May the Year Come Softly

I’ve been sending out New Year’s cards to friends. I waited until all the holiday stuff at Walgreens went to 75% off and then bought a set of cards that said this inside (well, that is, after I scribbled out “season” and replaced it with “year.” ha.):

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I liked the sentiment of these words. It’s mid-winter and for us in Wisconsin, there is a sense of stillness and quiet. The snow creates a layer of softness that numbs sounds and movements. It feels very much like a time for reflection and planning–a storing up of energy.

I think we can create a “feeling of wonder” for the year by experiencing gratitude. This is why I enjoy thinking about all the good things and changes the last year has brought me. Here’s my list:

What 2013 Brought

  • I read so many wonderful books and essays. I was a sponge this year and definitely absorbed more than I created. A list of favorites to come soon…
  • I moved to the country in the summertime, where I made animal friends (especially bonded with a little lamb named Aida) and remembered how much I love photography, especially taking photos of nature and landscapes.
  • I celebrated my birthday by camping at a state park (with what must have been a family reunion for mosquitoes), but enjoyed night-hiking under the moon, biking and taking in views of the Mississippi with my favorite person in the world.
  • I made music. I wrote songs that helped me process the transitions from this year. I collaborated and played music with great friends. I learned a few covers, including  songs from a new favorite, Sharon Van Etten and an old favorite, Daisy May.
  • I had two personal essays (that were dear to my heart) published.
  • Joined a gym for the first time in my life, learned how to use resistance machines and how to operate a treadmill without falling off. (Here’s a tip: don’t close your eyes)
  • Found myself on a spontaneous road trip towards the north lands with old friends. We played the most giggly game of “would you rather” ever.
  • Met some new, fantastic people, who I started meaningful friendships with. One of whom is the bright and magical Hannah, who does spoken word poetry and is also building a little house!
  • I celebrated the wedding of two great friends, whose love and relationship is so heartwarming and inspiring, the event gave me tingly warm feelings for days after.
  • A Big One: I started building a little house! I’ve learned more construction skills this year than I know what to do with. It feels amazing to know this thing is happening because of my own two hands.
  • I finally gave the old ’93 Beretta to the junk yard and bought a car (almost) 10 years newer. I have so much gratitude for this new car because I can put to rest many of the insecurities and anxieties I’ve had driving the past few years.
  • I learned little by little to be a bit better to myself and less self-critical.
  • This year, I fully announced my veganism to family and friends. Made it to the one-year mark as such too.
  • In related news, I found and mastered what are now some of my favorite vegan recipes: Vegan Nacho Cheeze (with whole potatoes and carrots), classic coconut layer cake, spicy peanut sesame noodles, and coconut curry.
  • I found a love for podcasts, when I’m driving, when I’m cooking, when I’m exercising…I just love soaking up stories and information this way.
  • I got a real hair cut for the first time in 8 years (10 inches gone)…and realized I love short hair.
  • Lastly, I celebrated a relationship of 7 lucky years with my partner.

So many good things to be grateful for! I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.

Trail of Tears, Stories of our Past

{Image Contents: Black & white photograph of Sarah Vowell speaking with a microphone in front of her.}

I’ve been listening to some of the This American Life archives, in the evening, while I do dishes and clean up after dinner, because I love having my mind settle on stories while my hands are at work.

Yesterday, I listened to the “Trail of Tears” episode, which originally aired back in 1996. It follows the story of writer Sarah Vowell as she and her twin sister take a road trip to drive the exact path that their Cherokee ancestors were forced to follow on the Trail of Tears. All 1,000 miles of it. It is both heartbreaking and thought-provoking. (And also surprisingly entertaining.) I love this story because it is not only about a part of our past that is often trivialized or neglected; it is about how people today process being connected to the people who walked those miles. It’s about personalizing history.

Vowell begins the episode remembering how as a child, her relatives told stories about her Cherokee family members. She and her sister went to a play every year where the Trail of Tears was re-imagined–and this etched into her memory a vision of coming from “a long lineage of sobbers.”

As they started their road trip, they first came across a non-American-Indian man selling stereotyped, kitschy figurines of American Indians (a symbol of how American Indians’ personhoods have been commodified for entertainment); and later, Vowell describes a historical marker that briefly mentions the forced removal of Cherokee (and other tribes) by describing them simply as “leaving for the West.” That sounds so nice, Vowell remarks. How easily we’ve erased and whitewashed history to make it sound more pleasant and visitor-friendly.

At the very heart of this episode, though, is the theme of knowing where we “come from”–knowing our history and how our ancestors participated in it. Vowell’s deepest introspection comes from trying to reconcile the pain and righteous anger from knowing this history, with her love for this country and its culture.

As Vowell and her sister went on this journey to connect and understand the stories through their ancestors’ eyes, it made me wonder at where my own ancestors were when this was happening.

107: Trail of Tears

White people, myself included sometimes, often like to identify with the most underdog pieces of our ancestors’ lives. Like how the Irish in my family might have been discriminated against before they assimilated into white culture. Or the ways in which our poor immigrant ancestors struggled when they first came to the U.S.

But it is a fact of our collective history that along with the massacres, the forced displacements, the consistent manipulation of treaties, the culture that treated American Indian people as sub-human, there were also white-skinned people who were complicit or at the very least silent, in the treatment of American Indians. There were white-skinned settlers who immediately took the land once the Cherokee’s homes were burned. There were white-skinned soldiers who helped the government send American Indian families to their ultimate deaths on The Trail.

Who were these men and women? And why don’t white people today claim these stories of their ancestors? The stories that show our family participated in horrible, unjustifiable acts of racism? How our ancestors were cowards in the face of other’s dehumanization?

“I fought through the War between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”

-Georgian soldier who participated in the Trail of Tears

This quote from an unidentified Georgian soldier who participated in the Trail of Tears shows the inner turmoil of one of these people. It shows how someone can know something is wrong, but do it anyway because it is the safe thing; because it is what is expected of him. As Howard Zinn once said, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

Possibly, it was the inner shame at being a part of such atrocities that keep these stories from passing from one generation to the next. Which is too bad. Because when stories aren’t told, we don’t learn from them.

Listen to “Trail of Tears” on This American Life here.

Friday Link Roundup

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{Welcome to the first Friday Link Roundup! Each week, I’ll post some the most interesting reads & videos I’ve come across–it’ll be a mixed bag off criticism, art, music videos, news and essays. Enjoy!}

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Ever meet a quirky mortician?

Caitlin Doughty and The Order of the Good Death are all about bringing the discussion of death back into the mainstream.

Doughty covers normally gloomy or taboo topics surrounding death in a smart and truly entertaining way. In her latest video, she answers a question about whether dead bodies are actually dangerous.

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In Case You Missed It, The North Pole Just Melted

View some graphs and watch a time-lapse video here. After that go and look at some other really stunning lakes here.

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Helen Thomas, Off the Record

Helen Thomas, Off the Record

Illustration by Lisa Brown

One of the last interviews with legendary journalist, Helen Thomas.

“I never knew it was a man’s world! I never accepted that. I thought I had an education just as good as a man’s. I deserve to have the same opportunities and advantages. So I antagonized a lot of people…”

Read the entire interview here.

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Peru plans to bring electricity to 2 Million using solar power

Photo via geezaweezer on Flickr.

In some good news, Peru plans on building a massive solar array system to provide some of its poorest residents with electricity. This will help more citizens get access to refrigeration, water filtering and health services. This is an exciting example of how countries can use renewable energy sources to stimulate the economy and lift more families out of extreme poverty.

Read more here.

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The Rape Joke

A Poem By Patricia Lockwood

“The rape joke is that you asked why he did it. The rape joke is he said he didn’t know, like what else would a rape joke say? The rape joke said YOU were the one who was drunk, and the rape joke said you remembered it wrong, which made you laugh out loud for one long split-open second.”

Go read the poem here.

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Goodbye to My American Dream

“Daddy America looked to me to prove that he did something right. After all, one of his children turned out all right. The others must simply be problem kids.”

Tiffanie DraytonTiffanie Drayton explores how American narratives of success and freedom don’t really pan out for those who don’t have white privilege. Read the whole essay here.

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India Bans Holding Dolphins in Captivity for Entertainment

“There’s a growing understanding that they are intelligent and emotional beings who deserve to be free.”

Read more here.

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Three Breaths, An Essay

This essay is part of a collection called Corner Stories, the product of a writer’s workshop at the Washington Heights CORNER Project, where “those with underheard voices are taught to transform their personal experiences into outstanding literary nonfiction.”

“Elise watches the world, as if she’s been attacked before and is waiting to reunite with her enemy for revenge, as if she’s been loved before and is watching to see if one day her lover will return. And sometimes as if she’s been safe before and is awaiting that refuge.”

Read the whole essay here.

Some Changes

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and how I want to continue with it.

Recently, I took an e-course about blogging that really helped me narrow down what exactly I want my mission for Written Roots to be and how I want to go about fulfilling that mission. A Beautiful Mess is a lifestyle blog, rather than one focused on politics or pop culture, but despite the differences, the course helped me create a vision for the blog, which is what I felt was lacking.

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Here is the new mission:

Written Roots is a social justice blog that focuses on shaping a conscientious, action-oriented and creative life. My goal is to offer critical analysis about our culture & society and spread awareness through essays, book/movie reviews and meaningful links.

I believe that social change is possible through community organizing, deliberate conversation and self-care. My hope is that this will be a place to be critical, but also a place to recharge and escape burnout. I am re-energized and inspired by art, creative writing, music and nature–I love celebrating others’ creative projects and sharing the wisdom of the numerous brilliant writers I come across.

Look for personal essays, pop culture critiques, everyday inspiration, tips on self-care and more!

I started this blog because I wanted a place to write and go in depth about the issues that I care about. I am an information sponge and I read a LOT every week about really depressing and bleak things. After I started this blog, I found that after I spent all that time reading about young girls being raped or undocumented workers being deported or animals being abused, I really didn’t have the energy to write about them myself.

I decided that I need to balance out critiques and sad news with focusing equally on positive things: like youth organizing, community art projects and ways to take care of ourselves. This is really an experiment. I am a creature of the critical, not someone who leans towards “positive thinking.” But I’m hoping this will help sustain me and maybe even help others keep going too.

You can look forward to more frequent posts too, with some weekly features, including a “Link Roundup” of all the important, interesting and inspiring things I’ve come across every week.

Thanks for reading and joining me on this journey!

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What I Have to Offer is Me…What You Have to Offer is You

I’ve watched this video so many times. Charlie Kaufman’s speech really touches on many themes in my life that I keep coming back to:

  • The media really affects us all more than we know. This is the same media that makes our iphones and produces our big blockbuster movies. It is fake. The stories are fake and only are considered successful if they end up selling us something. We can counter this only by creating our own media, singing our own songs and speaking our truth.
  • Our truth is the very thing that we try to ignore, try to silence, try to bury. It is the thing that we dislike most about ourselves, but once we share this thing, we make it easier for other people to share their truths as well. And slowly, we are creating a more authentic world.

“We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play…We are thinking, really thinking, about who we are and we will express ourselves, and with this, other people won’t feel so alone.”

Searching for Authenticity: A Case for Independent Culture Makers

Authenticity is a buzz word that has been thrown around a lot.

Brene Brown, a researcher and professor who was made famous by her Ted Talks, has used this word many times in her work. She tell us that authenticity is the courage to be vulnerable, the choice for us as individuals to show up and “be real” each day.

Dove Real Beauty Campaign

On the opposite side of the spectrum, those in advertising talk about how authenticity can be a strategy to help connect consumers to a brand. An example of this would be Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, where they photographed women who were a little older and thicker than the usual models. But as a commercial project, they chose to barely tap the potential of “real bodies” that exist in the world. They didn’t include any disabled bodies, hairy bodies, intersex bodies or even fat bodies. And aren’t these bodies both “real” and “beautiful”?

Dove’s campaign only received the attention that it did because we are living in a deeply starved media age, where any feeble attempt at authenticity is seen as different. We can identify this advertising trick when we see it, because usually the imaginary lives of people in ads look nothing like our own.

And similarly, this is the way it appears in the majority of nationwide media, from television, music, movies, newscasting, to fashion and magazines. There is a very grave divide between the lives of real American people and how American people are portrayed by the media. Continue reading

Quinoa, Complicated

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Photo via net_efekt

Food writer Joanna Blythman recently wrote an article in the Guardian with the attention-seeking title “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”

This “unpalatable truth” is about how quinoa production is affecting the farmers in Bolivia and Peru. But instead of citing unethical free trade laws as a cause or exploring how globalization can lead to both exploitation and revenue boosts for farmers in developing countries, Blythman extends a rather immature and simple thesis: Bolivian and Peruvian farmers are suffering because vegans and vegetarians are buying more foreign foods to supplement their diets.

It is an argument that is meant to be divisive, targeting one group of conscientious consumers (vegans) in favor of others (such as eco-conscious meat-eaters). But this issue is more complicated than just vegans choosing to eat more of this nutritious super-food. (In fact, vegetarians make up only 5 percent of the population in the U.S and 6 percent in the U.K. Vegans are even fewer in numbers. I doubt it is vegans alone who have tried this protein-heavy food and loved it.)

It’s unfortunate that Blythman chose to frame the article in this way, because at the heart of the matter is a complex problem. The real meat of this issue is that many Bolivians and Peruvians who are farming quinoa are choosing to export the product for profit, rather than eat any themselves or sell locally, and the high local prices of quinoa are making it more of a “luxury” food in certain areas in South America. In fact, Paola Mejia, general manager of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Products Exporters explained that many are choosing to eat imported rice and noodles and even Coca-Cola instead, because it’s cheaper, and there’s an appeal for Westernized foods over traditional Bolivian fare.

But, some Bolivians are able to make a better living because of quinoa’s popularity. People who left their homes for job opportunities in the cities are migrating back to rural areas to farm quinoa. Yet, even as farmers might be finding more success, the land disputes, malnutrition and possible environmental degradation caused by high quinoa demand are new challenges the Bolivian and Peruvian people will face.

As consumers in the U.S., what are our options to support quinoa farmers in Bolivia and Peru?

Despite the array of boxes on the supermarket shelves, we as consumers have very little choices when it comes to food available to us and very poor standards for a “fair-trade” label. This is an effect of globalization in a world that doesn’t reveal the true cost or mileage of our food. The best way to have control over our food choices is to grow our food ourselves or buy locally. Is the answer then to give up quinoa for good?

I am reminded of a speech I once attended which was given by a flower grower in Colombia who spoke about her poor working conditions in an industrial greenhouse. The flowers you see in supermarket stores, daisies and roses and sunflowers, are all grown in places like the one in which she worked. She spoke of the exposure to dangerous pesticides, the oppression and disappearance of union leaders, and long hours at work with very little pay. And still, she told us not to stop buying the flowers for her sake. The flowers are her livlihood, she told us. We should use our weight as consumers to speak out that we care.

It is not a perfect solution, and in the end, it feels like consumers have very little power to change things. But, at least we are listening to the stories of where our food is coming from. And in the face of our complex, interconnected and highly exploitative food system, the truth is, we are doing the best we can.