums pounding away behind him.

Really, where else could you go on a Sunday afternoon to lie in the grass and listen to amazing music, get an heart-pumping dance workout, play with children, and get awesome lessons in walking a tightrope and breakdancing?

Free Shakespeare in the Park!

TIME: May 26 – June 5, 2005, 7:30PM (except Monday, May 30) LOCATION: Carter Barron Ampitheater, Rock Creek Park EQUIPMENT: Yourself, free ticket (pick up that same day at the box office), picnic supplies, anti-mosquito spray

Free Shakespeare in the park is one of my favorite urban summer treats...don't miss it!

From the Shakespeare Theater email:

Please join us for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the 15th annual Shakespeare Theatre Free For All at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

FREE performances are from Thursday, May 26, through Sunday, June 5, at 7:30 p.m. (no performance Monday, May 30). *

A Midsummer Night's Dream
by William Shakespeare
directed by Jef Hall-Flavin
original direction by Mark Lamos
7:30 p.m. nightly (no performance Monday, May 30th)

All performances, including those specially designated below, are free and open to the public. Come out and picnic and join us under the stars!

VOLUNTEER – Receive tickets to the performance of your choice.

GROUP TICKETS - for nonprofit, community-serving organizations.
(Groups who volunteer are acknowledged from the stage that evening.)

MARION BRYCE MEMBER PICNIC – Thursday, May 26, 2005


*Please note: The best time to attend the Shakespeare Theatre Free For All is the first 4 or 5 performances, when there are shorter lines for tickets and much better general seating availability.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Bike down to the cherry blossoms on the Mall in the middle of the night

TIME: Midnight LOCATION: The National Mall - near the cherry blossoms (around 19th st near the river) EQUIPMENT: Bicycle, friend, bottle of water, extra sweater, snack, tissue paper, bus fare

Sometimes you have evenings where everything is just perfect. Perhaps you plan it, perhaps you don't, perhaps what you end up doing is completely different than what you thought you would, but nevertheless the entire experience, from start to finish, is an exercise in being completely present. You feel vividly awake and suffused with joy. And this seamlessness of being doesn't feel like anything you deserve, particularly, but rather an unearned and loving lagniappe from the universe. Czeslaw Milosz said it better than I ever could in his poem "The Gift":

By Czeslaw Milosz

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.


One morning about a month ago, during the peak of the cherry blossom season, I stopped by the Mall in the morning to sit in the grass for a few minutes before a yoga class. I was struck by the blue sky, the impossibly delicate pink puffs and their contrast with the iron-black branches, like that calligraphic principle of contrasting strong and subtle brushstrokes.

I was also impressed that approximately 95% of the cherry trees featured a girlfriend standing underneath, with her freshly brushed hair flowing, as she tilted her head stiffly and held a frozen smile for the vertically framed picture being taken by her boyfriend, approximately 15 feet away. It was as if there was only one cherry tree, bookended by a couple of mirrors that duplicated its denizens into eternity... that would later spirally spawn into identical pictures in photo albums across the world...

Well, I resolved to come back that night with Martin. The unimaginatively photographic tourists would be gone. It would be a dramatic evening with pale blossoms glowing in the darkness. We'd light up a joint and climb the trees and do cartwheels and roll around in the grass for just as long as we wanted to. It was going to be a perfect evening.

Except that it wasn't.

I biked on down that night, but just as I'd passed 4th St and C realized I was terribly thirsty. I called Martin. "Are you on your way? Do you have a bottle of water?" Our cellphone reception was bad, so it was only after shouting for a while that we established that both of us were thirsty, neither had water, and neither was near any kind of water-selling establishment. "Well, I know that there are water fountains on the Mall," I howled into the receiver. "What?" Martin said. "There are WATER FOUNTAINS! It's Just! That! Some! Of! Them! Don't! Work! We can ride around and see!" "What?" "Forget it. We're meeting on the corner of 17th and Constitution, right?" "What?"

It was a lovely night and as I rode I tried to sink into my happy reverie, but it's hard to appreciate the fresh night air when your mouth and throat feel like cottonwool. I fidgeted on the bench at our rendez-vous point, trying to be mindful and enjoy the moment.

Ten minutes...twenty minutes... I called Martin. "Where are you?" "I'm here!" "What?" "I'm here!" "No, I'm here! I don't see you!" "Which corner of the street?" "What?" "Which! Corner! Of! The! Street!" "I'm on the south - on a bench. It's a T intersection." "I'm waving, do you see me?" "No! Are you sure you're not on Independence Avenue?" "What?" "Are! You! On! Independence!" "Which one is that?" "What?" "Look, I'm on 15th st. Where are you?" "OH! I said, 17th! You didn't hear me right!" "What?"

He biked over two blocks and we greeted each other cursorily, then: "Oh my god I'm so thirsty, let's go." After riding in circles for a little while we finally discovered a bathroom, where we filled an empty bottle from the tap and drank it ravenously.

By this time, I was getting impatient for the fun part. "Let's go let's go!" I jumped on my bike and rode off without checking that Martin was behind me...until I was there at the cherry blossoms, and he was nowhere to be seen. My cellphone rang. "Where are you?" "I'm here, where are you?" "I'm back at the bathrooms." "What?" "I'm! At! The! Bathrooms! I took a wrong turn when I was following you."

So I rode back to the bathrooms, and then we rode together over to the cherry blossoms, where we jumped off the bikes and I sighed with eager anticipation. It was just like I'd hoped: dramatic, glowing, a soft wind, the odd pink petal fluttering through the velvet air.

And Martin was shivering. "Oh, are you cold?" "Yep. I've been going all day, and when I left the house it was so warm, I just wore a t-shirt." "Oh no...can you stay for a little while?" "Yeah, little while. But not too long."

So we did a little bit of gallivanting. We did some yoga, I climbed some trees and hung upside down like a monkey, and there were indeed a few instants of perfect grace. But honestly I was getting a little cold too, and every once in a while the passing headlights of a car would blind us, and Martin, although he was a good sport about it, had goose-bumps that were beginning to resemble goose-Alps, and then I had to go to the bathroom, so I had to run and find a spot that was shielded from the view of whizzing cars, and so most of the time we were just distracted by our little bits of discomfort.

We'd also both been exercising all day, and our rapidly chilling leg muscles were beginning to groan at the notion of the forty minute uphill bike ride home. So pretty soon we left, and took the bus home.

Which goes to show that although those magic moments might be unearned, you're also not allowed to demand them; they follow a schedule of their own device. And yet, though the evening was a study in petty woe, best of all I remember that moment when I hung by my knees from a branch and laughed, and an entire galaxy of cherry blossom stars swirled above me, and Martin reached to hold my hands, his face an even mixture of happiness at my delight, and "Holy shit, I'm freezing my fucking ass off."

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Every indie rocker knows the drill. You fall in love with a band that nobody else has heard of. Their music speaks to you as if the lead singer was your Siamese soul-twin, separated before birth sometime in the ether. You go to every one of their shows and the audience is small enough that you soon begin to recognize all the other fans. You gaze fondly at them under your greasy bangs, knowing that they, too, must be kindred spirits, having also somehow discovered this artistic elixir in the chaotic universe of rhythmic pablum.

Like any love, yours is composed of passionate and tumultuous contradictions. You're torn between an evangelical lust, a fervor driving you to press burned CDs into the hands of anyone (that is, everyone) whose lives might also be changed by the music - and also a burning Othello-like possessiveness . For, as your band's popularity grows - as they sign to a major label - as you begin hearing them on the radio - you begin to realize that your identity as #1 fan is being compromised by all these brazen, ungrateful newcomers. They call themselves fans even though they don't have all the lyrics to all the songs memorized. In fact, some of them think the songs mean totally different things to what they actually mean! Concerts that used to cost you $5 now cost $50. And when you shell out the cash to go, you no longer feel like you're in a living room with 20 of your closest friends that you haven't met yet. Instead, you feel like you're in a gigantic Roman coliseum with a bunch of dangerous strangers pumping their fists for the next animal to be ripped bloodily apart. And when you say, "I'm a fan of X," people smile vacantly and pay no heed, because after all, who isn't?

I think religion is a little bit like that.

Let me explain.

For the longest time - before my afternoon in Dumbarton Oaks - I never understood why my friend Blair didn't like to talk openly about her Christianity with me. All she'd say was, "I can't tell you anything except to find some quiet and ask the question with an open heart and an open mind. Don't try to argue, just listen."

But now I understand her defensiveness. There's a certain class of people - which includes most of the people I interact with as a 20-something in DC - for whom the mention of a spiritual path is pretty much akin to confessing a fervent, enduring belief in Santa Claus. You can chat about your threesome relationships or your hot handcuffed sex last night or your journeys to S&M masquerade balls or your exploits as an amateur stripper all you want, and your friend will pat you on the back approvingly. But bring up a belief in God - not just a vague cultural penchant for attending church in search of a fleeting warm fuzzy but a hope that a belief in God will ultimately influence every part of your life - and they become visibly uncomfortable. You can see the play of emotions across the face: "Is she serious? Wow, I never thought she was a God freak. I thought she was sensible. I wonder if I'm going to offend her. She's probably pretty sensitive about a wacky belief like that. Better change the subject."

Then, for a little while, until they manage to forget your embarassing revelation, they treat you with the excruciating care that you might give a recently released psychiatric inmate. Sure, she seems normal. But she believes in something beyond the material world! For all I know, she might fall down to the ground frothing at the mouth any second!

It's rather annoying. But in a strange way, I find the absolute lack of any kind of institutional support of faith in my life to be rather comforting. I was raised without religion; most of my important peer groups were rabidly secular and enjoyed mocking Christianity (a birthday present I got once: a King James Bible with a hole cut out of the pages in the middle to fit a bag of weed inside.) For most of my life, I was certainly one of the snooty Santa-smirkers.

And yet, despite the inauspiciously rocky soil, I found God. And I know that the faith is mine, mine, mine, and it is real. There wasn't any cultural or peer pressure - quite the opposite. And so, when I read books about spirituality, or meet the rare person my age who also has real faith (of whatever denomination or lack thereof) I gaze at them with those same welcoming indie-rock eyes.

If I grew up in a religious family, going to church all the time - if all of my peers expected me to have a certain belief system - if faith came to seem like a guilt-laden obligation rather than a wondrous and unexpected emancipation - how would I ever figure out if I actually loved it, or if I just thought I liked it because all the radios were playing it?

I feel very grateful about that.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The yoga teacher, the artist, and the rat

TIME: Selected Saturdays, Sundays, Friday and Thursday evenings LOCATION: Your local art galleries' open houses EQUIPMENT: Penchant for small talk, perhaps a Ziploc in your purse to steal cheese cubes OPTIONAL: Dead rodent

Every so often all the art galleries in the area get together to organize "gallery-hopping" days, of which the Dupont Circle First Fridays are probably the most famous. And sometimes galleries have receptions, open to the public, to promote a new artists' work.

I was walking past 15th and P one afternoon last fall when I noticed that the art gallery on the corner was having an open house. It was in the basement of the building, slightly lower than the road, which perhaps explained why there weren't any people there. So, always being up for a chat with an artist and free snacks, I wandered in and accosted the gallery owner. He was a mid-thirties classic Dupont Circle well-groomed type, and he was happy to walk me around his brightly coloured photo-realistic paintings (which I liked; some of them were powerfully emotional). After some chat about his artistic vision, I commented that I liked the colour scheme in his living room (he'd painted each wall a different vibrant colour.)

Immediately, laser-blue sparks kindled in each of the artist's pupils, and I recognized the passionate flame of the obsessively house-proud. Yes, he'd had to knock down that wall over there, and he still wasn't sure about that window, it might need some adjustment, and the garden had taken years of work to get it right, and he still wasn't sure about the left corner with the shade-bearing perennials, but overall he was pretty happy with everything. "But the one problem with this house," he added lugubriously, "is the neighbors. They're absolute slobby pigs."

"Oh really?" I asked sympathetically. "I thought it was getting so ritzy around here."

"Not at all. You would not believe how horrible my neighbors are. They dump trash everywhere. In the street, in my yard...they have no conception of public responsibility. I've been trying to speak out about it but frankly it's really starting to bother me."

His aura was becoming vermillion, so I changed the subject to gossip about my landlord at the time, who was the owner of the Fondo del Sol gallery on 21st and R (I lived in its basement for a summer.)


I'm out to dinner to celebrate graduation from my teacher training program at Tranquil Space. There are about six of us from the training program, along with one of our teachers, Lisa, and her fiancee. Lisa is a good-humoured and engaging woman, but I'd only ever talked with her in the context of her teaching me; now we were both drinking martinis.

I had my attention turned to a different conversation, but I vaguely heard Lisa's husband exclaiming, "Oh, tell the one about the rat!"

I'm ever eagle-eared for a good story, so I urged Lisa, "Tell it, tell it!"

"Well," Lisa said, "I have this crazy neighbor. He's totally obsessive and insane."

"Where do you live?"

"On 15th and P. He owns this art gallery - have you noticed it? You can see the paintings from the street. They're really ugly."

"Yes, I do know that gallery, in fact..."

A furrow appeared between Lisa's lovely eyebrows.

"Well, this guy is nuts. I was leaving the house one day, and I had this bag full of junk mail that I grabbed on the way out. I threw it away in the public trashcan on the corner. When I got back to my house that evening, there was a note from my neighbor pinned on the door. He said that he'd been watching me throw away the trash in the public bin and it was inappropriate, those bins were public and not for our private residential trash. He'd also pinned the CVS bag and a few of the pieces of junk mail to the door as well."

"So he actually went and looked at your trash?"

"Yep. Well, I went and talked to him and told him I didn't think it was inappropriate for me to do at all. And I kept on using the public trashcans. Well, he kept on watching - his studio windows face right onto the corner - and every time he noticed me throwing something away there, he'd leave it on my doorstep!"

"Wow. That's so bizarre..."

"Well, one day I had a mouse in my apartment that got caught in a trap. I'd been away for the weekend, so it had been dead for a few days and smelled pretty rank. So I wrapped it in a plastic bag and waited until I knew that my neighbor was in his studio watching. Then I threw it away in the street corner trash can. I never got another note again."

Living language - a craigslist conversation

As a poetry lover I'm a big believer in a living language, and tend to err on the side of flexibility when it comes to neologisms, new grammar patterns, and the casting-off of grammar distinctions that don't add a lot to the meaning. For example: who/whom? Who cares? The context should make it transparent anyway, so as far as I'm concerned, let it wither; perhaps we can use those valuable brain cells to concentrate a bit harder on Auden's love poetry. As for ending sentences with prepositions, its avoidance can sometimes cause sentence structure to become really lame and twisted, so it actually seems like a destructive rule to me. English's loss of thee/thou does make me a bit sad, since there was a genuine emotional shade of meaning that was lost and is impossible to convey as succinctly today with the vocabulary we have. It might also be nice to have two different "we"'s - one that encompasses the person being addressed, and one that excludes them. (On that note - the use of "their" for a gender-neutral pronoun despite its purported plurality - I say why the hell not. None of the other solutions have caught on, and chanting "his or hers, him or her, she or he" is just so annoying.)

Of course some standardization is useful for efficient communication, especially in environments like business where people from a wide variety of backgrounds need to interact smoothly and seamlessly with each other. But I suspect there's a natural linguistic marketplace going on there - people will adapt to the "prestige" dialect to the extent they have to in order to gain status, if they want to. But we should never lose track of the overwhelming fact that language is a tool that people use to communicate. The communication is sacred. Humans expressing their ideas to one another is marvellous - the tool they use to do it is irrelevant except insofar as it aids that communication.

So, a craigslist conversation:


Converse vs. "Conversate"

Reply to: anon-71362946@craigslist.org
Date: 2005-05-02, 11:37PM EDT

I met a man at a friend's party. An absolutely gorgeous black man--tall, sexy, well-travelled, etc. We emailed a bit and made plans to meet up again. He called me while I was at work and left a message. In his incredibly deep, sexy voice he said he loved meeting me and was looking forward to "grabbing a drink and conversating a bit." I was instantly turned off. I just can't "conversate" with someone! I can converse, but I can't "conversate." I know that I'm being picky, but I'm an editor and language is very important to me. It's just not sexy people. Not sexy. Now I'm seriously considering whether or not I should call this guy back. Stupid? Perhaps, but it's how I feel.

my post:

Converse vs. Conversate (Shakespeare did it)

Reply to: anon-71430204@craigslist.org
Date: 2005-05-03, 12:25PM EDT

So the issue here seems to be that a man used a word that was not part of Standard English, and the woman who he was talking to thought it was evidence of mental deficiency because he either didn't know or care that the word was wrong (although he seemed, otherwise, intelligent and charming). It's a rather interesting story that speaks to a lot of our philosophical assumptions about language: it's either correct or not.

But if you go back and read a Shakespeare play - do people talk like that now? Not only vocabulary but basic grammar is completely different. Is our language today the end result of centuries of stupid people making grammatical mistakes? Or is it a complex cultural evolution of linguistically creative people, adapting their living language to their changing technology, culture, and even just phonetic fashion?

I notice that "conversate" is listed here as a "neologism":

Of which Shakespeare had thousands:

This article by an anthropologist on Ebonics may also be relevant:

My favorite quote from it:

"Are ebonics and other dialects of English simply incorrect, sloppy speech? American schools, particularly in the northern United States, have treated AAVE as a form of language requiring remediation by speech pathologists or special-education teachers. But linguists have known for some time that non-standard dialects, such as AAVE and Hawaiian Creole, to name another example, are consistent, legitimate varieties of language, with rules, conventions, and exceptions, just like standard English. These dialects do not carry the prestige of standard English, but they influence and enrich the standard language, keeping it vibrant and constantly evolving. Examples from black English abound: in an article on ebonics, the New York Times cited Richard Nixon's use of "right on!" "Rip-off," "chill out," and "dis" are other popular borrowings. Hawaiian gives us "aloha," and Hawaiian Creole expressions permeate travel brochures as well as the English of the islands. Furthermore, we know that all speakers of a language are able to adapt it to fit changing social circumstances. Given sufficient exposure to new situations, all language users can switch between prestige and non-prestige forms, between formal and informal ones, between intimate and polite ones, without explicit instruction or conscious translation."

So perhaps this gentleman's cultural adaptation to "prestige" English hasn't encompassed "conversate" yet. Or perhaps he thinks it sounds cool (it does sort of roll off the tongue, hey?) and just plain enjoys saying it, being a linguistically playful individual, and recognizes its side benefit of screening out up-tight, close-minded people who are unimaginative and inflexible enough to judge him for it, despite the multitude of other positive markers of his character.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Scaling up the doctor blog - a plea to the internet

www.dcdoctors.blogspot.com is now on the Google radar screen - yesterday there were four people who accessed the site by doing searches for specific doctor names (all happened to be good recommendations, by the way). I realize that this is rather insignificant in the order of things, but I know that it would make me feel good if, among the search results of various databases of doctor addresses, I actually found something personal, written by a well-meaning stranger, that would reassure me about the human element of the decision I was trying to make. If only this kind of website existed on a large scale, with some kind of thoroughness (and perhaps information about health care coverage) and with some kind of database organization that would make it easily searchable. Because mine, right now (and four search hits notwithstanding), is nothing more than an emotional salve for my own petty trauma.

I really think this would be a valuable nonprofit project. It would probably be pretty tech-heavy (maintaining the online searchable database) but would also have a marketing component (outreach to doctors' patients to get them to share their experiences - and to get people to use the website) - and it would have to have some pretty strong leadership to maintain scrupulous objectivity in the face of what would probably be some heavy pressure from the health care establishment. If I was a tycoon philanthropist, I would totally fund it.

The www.leapfrog.org site looks pretty good, but only rates hospitals. What I'm envisioning would be similar to the www.epinions.com website, but for doctors.

C'mon DC - you're full of overachieving world savers! Somebody should start this!