Heaven is for Real.

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I remember going to the store to look for one thing and always seeing this bright, yellow, silly-looking book jumping out at me: Heaven in for Real by Todd Burpo.  It was actually on one of my long, hidden lists of books I wanted to read.  I only wanted to read it because I knew of people who were wanting to read it as well, and I wanted to know what everyone was raving (both positively and negatively) about so much.  I finally grabbed one of several copies from the library and found myself done with the thin book in no time.

First, I’ll explain the premise in brief: a dad sits down to write this book with an author after a few years of hearing his small son tell stories about heaven.  Little Colton became incredibly ill and, according to the book, was a miracle of survival.  Over time, he starts revealing more and more about an out-of-body experience, telling bits about heaven that sound like scripture he wouldn’t have been able to know by 3 yet told in the way a child tells things he doesn’t quite understand but has seen (“rainbows” to explain the jewels all over the kingdom, “red markers” on Jesus’s hands which would be his wounds, etc.).

When I first starting reading this book, all I did was scoff at it.  It seemed so stupid to me.  The book was mostly about the dad and his family’s financial struggles and connection with his church.  Every time Colton revealed something he had seen, I just dismissed them with things like “well it took him 2 years to say it” or “his dad is a preacher, he could have heard that from anywhere” or “maybe he just wants attention” or “maybe this dad is a total phony” or “his dad prompted him to answer the correct way” or “how convenient, that he didn’t write down the names of the kids Colton had met in heaven”………..

I’ll admit, I still have my doubts.  But there was one point during the book when some switch just flipped inside of me.  Things started to feel a little weird to me when Colton became very strongly expressive about Jesus and how Jesus just loves everyone.  I kind felt this melting feeling and began to realize I have never doubted Jesus’s existence or that he made sacrifices for what he believed in, I only doubted who is actually is/was.  To hear that someone so tied to worldly martyrdom would still be worshipping the innocence of children (which I value highly, too), it made me feel even better about standing up for goodness.  In that moment, I decided I really love Jesus, whether he is the son of a god or if he’s just a guy.  He is, if nothing else, a perfect role model, isn’t he?  With Colton’s description, I formed a very comforting image of Jesus in my head.

Then Colton starts talking about his dad’s grandpa.  I was a little dumbfounded when Colton seemed to legitimately recall his long-dead ancestor and even more impressed when Colton only recognized pictures of the man when he was in his prime.  He claims that, in Heaven, “no one is old and no one wears glasses” which is a cute kiddie way of saying we are in the best of health.  Yet I was still bouncing it back and forth, the idea that Colton could have overheard his dad talking, that he could have somehow imagined everything,… except for the visual recognition part, if that really happened as it was told.

But it gets weirder.  Colton’s mother had had a miscarriage, yet Colton hadn’t been told.  Sure, he could have overheard about “losing the baby” or something.  But for him to come out and say he met his sister in heaven that he didn’t know he had, and to describe him as looking like his mother unlike the other children who are like their father – those things just seemed to real to me.  I find it hard to believe that a young child could process those kinds of concepts unless he had some incredible dream that streamed those thoughts together with no assistance other than his own intelligence.

Yet the moment that I suddenly found doubt in everything I had come to believe came when Colton began identifying problems with paintings of Jesus.  The day then came when Colton was shown one image, one that I have since looked up and which looks exactly like I had pictured in my mind what Jesus is like since Colton’s description… Colton, for the first time in years, found nothing wrong with the painting and said that it was “right”.  Little did he supposedly know that the painting was made by young Akiane who claims to have had a similar experience, seeing visions of heaven.  I was like, what?

(Enter: Mixed feelings.  Feelings that there can’t not be heaven mixed with feelings that maybe this is all a scam.  But how can such a young girl paint so well?  Were her parents really atheists?  So much confusion…)

Regardless of what all of this really means to me, the book made something very clear to me: You can love Jesus and be religious and be “Christian” without being Christian at all.  That’s not saying that there isn’t one singular answer about the existence of a god and that you shouldn’t accept a god that controls your life and is the reason why life exists, it’s more like I began to see the family-ness of religion.  Too often it gets a bad rap and people who aren’t religious like to pin evilness to those who are because those people stand up for their beliefs.  Reading this book made me realize that religion is not meant to shut people out or hurt them, it’s more like fulfilling a duty to a god and to each other.  It’s using “community” as a vehicle for discovery, self-improvement, reflection – with or without religion being the inspiration.

I suddenly realized that all of those people who ever tried to help me follow my grandma’s footsteps or who feared for a non-Christian in my family or who wanted to “spread the word” were really, the whole time, doing nothing but trying to help.  I’ve seen enough non-Christians react to this help to know that they see it as sabotage, unaccepting, backwards, closed-minded…but, in reality, I think there is some hypocrisy in that interpretation.  This book made me realize that people who whole-heartedly believe in something feel like that they have the key to all the doors you need to open and here they are trying to hand you those keys.  It’s like they know something already that you don’t know but they’re helping lead you to it.  It’s not such an evil thing after all, if done kindly.

So, although I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with the book, I did order a used copy of it to keep as a reminder of how it made me think – and I want now to spend a moment on the mixed reviews I have read regarding Heaven is for Real.  These reviews are seriously split down the middle, between adamant Christians celebrating how god has touched the family and the son and aggressive atheists denouncing Todd Burpo and calling the whole thing a scam.  Well, isn’t it only pleasing when we hear only what we choose to hear?

To the Christians in love with the book, I wonder if they ever raise any doubts?  To the atheists who detest it, do they seriously read it with nothing but cold-hearted conviction?  It would be like a Christian reading an atheist book, insulting its ignorance while the atheists revels in its accuracy.  That’s why I prefer to sift through everything and, regardless of spiritual context, take away some sort of meaning that I can use to better myself.

For all of the people who complained about the Burpo family being like the Flanders family in the Simpsons, well how is that such a bad thing?  I don’t think it is at all.  A little funny and strange that people could be so happy all the time, but I wish the world was full of more Flanders.  There were also complaints about the author being the same author as Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and how it was like Palin, too bubbly and sugar-coating or ignoring the bad stuff.  Again, what is so wrong with that?  (Although, I have to say I disagree with Burpo when he says, on page 84, that you might as well tell God what you’re thinking since he already knows what you’re thinking [when you’re angry, for example].  Yes, but what about filtering it to show him your control and respect?  That passage stuck out oddly to me…)

Regardless, I think the point of the book is something I can really agree with: that a child is innocent and pure due to “lack of guile” (74).  That’s why Colton’s Jesus loves the children, why Colton is so idolized in the story for his unfiltered thoughts, why this telling of heaven is so powerful – because it is meant to be pure visions retold by a guileless human.  So, if nothing else, that and my new appreciation for the concern of others is what I will take away from this book – and perhaps much more.

Actually Opening One’s Mind to Religion.

The idea of ever calling myself a certain “religion” type always gave me fear.  I too easily pictured “cults”.  I pictured these organized “cults” and then I remembered all of the negative history in the world that occurs under God’s “will”.  I’ve been trying to understand lately what it really is all about though, these pro- and anti-religious peoples vetting against one another.  I’m trying to see for myself what they’re about rather than spitting out words other people feed to me.

I got two books from the library: Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul, a tiny book that discusses what Scripture is really for, how to interpret it, and how people are spoiling it – and also The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  I thought, “Sproul will be so dry… but Dawkins should be pretty interesting, I think.”  That’s because his book was long and confident-looking.

Well, I have completed both books and I was completely wrong.

Reviews on GoodReads have, for the most part, coincided with my sentiments quite exactly.  Whilst Dawkins seems to give a much more modern and forceful view on religion, he does it in such a righteous, arrogant baby fit that I came to hate it more and more and more with each chapter.  It was also mind-numbing repetitious, dispelling numerous tests and experiments (which were highly interesting, but I don’t think possible to put scientific control on).  One such experiment supposedly proved that praying for an individual didn’t help them get better but, if anything, made them worse.  Well, okay, because they’re at a hospital so obviously ill, you ask them to be in an experiment, and it is likely that the more people who pray for them the sicker they are – and they know it.  Regardless, it was the style that got me the most.

Another thing that deeply disturbed me was the way Dawkins seemed to make so many radical claims, all the while demonstrating his lack of understanding religion.  I used to be like that.  When I tried opening my mind, I became less so.  After finishing some of my latest readings, however, I have gained an entirely new perspective for devout Christians and why they preach the things they preach and act the ways they do.  Dawkins clearly either hasn’t reached this point of understanding, or he denies it or just completely shuts it out.  On any conflicting issue, you have to meet in the middle before you can make a solid assessment.  I hate how he comes in from the flank and doesn’t take a moment to understand the people he is bashing, especially after I just finished the other book.

The other book, Knowing Scripture, helped me understand the “literary” and “literal” tidbits of the Bible.  I believe Sproul is the kind of man who would acknowledge that certain words have been mistranslated.  I really like his approach to how to read Scripture and the way he emphasizes the lessons taken from them as being the most important – which I agree.  Too much of the Bible is outdated, especially in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, I really enjoyed his section about people “tailoring” religion.  He calls them “sensual” Christians.  You can’t pick and choose the rules you think apply.  You have to pick a method of interpreting God’s word, and then you have to constantly apply that method regardless of the outcome.  You can’t by wishy-washy – and I’ve always felt that way about religion.  He calls these kinds of people “sensual” because he sees them as looking for that instant satisfaction of this generation.  He argues that this is the kind of difference that exists between love and lust – one desirable, one like a plague.

Comparing these two books just made me realize how many people might feel the same way about something, but they shut each other down if they don’t get to the same conclusions by walking the same paths.  In the end, what does it matter how you get there?  If you arrive at the same place, how you get there is just what personally defines you and makes you as unique as the mind you used to think yourself there.  I like to think that I have managed to open my mind pretty wide to be accepting and to form my own, non-intrusive opinions.  Sure, they might come off as forceful here time to time, but I’m never actually that way in conversation.

Then again, maybe my views are the reason why I’ve identified as UU the past couple of years.

Inexplicable Comfort.

I know I started this blog years ago with an intention of bashing satire, but lately I feel like I have turned it into a documentation of my transformation.  I think the combination of busyness and that the emotions plugged into my original satire all equally provide the reason for the turn.  Writing about my “little thoughts” just comes so much more naturally than always sitting down to ruthlessly tear apart a topic or an attitude.  Sometimes, doing the latter almost makes me feel worse.  Writing about pure Kayla Faith just feels healing and therapeutic, like a journal that I throw up to the world and don’t care who sees me for who I am.

I’ve found comfort in this kind of writing as of late.  And, today, I noticed that I found comfort in places I never expected to find it, at times that didn’t seem to be supportive of it.

It started last night, really, when a long Saturday at work turned into a fun night in the snow and an invitation to spend the rest of the weekend with someone I care as much as humanly possible about.  Never in a million years would I expect such an invitation from someone so busy this past week and so low on spare time.

Today, despite a conversation that I had last night that tore me down a bit, I attended church as I have a few times now with said person.  I found so much comfort in going.  We always sit in the same place, I’m starting to recognize the same faces who always express their loves to see me, and I watched snow fall outside the whole time.  When I first attended, the music was my favorite part.  An actual band plays.  Now, it has become the application of scripture.  Perhaps that is because I have been reading the Bible to understand the preaching better.  And today, I had few qualms with what was being said.  I had memories of singing Gospel with my grandma, thinking she had the most beautiful voice in the world and that one must obtain such a voice by singing for God and that only,… so I suddenly began craving the scripture reflections and traditional hymns.  Furthermore, just the feeling of going to church makes me feel good.  I got up early in the morning, I went with someone I care a lot about, I supported his faith the way I like when people support what I care about, and I saw many kind – and now familiar – faces.  I’m not saying I believe things one way or another, but I’m just saying I have come to love those Sunday mornings.  I know he would say God is making me love them, but I don’t care what is – I’ll just keep going.

Comfort came to me again when we left and we drove through the snowy parks.  We ran up to Squire’s Castle, I in his work boots because silly me wore moccasins, and we just loved the snow.  Snow.  Snow.  Snow.  I love you, snow.  Snow is perhaps the silence that screams about peacefulness louder than anything else on Earth.

I always find comfort in fixing our meals, sneaking the dishes into the dishwater before he can yell at me for cleaning up, leaving notes and sending letters…  Sometimes I worry I look like I’m trying to hard when, really, I just can’t imagine not doing those things.  Maybe it’s actually selfish.  They make me feel good?  Because I make someone else feel good?  Maybe that comfort isn’t inexplicable, because my friend Rita already sat me down and explained to me years ago that I’m a “people-pleaser” like her.  It helped me understand why I feel so easily rejected and depressed when I don’t meet someone’s standards.  Regardless, I found comfort in doing those favors today.

I found comfort on the way home when I stopped at the store.  I usually avoid talking to people or making eye contact.  I always feel like some silly deer in the headlights.  People always come up to me and ask if I’m okay because I look frazzled or tired or stressed or like I’ve been crying… and that’s happened on my happy days, thus launching such days into self-conscious misery.  So I avoid it altogether.  But then I had the briefest of all conversations at the checkout counter with the grocer.  I recalled previous experiences at Whole Foods and nearly all of them include conversations at the checkout.  That never happens at normal stores.  Whole Foods definitely has a unique vibe, and suddenly I felt comfort that there are people out there who understand me but whom I have not yet met.  The world maybe isn’t as dark as I always think it is.

I found comfort in driving from the store to home and listening to my audiobooks.  I had previously finished Knowing Scripture, a book to accompany my reading A History of God while also reading the Bible (NKJV) cover to cover.  I actually really enjoyed that audiobook.  It was gentle, although set in its ways, and tried to express the importance of “literal” meaning.  What is literal meaning?  Taking something literally doesn’t mean word-for-word but instead the way it was intended to be taken, something that can be determined by its literary mechanisms.  Was that hyperbole?  What is that in the context of its time?  (Or, in the case of the Bible, things like What was the original word for this in its native language and how might it have been translated?)  I liked that, but then I listened to RIchard Dawkins.  I thought I would like this audiobook more, a much longer book which basically speaks against Scripture and is the opposite to the book I just finished.  Truth of the matter is this book is so damn arrogant, the claims so wildly inappropriate half of the time that I sympathize for any and all religious or semi-religious peoples.  Some moments, I agree full-heartedly.  Others, I’m appalled.  I think I was appalled maybe once or twice at some far-fetched concept in Knowing Scriptures and so I suddenly realized how arrogant the arguments sound.  Religious people often strive to be loved by and show love for their god(s), whereas atheists often display contempt for those loving people.  I’m not saying it’s either-or, but I suddenly felt comfort in places where I had previously felt uncomfortable: under the judgment of those who follow religion rather than those who follow proving it wrong.

At this point, I was home.  Expected mail was not in my inbox.  My place looks half-cleaned.  And I suddenly burst into tears in the kitchen.  I do that sometimes, maybe because I’m just confused about life.  About why I’m here, who I am, what I’m supposed to be doing, am I supposed to know these answers, are there no answers, where do I go from here, what is the point, etc. etc. etc.  Suddenly, from no where, I turn to the kitchen counter on my left and my cat Phantom is looking up at me, eagerly.  She has never jumped on my counter before.  She starts to nuzzle me, so I pick her up.  I have never cried into a cat so long before.  All she did was purr and respond to my scratching her ears until I set her down at the windowsill a good 10 minutes later.  Sometimes I’m convinced that people of our past are reincarnated into our pets, to somehow guide us.  Perhaps there is some god that oversees this.  Or perhaps I’m just crazy.  I don’t care, I still feel that way.  Just like I somehow know my grandma is there every time a ladybug refuses to leave my arm.  (And, yes, that exact experience has caused the only female on a construction site – me – to burst into tears in front of a slew of male drillers before.)

Finally, comfort came in the form of a text conversation.  One of my closest girlfriends from home texted me this evening, asking about the person I spent the day with (she saw a photo I posted of us hiking).  I briefly explained the situation.  I mean, she’s probably one of the better people to speak to about it.  She became incredibly passionate for my side that it made me feel, yet again, that inexplicable comfort.  Where did this come from?  She was so adamant to support me, being me, believing whatever I believe, no matter how it ever does or doesn’t change…  She was convinced that love is boundary-less, that it is foolish to throw out feelings over a difference that may not exist and that may only strengthen the diversity of something if it does…  Her argument made me feel sound and strengthened and not so hopeless.  She gave me courage after a day of mild confusion.  And, better than all else, she made me feel like my battle was not lost but just slow at being won.  It’s comforting knowing people so far away can care about you so much that they nearly lose their cool in expressing their support for you.

Ever since a conversation I had with a non-religious friend a few months ago, I have fully adopted his outlook on religion and faith: We are all religious, we just define our personally tailored religions in different ways.  This is, I think, completely true.  Even if you’re Christian, you likely interpret things a certain way, one in which others may not.  But what is wrong with that?  Follow the Scriptures all you want, but only certain ones were selected, they were all translated to varying degrees of accuracy, and who says they are set in stone?  (Okay, maybe the 10 commandments were originally but…)  With this in mind, I have no doubt that I am religious.  Religion is literally – there it is again! – defined as not just supporting a superhuman concept, but also following a set of beliefs with a certain upheld faith.  BOOM.  My beliefs may vary throughout the years, molded by whom I am near and what I have learned and seen, but I will have those beliefs nonetheless.  I’m adamant about adhering to certain ways of living and doing what is right, whether or not I’m convinced that right and wrong have to exist.

BOOM.  I am religious.  I always have been, but now more so than ever.  And I find it really odd, but I have been compelled to occasionally pray since I was about 8 years old.  Sometimes I pray because there is someone who asks for a prayer or who is struggling, so I pray for them and I pray to whomever their god is or gods are.  Sometimes I pray because I feel completely hopeless and what else should I do?  I always start off in my mind with “Dear God or gods or Mother Nature or whoever it is that I’m sorry I don’t know but who might have a say in this…”  I honestly hesitated to express in an entry that I am this way because I didn’t want people to regard me in a certain way, but then I decided why do I care?  I am who I am and I don’t know who I am but I’ll still be who I am whether I want to be me or not.

Seriously…my mind is such a freely flowing stream of randomness…but I just really felt like I had to record this moment, today, a day of highs and lows but of discovery and this odd sense of comfort in moments that felt so dreary.  Today, just when I felt like all was lost, I actually began to feel more hopeful.  Like, these are the tests we are going through to make us confident that this is actually everything we want.  We can handle this, because it is nothing.  There is so much compassion to be had and, like my friend told me today, love and respect are the center of it all.  And that’s there.  It will all be okay because that’s there, so I just need to focus on me, continuing to be growing, dynamic me, and this will work out because it’s meant to be this way.

Even if not everything has a purpose, as humans we always find it one.

The Meaning in Dreams.

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Growing up, my mom and my grandma would always ask me about my dreams. Whether they were good, bad, or just plain profound, I would tell them if something stood out to me the next day. There were days when my dreams were dictated by medication, including a series of horrifying nightmares I experienced during my few weeks in India when I switched to a different kind of malaria pill.

I was always amazed by how progressive my family seems to be, yet certain things stick in the mud like a stubborn twig. Things like my grandma’s insisting that owls are a sign of death, my dad yelling at me for speaking ill of my brother when I saw a raven, or the way my family dwells on dreams. I’ve always felt like dreams are just a subconscious moment of clear thinking, kind of like an innocent child creatively experiencing the world or like those moments when you can’t solve a math problem and walk away from it, only to solve it when you’re not thinking about it. But maybe there is something more to it? I do, after all, own an old, large book of palm reading, tarot cards, and dream interpretation.

I do listen to my thoughts and my dreams. I find myself convinced that it keeps me out of trouble, or even death. Like when I leave the house late and my mom says “It was for a reason; something would have happened if you were on time.” Well, once a drunk driver collided head-on going the wrong way down the Turnpike a few miles ahead of me. I think that really got me thinking from then on.

But dreams?

I know a lot of friends would reject my subconscious theory and rationale. They would say it is undoubtedly god speaking to us, showing us what he wants to see. I just have a hard time believing god really cares that much about the bajillions of people here that he sits with them every night and orchestrates their dreams within their respective time zones and sleeping schedules. Wouldn’t it be easier just to sit back and watch? I mean, most people probably forget their dreams anyway.

Last night I had an unusually frustrating dream. My family and I flew to London for a week. I had just gotten back from London (true story), but I was eager to go to the White Cliffs of Dover and also to the northern most point of Scotland. We sat around in this large, modern apartment, staring out at the glass windows for several days, not leaving, before I finally said something. My mom insisted it wasn’t a big deal, we could see London from the living room. I looked out and, sure enough, I could see the London Eye turning and Big Ben not far from that.

My brother was playing games on his computer. I’m not even sure what my dad was doing – if anything. Every time I tried to suggest leaving, they’d ignore me and say that my brother had stuff to get done. But then they’d let him keep playing games.

“Mom, let’s walk to the train station. I have London so well memorized around the Thames that I can get us to Dover in no time.” (true story)

“Okay, fine, we will get ready and go to Dover.”

I wait for a few hours and it is getting dark.

“Mom, if we don’t go now, it will be dark and we can’t see anything.”

“We can go tomorrow.”

“Then we can’t go to Scotland, too!”

“Calm down, it’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t pay for airfare to come to London for a week and sit inside this room!”

And we never went anywhere. It got dark, I could see the blue Eye, and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even run away.

I think I know what my dream was telling me.

First of all, my mom mentioned grandma talking about a trip to Australia. I was surprised yesterday that the flights are cheaper than the ones I’m buying to go back to West Africa in less than two months. That’s why I was dreaming about our family traveling. London was always on my mom’s list.

The apartment. I think that’s how I feel about a lot of people, that they’re just idling, watching the world through protective glass, never going outside of their comfort zones. Suffocating in their Bell Jars. Thinking this is as good as it gets, that text book pictures and stories come even close to representing the real thing. And that’s definitely not what it’s like.

The imprisonment. I think I feel imprisoned often by the restraints my parents have always placed on me, whether it is in my athletics or in my travels, whatever. They were shutting down my idea of going somewhere, doing something crazy. I always feel like, if I listened to them, I would be idle, I would be stuck living the same old, conventional, rural Pennsylvanian life. Maybe I want that, but not without leaving it first. They just never tried to leave it at all. And they try to lock me in their norms.

The computer. This is two-fold. One, I was surprised when my mom recently made the comment “I can’t believe you’re surviving without Wi-Fi”. I thought it was sarcastic. Since when did my mom rely on the Internet? She just got a laptop and an e-mail address not that long ago. It’s not like she ever needed it. I didn’t even know she understands half of what she tries to do on it. And, yes, work makes me dependent on Internet, but not like that. Two, this DEFINITELY reflected my attitude on my family’s treatment of me versus my brother. He is more important, he can do what he wants. I can only do what I want if I damn well do it myself. They’ll dish out the money for him to do something stupid and useless and which doesn’t help his career. Meanwhile I’m actually working and trying to live life. Give me a break.

So – let’s look at this two ways:

1. Subconscious, pure thoughts: Does this mean I truly feel this way? Or is this where the imagination part kicks in and starts making me dream up situations for self-pity? Could it be that my views from this dream are really what I’m facing in my daily life?

2. God’s thoughts in my head: If there’s a god putting these ideas there, what is he trying to tell me? I don’t see a way for me to appreciate anything from that dream, unless I’m supposed to appreciate being able to say “I’m in London” – I think not. Is he trying to make me realize the differences between me and my family? I have no idea.

But I enjoy dreams. They are stories I write without trying to write them, and look at all the symbolism I subconsciously conjure up!

Remembrance, Emotion, and Human Follies.

I love referring to emotion as the greatest folly of mankind.  I believe that our intellectual capacity increased as a compensation for our physical ineptitude in the realm of survival, thus we tend to “outsmart” other creatures in order to overcome them by means other than one-on-one combat.  It helped us survive up until this point.  However, that intelligence fosters the ability for us to overanalyze, hesitate, and even remember things not crucial to our survival.  This mental clutter, to me, is a flaw rather than a blessing.  I like to think very pragmatically, so I see emotion as being a hinderance to instinct.  Yet that doesn’t keep me from remembering things.

I look at my cats and I wonder how much they remember, think, and feel.  I believe they do feel emotion because they express love and fear and gratitude.  I’m not so self-centered to think that is some superior quality that only humans have, to feel.  I used to think that cats really didn’t remember too much, like they had some kind of short-term memory.  When I moved to Ohio and their crates opened for the first time in my new apartment, they had total fear in their eyes and suspected everything because it was unfamiliar territory.  I expected the same thing to happen after they got used to my place and we visited Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving.  I was wrong.  I opened the crates and they came pouring out and ran to their favorite baskets or scratching posts as if they’d never left months before. I confirmed that cats do remember over at least a span of several months.  However, also I do know that cats have a lack of attachment, and memory is certainly different from emotion.  I’ve seen cats meow after their lost kittens for a few hours, then move on as if nothing happened.  It’s life.  They don’t intend to have another litter because they probably aren’t conscious of how they end up with one, but, when they do have another, it’s the same instincts that take over.  It’s all about survival.

The only creatures not fixated on survival appear to be the humans so enamored with the idea that Mother Earth is living hell, that God will save them, and that they’re only getting by here to reap everything in heaven when they’re done.  Because humans think too much.  Because animals live in the present.  Animals inherently and naturally understand what it takes to be a successful, integral, non-destructive part of this planet. I try to imagine what my life would be like if I could have more animal-like thinking patterns but still live in this artificial human bubble of protection where all it takes is a turn of a dial to change my room to a comfortable temperature setting.  I can confirm that I’d have less personal growth.  I would be less transfixed on intelligence and self-improvement because those would get me nowhere as an animal and somewhere only as a human functioning in a human-made society.  I would essentially live the life of an innocent child who speaks without thinking, tells no lies, and sees things for exactly what they are, albeit everyday murmurs or something completely jaw-droppingly amazing and inexplicable.  I wouldn’t search for reason; I would accept and move on.  I wouldn’t question why I am here, what that moment means to me, or where I should be going.  I wouldn’t contemplate right or wrong because those things would be null to me, completely moot to survival.  I would just live.  Aren’t we all just meant to live? Instead, I am stuck with a crippling ability to feel.  I overanalyze, I dwell, I suffer.  I cry when I am not physically wounded.  I cry just because I haven’t cried for a long time and I feel like my body needs it.  BUT WHO DOES THAT?  Humans, yes, but only humans?  I think only humans.  My cats don’t cry.  My cats don’t miss their family.  My cats don’t go to funerals.

I think that’s when I started thinking the most about remembrance, when my cousin died this week.  It made me start to recall memories of my family and all of the things I’ve done this year and all of the people I may never see again, whether they’re alive at the time I post this or long gone.  I try to think of the “purpose” to all of these moments and then I try to decipher whether or not such things have “purpose”.  What is “purpose”?  Is it only a spiritual thing?  When my agnostic mom tells me things happen for a “reason”, what is the “reason” of which she speaks?

I don’t have many memories from my family outside of my direct line.  My cousins have never played a large part of my life, but I do keep cousins whose families haven’t had common ties with mine since the 1700s – because we are few, far-flung, and in need of someone who understands us.  Too many family quarrels have limited even my most direct ties so that, essentially, I am left with siblings, parents, and grandparents to go to.  That means I have my grandma and little else.  But that wasn’t always the case.  And so in recalling my cousins who I knew less than I’d wished, I start to think about those moments I don’t have any longer, the moments of remembrance that define me as a human.

I can’t imagine who I would be if I didn’t have either houses of my grandparents’ to visit.

On my one side, I used to have both grandparents – and many of their siblings – but that all drastically changed in the course of just one year.  Without those grandparents, I wouldn’t have my grandma’s perspective on religion, my grandpa’s indifference, the obvious love that glued them together, their passion for the outdoors, or even that community spirit where we need to work together to improve ourselves and search for something more.  I would say those grandparents made quite a life out of what they were given.  The gardens, the knowledge of how to live off the land, long bike rides through thickets of trilliums (my grandma’s favorite flowers), singing hymns, watching the 8’o clock flowers bloom, sipping sweet tea on the gazebo with a mason jar of lightning bugs, a day of fishing, making salad from grandma’s homegrown loveage, swinging on the same tree mom swung in, feeding the birds, writing poetry on the typewriter, making crafts in the cellar with the musty smell of dried flowers and moss, putting giant magnetic spots on grandma’s car (because she was, after all, “Lady Bug”), listening to grandma storytell, PapPap grouching when we tell him to leave the football game in the TV room and go mow the lawn, his “jungle” garden and train set, the smell of their air-conditioning in the summer (they were the only elderly people I knew with air-conditioning), trying on grandma’s square dancing dresses, playing Pass the Pigs on the porch, the smell of grandma’s homemade biscuits in the kitchen, imagining my mom, her brother, and her sister living in the same rooms, falling asleep to the sound of distant cars and their headlights flashing on the ceiling (the only house I knew near a road), running out to meet the mail woman when she came down the lane, realizing I never saw the attic, wandering through the greenhouse and trying to remember the outdoor garage when their horse Bootsy lived there, crates of Coke bottles, Christmas and Easter when it actually had a meaning, skiing in the front lawn, the mantel clock that chimed a hymn, all the things that we could have done and they could have seen if only we had had more time…

On the other side, the farm.  Driving until we were in the middle of nowhere, then taking a turn into nothing and driving some more.  The lane that wasn’t a driveway but supposedly a “road”.  That road splits into four, and I still go there when I visit home.  One lane now jogs over to a temporary home for our friends.  Another shoots off into the forest, having once served the oil companies.  A third lane runs along the bottom of grandma’s garden and splits, one side going to her garage, the other continuing past a series of buildings that make up the abandoned pump station she bought years ago.  That lane continues through a cornfield until it dissipates from lack of use.  The last lane also splits again, heading up towards grandma’s house and then going either left to the dog pens or right towards the brick-layed yard that divides grandma’s two large barns.  I remember years ago when grandma still lived with her half-brother and how he was always mixing concrete in a trough between the barns and feeding his pigs.  My brother and I would play on the play set he concreted into the ground, then jump on some old rocks surrounding the chicken coop, toss rotten apples that fell off grandma’s tree into the well beside the house that had a broken plywood cover, chase each other through the pastures catching butterflies (or lightning bugs, at night), go “bale surfing” (when we would run across the tops of hay bales and try to get them to roll), run across steel beams Uncle Mike had laying around the barns for his new construction, chase kittens and stray cats that grandma feeds daily in her barns, climb in the hay loft to look for kitten holes or make “castles”, poke the corn bin in search of a black widow, stir leaves and sand in a giant rain catcher every time it rained, paint any window we could find with a Rose Art kit, draw grandma’s dogs with chalk on the patio, climb a tree that we didn’t realize our great-grandfather had planted in the sixties for our dad, roll down the hill in the front yard, sneak around the abandoned buildings in search of treasure, follow our parents to the open dump and jump on piles of tires and furniture before we realized open dumps are actually illegal, walking food over to our neighbors a few miles down the lane, hearing Joel come over to crank up the tractor or a bailer, listening to the crickets at night, grandma flipping on the lottery at 7 each night so she can interrupt the Wheel of Fortune and write down numbers in a book she keeps in the candy door, the clicking of the fan, the smell of the old rooms with furniture dad used when he still lived here, photos of a grandpa we never knew, pierogies, nut rolls, chicken noodle soup, coco-wheats, coffee with cream and sugar, corn flakes with sugar on top, motorcycle helmets for our toy bikes that we took racing down the gravel lane, grandma’s stash of Coke in the basement, feeding the dogs “dog lasagna”, cooking in both the upstairs and the downstairs ovens, filling buckets of water during hurricane season and lining the halls with them, boiling water in kettles to wash my hair because the heater was broken, stories of all the cool cars grandma bought while she worked the factories, trips out to Uniontown and the mall, those sweet summer nights with dogs and bubbles and a setting sun,…

I even remember the days when I would go to grandma’s sister’s.  It’s not the way it used to be.  Now her husband has died and her son has moved back in and my brother and I no longer play at the baseball field in the summer.  But we used to.  And we used to stay after games, watch our uncle do crosswords, sneak Skittles from his dispenser, watch TV on my aunt’s 4″x4″ black -and-white kitchen screen, eat Fudgesicles from the basement freezer, throw powder in the fireplace that made the flames blue, do puzzles, ride the stationary bike, lay on the tweed couch, play Don’t Break the Ice on the red carpet, poke at the overweight dog, sit on the porch pouring too much pepper on our fresh and local ears of corn, tying up tomatoes in cages in the yard, trimming the bushes by hand while dressed as the Ingall sisters in sunbonnets and dresses, climbing the backyard tree, watering plants out of the rain barrel, doing something that earned a spot on my aunt’s photograph-littered cabinet, pushing wheelbarrows of mulch, sitting at the bottom of the drive with a cardboard sign that said “vegetables for sale” and selling the vegetables, the feeling of the grass when we rolled down the bank just after it was mowed, the hot asphalt (and the only asphalt I knew), playing computer games for the first time (the only old person I knew with a computer!), the squishy toilet seat, packing my “Going to Grandma’s House” suitcase for my aunt’s house and her forgetting that I wasn’t actually her granddaughter, being called my mom’s name, the neighbor kids’ awesome new shed (I had never seen a store-bought shed before, so I would hang out in it with the neighbors and my brother), sloppy kisses, the smell of my aunt’s onion for breakfast, chocolate Nesquick milk, the Clap-On lamps, the Russian doll set, the impossibly white carpets, getting TY Beanie Babies for Christmas, family visiting from Virginia and North Carolina,…

These memories make me remember the little things so that I always appreciate them.  I don’t want a big, glamorous city life.  A small life where I can remember vegetable sales and the way a couch feels is enough for me.  Nothing compares to the feeling of a summer night of playing catch, jarring lightning bugs, and sipping homemade tea.  That’s a good thing, when those memories make me appreciate silly things.  But it’s also bad.  Because now I’m stuck far away, out-of-state, with people who don’t understand my background and who don’t have the same country experiences that I do.  Baking, cooking, farming, gardening,… those are all huge parts of my family time.  A lot of people here, in this drab city, don’t have those things in their past.  They look forward to a much different kind of thrill, the kinds that you don’t get in the woods, on a hunt, just being outside.  I think about that a lot and I convince myself that I cannot stay here, in this urban Ohio.  Not permanently.  But, in the meantime, it will make me appreciate what I left behind.  The mountains, the freedom.  And as for the people, many of them gone, I can’t forget those times – I doubt I can ever forget them.  As much as I could let it bring me down, maybe I can also let it pick me up.  I can hope for a future that will be filled with those same emotions, with people that I can share those times with in another place and another generation.

Memories can bring us so quickly out of the present.  It makes me wonder, where are those people now?  Those times?  It’s so easy to say those people are in heaven and those times are never forgotten but, in reality, I say neigh.  Those people are gone, there is not heaven – that is wishful thinking.  They are gone, and that realization is what makes us appreciate them the most heart-wrenchingly way possible.  You cannot take the present for granted because it is so fleeting.  To think there is redemption, that is foolish naïveté.  To hope for something better when you’re done here is greed and a wholesome lack of appreciation.  Things are meant to be seen simply and fully, like the animals around us see them.  We’ve been granted with the ability to perceive perhaps even more and so we need to use it.  That perception can help us define ourselves and better ourselves whilst we are so transfixed on how we are perceived and how we are changing our own lives. So not everything on this planet feels as much as we do, but we do feel it and we have to learn to live with it.  In the meantime, we can practice remembering those things that we want to carry with us and use them to spark us for the better.

There’s no use in trying to forget an integral part of your past, but dwelling on moments won’t progress you either.  You have to strike a balance.  For that reason, I’ve decided I need to accept what is here and what is gone, take away from it what I can while I can, and then continue to withhold my traditions because that is, in essence withholding a deep part of myself, the static part I want to keep as I continue to grow.

Talking to Strangers.

I would say it took until I was about 20 to realize that all those “Don’t talk to strangers!” warnings mama gives you start to wear off and instead become a crutch if you continue to heed them.

I’m definitely a quiet person. I sit back and observe. Part of that is me naturally lacking confidence, the other part is just me fearing bad impressions or the misinterpretation of a situation. But I’m also a person who hates idleness and who wants to learn and grow now that all my physical growing has ended. It’s hard to just sit in a room if everyone’s just sitting in that room and no one is speaking. I start to form burning urges to say something – anything – that would take off the strain of silence. But lately I’ve been getting those urges in times that aren’t silent, in times that are totally foreign and uncomfortable. It sometimes frightens me, this uncontrolled adrenaline rush of opening my mouth and just saying something.

I have thus become a person not afraid to talk to strangers. Correction: I am afraid, but I tremble with intimidation and do it anyway. What’s more is this is something I have chosen to become. Talking to strangers as a child can be a dangerous sport. I don’t just mean that because of the crazy people out there today who offer kids candy and drive white vans. It can be dangerous because, as a child, you’re too easily malleable and your parents need to have some control over who puts ideas into your head before you’re able to make your own experienced judgments. I say experienced and not educated because I’ve come to realize that so much more of life is learned by experience and not in a classroom. In fact, the best parts of life are learned that way. But when you grow up enough that you’re starting to get an idea of who you are and what questions to ask, you start to realize that your learning experience – with a mental filter in hand – comes much more rapidly when you engage with a complete stranger.

Just this past month, I started realizing how many strangers I had befriended by simply going to the same restaurant during the same times. Some of them are guests, some of them are employees, and some of them I still don’t know their names – but I know their stories. These befriended strangers made me realize how we can so subconsciously bond with people who may not have that much in common with us. It got me thinking to actively making friends when I go places, and so I began engaging with random people more regularly and became enthralled with the results.

Then, finally, it occurred to me: How much of my life has changed because of these strangers?

That’s when I realized how much solo traveling has opened my mind, thanks to talking with strangers. Imagine traveling the world alone – as I have this last year – and not daring to talk with a soul you don’t know. I would have been so lonely. But would I had chosen to talk to those people otherwise? Outside of that situation? I can guarantee you No. Most of those conversations I had weren’t even in English. But just because I’m bilingual doesn’t mean I didn’t have conversations outside of any of my languages, because I did. I spoke with a woman on a train from Hungary who knew nothing but German. She had taken a train all the way to Budapest to save a rescue dog and she asked me – the American stranger! – to watch her things as she walked the dog down the night train and doted on his lingering illnesses.

If I had not tried to talk to strangers, I would never have gotten to exchange my experiences in West Africa with people who have never left their village. I showed them pictures of home on my phone and they showed me their kitchens and how to cook my favorite local dishes. They told me about how wonderful they think America is and I told them of how Americans think of Africa. Then we exchanged truths about how the African life is all they know and many of them love it, and I told them how much suffering does exist even in America… I learned that poverty is sometimes a blessing when you’re not living up against things you can’t have, and they learned that not every person from America is really as lucky as outsiders dream they are.

But you don’t have to go to exotic places to gain such insight and perspective; you just have to seek out a person you would never normally choose to speak with. Someone who is a much different age, who dresses much differently, who looks really outgoing or really timid. Someone who clearly practices different religious beliefs, evidenced by their prayer mat in a public place, their symbols of faith, their burka. You might be amazed at what you will learn. You might begin to question everything you once knew, wonder what the purest truths are, see yourself in a much different light.

So, sorry mama, but I think it’s time we all start talking to strangers.

4 Reasons Why Overseas Volunteer Projects are a Waste of Time

indian-reservation-squalor-shanty-hut-hovels-poor-poverty1-1

Shanties on a US reservation, no better than houses I’ve seen in rural India or West Africa and unfathomably worse than donated facilities at the Nuevo Paraiso mission project in Honduras.

It seems like, growing up, the cool thing for kids to do who went to my fancy private school was to be sent off by their parents on some overseas volunteer project in a third-world country.  I never did anything like this until college, mostly because my mom always shot the idea down.  I never fully understood her reasons until I went on a trip of my own and began reevaluating such overseas volunteer projects.  I decided that I agree with my mom.  The only people these trips really benefit are the travelers themselves, giving them something to put on their resumes.  And although the benefits operate on a case-by-case basis, it is my experience and observations that suggest how these projects are often just a waste of time.  I will outline my reasons below:

1. GIVING OUT FISH.
My family strongly believes in the motto: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish, he eats for life.”  I’ve grown up knowing that expression and beginning to see the truth behind it.  Although my parents use that approach in their political views and anti-welfare standpoints, I see how this fish comparison directly relates to volunteer projects.  It’s easy to give a monetary donation and let someone else handle what happens to the money.  That’s obviously no way to help an impoverished community.  But too often we are still transfixed on materialistic things to improve an entire village.  Why save up money to go build a building?  Most of these communities have all the resources they need to build a building that suits their needs.  Why not lend a physical hand instead?  Why not teach and do less of handing these people supplies and new, shiny things?  Give them all of these donations and the only thing they’ll think is “Wow, Americans have nice, fancy things.  When I grow up, I want to get out of here and go somewhere where these things can be handed to me.”  Not only does handing out fish not allow these people to fix themselves, it encourages them to seek out where they can be handed more fish and prevents them from fixing their old mistakes.  Indirectly, it could also cause communities to disband and lose culture as the younger generations with more potential greedily seek out a life outside of their community for shiny things they don’t need.  And I’m not just making up a hypothesis; it is a serious issue I learned about while on some community projects this summer in rural India.

2. BROKEN THINGS THAT STAY BROKEN.
When I signed up for Engineers Without Borders, I though, Gee, this is cool – I get funded to travel to a really unique place and practice both my French and engineering skills!  The experience helped land me a job and gave me some real world perspective on what life is like in West Africa.  But my trip to Cameroon benefitted myself more than it did the community.  We spent endless weeks organizing, building, delivering, preparing, teaching,…all to end up with empty wallets and a failed system.  We visited a nearby project similar to ours: a solar panel-powered well system installed by the University of Delaware.  What did we find?  An empty water tank at the top of a hill next to a school.  Why was there no water pumping up here?  We found the lower pump where a few kids were squeezing out the only drops they could get.  Why was there not even water at the taps with the greatest hydraulic head?  My colleague found the answer: the solar panels were coated in weeks worth of red, Cameroonian mountain dust.  No one had been cleaning the panels, despite clear instruction from the volunteers to do so.  Back at our own project, we even set up a committee dedicated to clean the panels once a week.  You would think that a quick cleanse isn’t much to ask from a slower paced, rural community, but even our village had to provide an incentive by offering weekly pay to the volunteer.  When I returned to the States and shared my story with my friends, my best friend gave me a link to a video that discussed exactly how EWB projects are inevitable failures.  There is no water coming out a year later.  All of this money and time, and for what?  Why is this happening?  The answer is multi-faceted, having its roots in my fish theory.  Plus, things that break in these rural communities often stay broken.  Why?  Well, what resources are there to fix them?  To fix these projects that are not the standard way of life?  What motive is there to gather the information and to find a way to bring back something that these villages have survived for thousands of years without?  And that brings me to my third point…

3. DON’T FIX WHAT’S NOT BROKEN.
Why are Americans so in love with themselves that they think their way of life is the solution to the planet’s suffering?  The wasteful, materialistic American way of life is not only greedy and corrupt, but it could easily be contributing indirectly to the suffering of these remote areas.  The environmental impacts of our decisions in the States causes a global reaction that can directly impact the weather conditions and water cycles of these victimized areas.  Still, they thrive the way they have known to thrive for thousands of years.  Throughout history, ancient civilizations have survived and thrived without the assistance of outsiders.  In fact, if anything, these outsiders have obliterated these civilizations before ever significantly impacting them in a positive fashion.  For example, think about the situations in America.  All of the tribal peoples who have lost their identity and land.  All because we think the way we live is the right way?  The sophisticated way?  Go to West Africa and you will see a collage of old and new.  People living in huts who have cell phones.  Why is that?  Well, they want to take advantage of the best of both worlds the best that they can.  But, at the same time, not everyone wants to jeopardize their old ways of life.  It’s what they know.  It’s their comfort zones.  It’s how they have evolved to believe they should live.  I’ve had countless political arguments with sheltered people and friends who felt that invading countries and transforming their governments was the correct solution to everything, but is it really?  Is our government system really the answer?  Is it our business to decide that for anyone but ourselves?  How do we know that we’re right?  I’ve seen first hand how these “less fortunate” people actually believe we’re the unfortunate ones, leading stressful lives and answering to people we hardly know, not understanding anymore what living is or how to appreciate life.  But it’s not just how their systems aren’t broken but how we try to fix them and break them to pieces.  How we strip people of culture.  Perhaps the worst offender of such things is religious cleansing.  I am absolutely opposed to mission trips and anything that operates in another community by the “light of God”.  Can’t people do good things for the sake of life, living, and kindness?  Why is religion attached to any good notion when religion is in fact the cause of so much evil?  So much war?  I see people going to Africa every year on “mission trips”, and all I can think is I hope you feel good about yourself when you shove Bibles down these poor peoples’ throats and rob them of any cultural identity they used to have.  Why not teach them how to read and write?  So they can buy books and learn the newest herbal medicinal discoveries or how to fix their water issues naturally and without the use of energy and pumps?  This religious debacle leads me to my last reason…

4. HELP YOURSELF BEFORE YOU HELP OTHERS.
Even airlines tell you this before your plane leaves the runway.  While we are so transfixed with being the heroes to people in communities that will never remember our names once we have parted, why don’t we take a look at our own country?  And I don’t mean just soup kitchens and giving handouts to homeless people who continue to drink away their handouts.  I mean the thing that I’m most passionate about: poverty on the reservations.  It’s not because I’m biased because my grandfather is Indian and it’s my focus of work.  It’s because I strongly believe America is responsible for the situation it’s created.  You can’t invade a territory, take over completely from peoples who you don’t even acknowledge as people, set up a system familiar only to the invaders and only at the advantage of said invaders, and then expect the natives to thrive.  That’s just it; they weren’t expected to thrive.  They weren’t considered people, they were murdered without consequences, and they weren’t even accounted for on the census rolls until tribal counts were created.  By that time, most of the less powerful tribes were wiped out or assimilated to a different culture anyway.  The territorial borders kept pushing back, tribes were hit with European clothes, weapons, alcohol, and Bibles, all in an effort to strip them of their identity if not kill them off altogether.  The answer to this problem, when peaceful terms were supposedly going to be met, was to shove these peoples onto a hodge-podge of lousy land parcels called “reservations”.  That was no solution, but everyone seemed to “roll with it” until the Dawes Act sparked up in the late 1800s and unconstitutionally revoked the rights of thousands of American people – American Indian people.  What efforts have been made since to right these wrongs?  A similar wronging was in the African-American slave industry around the same time.  That dispute divided our whole nation until it was resolved and, although we still have racial issues, the States made an enormous effort to right its wrongs.  Can you say that about the native people to whom this land really belonged?  Whose voices aren’t being heard despite their protests?  As an example, Gilmour Academy near my university (and where several of my friends went) sends students annually to Honduras on a mission trip.  Ignoring the fact that it’s a mission, can we ask ourselves why these people are spending thousands of dollars for the glory of assisting (handing fish) to people in a remote, foreign village that will likely stay broken?  One that maybe wasn’t all that “broken” to begin with?  One that actually used to be full of native peoples that were conquered by the Spaniards?  But we’re continuing to perpetuate that wrong as a right by influencing our western ways on the rural populations?  And if the reason of choosing that location is solely based on the poverty level in Honduras being under 50%, have we stopped to consider that a few of the largest Indian reservations in the US with a majority of the native population is in fact exceeding that level of poverty?  Within our own borders?  Okay, so South Dakota or the desert in Utah maybe isn’t as “cool” as Honduras to visit…but is it a volunteer trip or a vacation?  Spend your money wisely.  Don’t blow $1000 on airfare to fix a problem that doesn’t concern you.  10 students’ airfare to go to Honduras could send multitudes more in a workforce to address the issues in our own country.

So there you have it, my rant for the day: how overseas volunteer projects don’t teach a village anything life-changing, how they have a tendency to be short-lived, how they aim to fix things that may not be considered a problem internally, and how they take our attention away from our own neighbors suffering.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who think differently but, until I see some serious changes within our own country and in these overseas projects to be more economical and sustainable, I see no reason to advocate my opinions in anyone else’s favor.