Sunday, February 19, 2017

dharamshala round 2: peace & compassion

Each morning my spirits fall as I scroll through the news articles on my FB feed: travel restrictions on Muslims from abroad, a scarily unqualified set of cabinet members, an oil spill in the Dakotas, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.

I feel distanced from all that’s happening in my country. I feel powerless. I feel cold.

Of course, one silver lining of this awful administration is that we’ve seen a surge in protest and political involvement. People refuse to sit idly by as our nation and its values disintegrate around them. I teared up scanning images from the Women’s March on Washington, reading poetry from friends, and watching videos of the recent protests at airports around the nation. Some paint this uproar and reaction as pointless time-wasting from a group of petulant babies, and others say it’s a sign of the power of the people. Both narratives force dynamic action into static black-and-white paper cuttings, beautiful but flawed.

All of this political turmoil has me thinking a lot about compassion.

This past October 2016, I had the privilege to chaperone one of Woodstock’s Activity Week trips to Dharamshala, a small city in Northern India. Though the bus ride was 14 hours of pure hell and my anxiety at shepherding seniors around was distracting, the trip afforded us some amazing opportunities.

One such opportunity was meeting His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and then hearing him address a group of Chinese pilgrims – all of whom had to conceal their real reason for being in India due to the tenuous relationship between Tibet and China.

This wasn’t my first time seeing HHDL speak; he had addressed the Woodstock community several years ago. But I was again reminded of what an amazing person and leader he is. HHDL has a certain irrepressible spark and spirit. He glows with joy and love, even when he speaks of the terrible ills in this world.

As many know, one of HHDL’s main messages is to show compassion to all those around us. When we visited HHDL’s temple in Dharamshala, I spent some time meditating on this idea a bit:

“He says we must live with compassion – not just claim it as a belief, but actually make it true within our hearts. He asks a lot of us.

It is easy indeed to think we are compassionate people. But consider who it is we show our (often inconsistent) compassion to: our family, our friends, our pets, our colleagues, those who share our belief systems. How much harder it is to show compassion to those beyond the small circles ringing our own private worlds…”


I had scrawled these notes in a small notebook amid the clamor of other visitors and pilgrims, in a completely different headspace than the one I occupy now. But my reflection seems to me linked to a major problem in America these days: we’ve lost sight of compassion.

The root of the word compassion, from compati, is “to suffer with” (Oxford English Dictionary). It would be easy for me to demonize Trump and his supporters by arguing that they don’t “suffer with” or have sympathy for those in need. Indeed, some scholars, like George Lakoff, have divided the left and the right into two camps: liberals who follow the nurturing parent model and conservatives who follow the strict father model (Lakoff). Liberals, then, might seem more compassionate than conservatives, more willing to support high taxes and government welfare programs, to welcome refugees, to protect freedoms for all people.

But this oversimplifies and skews the narrative, and my summary of Lakoff’s research is another example of that. Lakoff found that conservatives do feel they are showing compassion through a “tough love” approach that they hope will allow citizens to build independence from the government. Nothing is as simple as it seems.**

We all must learn to feel the sufferings of one another, which are varied and complicated but always there. As many political pundits have noted, Trump’s base is full of people suffering from job / wage stagnation and a melting-away of the values they hold dear.

I unfortunately don’t have any real suggestions to solve the divisive politics in America, and at this point my frustration with the Trump administration makes me want to fight its every decision tooth and nail. However, it would be wise for us to remember HHDL’s challenge and remain sensitive to the unique sufferings of those around us. We’re all human, after all.  

love, mel

PS -- If you'd like to see more photos from our trip, check out FB. 

Works Cited

“Compassion.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University, 2017., Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.

Lakoff, George. “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in the Dust.” Social Research, vol. 62, no. 2, 1995. Accessed 17 Feb. 2017. **Thanks to my poli sci-trained husband for his help with Lakoff’s work!**

Thursday, January 19, 2017

eden in the punjab

India used to feel overwhelming, its normal street life a constant tangle of overstimulation. But it was our fourth year here, and so I wandered the hot, dusty streets of Chandigarh unimpressed with the tinny beeps of rickshaws, the vivid sarees, the cacophony of smells -- burning garbage, ripened mangoes, frying onion and garlic. It was just another Indian city, comparable to Jaipur or parts of Delhi.

When we first entered the Rock Garden -- pretty much the city’s main tourist attraction -- we didn’t expect much.

smallest ticket window ever!

We wandered through a few interesting courtyards divided by low sandstone walls. The walls themselves were adorned with broken tiles, bits of ceramic, pieces of electrical outlets, wires -- all sorts of castoff garbage made beautiful again when they were united in the space. We wound past tall stacks of red clay pots and groupings of disintegrating human figurines placed in symmetrical lines across tiled expanses.

“This is cool,” I said to fellow explorers Chris, Sydney, and Rachel. “But it’s much smaller than I thought. The article I read made it seem like this garden is huge.”

The crowds of tourists, too, diminished my experience. I silently judged people taking what seemed like thousands of selfies against the patterned walls -- even as I took my fair share of photos.

But further explorations extinguished my doubts. A few bends brought us to the more expansive sections of the garden. Soon, the squat, man-made walls gave way to large, moss-covered rock faces and a dramatic waterfall that sprayed its refreshing mist on passers-by.

With each turn came new delights. One brought us to crowds of animals -- (thankfully) docile monkeys, elegant peacocks, proud, white horses.

Another ushered us into a huge open area with an amphitheater and undulating rows of columns hosting swings. Visitors of all ages and backgrounds swung with abandon, marveled at the scope, or picnicked in the shade.

I couldn’t stop smiling. Nowhere else in India had I witnessed such pure joy -- joy for joy’s sake. Though some might judge the statues rough or crude, they were such an outpouring of pure creativity. This was a place we were meant to revel in, one that felt distanced from the city and its business. Stop, the garden commanded. Look around, forget your worries.

Visitors to and residents of Chandigarh owe the pleasure of its famed garden to Nek Chand (1924-2015). Chand spent his days working as a roads inspector in the newly forming Chandigarh, which sprung up in the 1950s as India’s first planned city (Britannica par. 2). While Le Corbusier worked to design and build a modern city with spacious roads and cleanly defined sections, Chand secretly built a meandering world of statues on protected forests in the outskirts of the city (Economist par. 4-5). When the city discovered the hidden garden, they decided to help Chand complete his work, rather than razing the place (Britannica par. 3). We’re lucky they did.

Works Cited

Blumberg, Naomi. “Nek Chand: Indian Artist.” Brittanica, Accessed 21 October 2016.

“From Rubbish, Beauty.” The Economist, 27 June 2015. Print.

Monday, February 29, 2016

into the ...

A few weeks ago, I took part in a staff production of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece. Shortly after becoming *famous* (j/k), I sat for my first interview with the Woodstock Tiger.

The lovely young reporter gingerly set her iPad on the bench and smiled up at me, assuring me that she only had three simple questions. Great, I thought. I’ve got this.  

“So, Ms. Melanie, what do you think the show’s theme or lesson was?” I had underestimated her; I was stumped.

Despite acting the show for several weeks, I had never sat down and really considered this question. Bad English teacher!

I floundered a bit, but latched on to a song that always stands out for its obvious theme-ness: “Careful the things you say, / children will listen. / Careful the things you do, / children will see -- and learn.”

The play explores all sorts of tensions between parents and children, and the very human struggle between maintaining innocence and unraveling the mysteries of our world -- a world that is often much darker than we want to believe. 

But what always strikes me when I hear the song (good English teacher?) is that the play is really about the power of storytelling.

When the Baker becomes the play’s final narrator, he takes on the role of parent, storyteller, and guide. He assumes the burden of reconstructing a difficult narrative, one that will shape his child’s understanding of the world and their broken/re-formed family. I find this to be such a beautiful moment, a hopeful break from a grim, death-filled second act.
The magic of theater is that, as performers, we too are participants in the dangers and joys of storytelling. If we’re successful, our story unfolds upon the stage. It’s daunting (it’s live! no hiding! no turning back!), but the rewards are tangible. Unlike in teaching, when our hard work may bear fruit years later (if at all), audiences give immediate feedback -- laughter, clapping, shocked gasps, crying, etc.

Hearing the audience’s response reminded me just how important it is to celebrate a great story. As an AP English teacher, so much of my time is spent teaching students how to pick apart the various components of story that I fear I sometimes miss the bigger picture -- simply sharing beautiful stories and reveling in how they charm us.  

The other magic of theater is the camaraderie that comes through telling these stories. Repressing laughter under a colleague’s romantic gaze, learning how to jump on someone’s back, practicing the same dance moves infinite times, helping someone get into costume: I guess these are ways to build friendships. It’s always been difficult for me to let go and embrace my silliness, so putting on this show was something like therapy.

Of course, it was easier to let go around such a supportive cast***, a group of talented people constantly lifting each other up under the guidance of an incredible director. Thanks to all of you for making those crazy weeks worth it. 

My only hope is that I can bring the lessons and energy of that creative outburst into my everyday life. Share beautiful stories. Embrace the silly. Connect.

(Okay, now I sound like some sort of Sark poster. I’ll stop here. Later, ya’ll.)

***I have to note that a sadness hung over our time together, since one of the cast-members -- a close friend -- was stuck in the US during the production due to visa issues. We miss you so much!!

Thanks to Prathana Shrestha for the photos!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

greece: life is good

Athens is an interesting city, a blend of graffiti, polished marble, cigarette smoke, and passionate conversation. 

We stayed about a ten-minute walk from the most touristy area of Athens. This area, surrounding the Acropolis, boasted gleaming storefronts stuffed with Greek antiquities and toga-style dresses, varied ruins, and cafes desperate to lure us in for breakfast, a drink, a snack – “Please come back later! Take my card!” 

We never did go back later, though we made the walk of shame past these eateries every day, en route from our apartment to whatever sights we wanted to take in.

The apartment was worth the annoying walk; it was an oasis within the city. 

We were able to make our own breakfasts – Greek yogurt with honey and granola (delicious), or a modified Turkish breakfast of tomato, eggs, feta, and olives (also delicious). 

Staying in an apartment also enabled us to explore the regular markets locals shop in – always one of my favorite activities. 

We spotted frozen octopi and squids – whole ones! – just a few rows away from a large section of prepackaged croissants. We were clearly not in France.

Having an apartment gave me the illusion of living in Athens, even though our days were nothing like real life. Case in point:

9am – Wake up, put on some coffee, eat breakfast leisurely while… staring mindlessly at facebook; reading ‘Dear Prudence’ or some other empty internet article; searching for good Athens restaurants.

11amish – Slowly get ready for the day.

Noonish – Head out into Athens. Grab a spanakopita or another flaky stuffed pastry pie and enjoy as we walk to our first destination.

1pmish – Enjoy some lovely sightseeing, like an audio tour of the Acropolis, the National Archeological Museum, or the Agora.

4pmish – Head “home” for coffee/lounging/nap or to the local Starbucks for an hour of caffeinated reading (of fun books, not work books!).

6pmish – Practice my lines for Into the Woods. More lounging.

7/8/9pmish – Head out for dinner and drinks, then home and more relaxing.

What a life we had there – though it was brief! In just a few days, the spring semester will hit us full force and we’ll be missing our travels. Still, it’s good to be home with my own pillow, my bed warmers, my lovely ayah, and my cute lil pup. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

turkey: some praise haikus

We spent about 10 days exploring Turkey this January, and we quickly grew to love the country. We were lucky enough to spend the first part of the trip in Tarsus with the best tour guides ever: Julia and her beau, Besir. (Thank you so much for your hospitality!!!!)

L-->R: Bedriye (Besir's sister), Besir, Chris, Mel, Julia. The caves!
Tarsus was a great introduction to Turkey because it’s less touristy and ritzy than Istanbul. Besir oriented us well to Turkish and Kurdish food, culture, and history before we set off on our own. There’s lots we could say about the country and its tension between the east and west, religion and secularism, etc. However, we’ll use this short post to offer simple celebrations of some of the quieter, smaller, stranger moments we spent in Turkey, and let the photos on my facebook page tell the larger story.

By the way, these are terrible and hastily written haikus…

Hovering near banks
crowds of smoking men stand still.
What do they wait for?

On an empty street
a bar owner smokes hookah,
texting all the while.

Cutting through the air:
clink of small chay spoons on glass
and murmuring men.

Four kinds of cheese and
olives and jams and breads and…
Turkey knows breakfast.

Before the plane stops
many people jump right up,
hungry for their things.

We made a sweet friend—
a kitty on the metro,
purring as we rode.

What we’ll miss the most
is sweet, flaky baklava,
honeyed perfection.

Love, mel

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

thank you, beautiful people!

2015 was a rough year, even for an optimist like me -- and through all our struggles, America felt far, far away. Coming home this past December was a real blessing, a chance to recharge and move on. 

My visit reminded me just how lucky Chris and I are to live this life we’ve built. In the spirit of practicing gratitude, here’s an overly long and mushy shout out to the lovely people we saw on our American journey this winter break.

In order of trip appearance, thank you:

To Nicole and Kyle, for letting us crash despite annoyance and inconvenience, for fun times around Astoria, and for the pizza;
To Paul and Lauren, for letting us share your beautiful daughter, for reminiscing about the MHCA, and for walking us all over beautiful Brooklyn;
To Rachel and Ben, for happenstance meetings around a huge city, for great stories over great beers, and for lots of laughter;
To Brian, for our swankiest and *hottest* stop on the USA tour, for fueling our Dunkin’ addiction, and for losing us in the back roads of Milford;
To Nicki, for driving many hours just to come see me, for your honesty and strength, and for always L(M)LAS;
To Mom & Dad 2, for your generosity and support, for your constant favors, and for the Christmas TV specials;
To The Hayeses, for your interest in life abroad, for your efforts to make a memorable Christmas, and for the question bags;
To Tim, for your great sense of humor, for (like Brian) enabling our DD addiction, and for always-interesting conversation;
To Mommy & Daddy, for inspiring me with your support for each other, for giving me the courage to live the life I want, and for your constant and reliable love;
To Amanda, for always finding time to sneak in a quick hang, for your generous offers of Pittsburgh hospitality (we will come soon, I swear!), and for knowing a little bit about everything;
To Laura and Luke, for our annual breakfast at my namesake diner, for sharing gripes about the struggles of an English teacher, and for your general wit and wisdom;
To Steph and Adam, for our lounging chat sessions in front of Family Feud, for your easy and infectious laughter, and for always knowing what’s up with the old OHS crowd;
To my brothers, for your wicked senses of humor, for your inspiring passion and talent, and for the example you offer of how to love your work;
To the wider Best family, for your love of music, for your willingness to come out for another family party, and (of course) for being the “Best” extended family a girl could ask for;
To Catie and Andrew, for a house full of love and energy and laughter, for your hilarious high school documentation, and for reuniting me with old friends (‘twas almost Jimmelbrica);
To Kelly (and Justin), for opening up your lovely house to us, for sharing your morning playtime with your beautiful kids, and for being ever cheerful and kind…
To Jim and Jonathan (though I didn’t see you, and you live in Canada!), for being hilarious and smart and interesting, for being steadfast friends despite the ocean between, and for the cutest pup in the N American continent – I’ll catch you next time!

We love you all, and are so lucky to have a USA family like you to return to each year. We miss you already.

Posts soon about our travels through Turkey / Greece…

Love, Mel

PS: I haven’t forgotten you, my amazing friends who live outside of the Northeast – I’ll hope to see you on another journey!

Monday, September 14, 2015

goodbye, monsoon....

Understatement: Monsoon is not our favorite season. We dread the damp clothes and sheets, the giant spiders, the slick walk to school, the leeches. But it still has its beauty, and I've been working on a poem to (somewhat?) capture that.


My dog squints stiffly
against the driving droplets,
ears flattened, looking old and mean.

But I embrace that first hard rain:
water pillows in my sneakers,
salty sweat tracks paths across my cheekbones,
wet fabric clutches my back,
that smell of drenched pavement invades my nose.


Mist swallows the mountains,
disappears whole geographies.
We walk within clouds.
The fog slicks our skin,
hugs the faded streetlights.
I find the uneven ground beneath my feet—
It rises to meet me.

This night is moonless and full.


The outside invades our home.
Mold cracks the cement walls,
turning spring green paint to mottled nests of foam.

On our shower door, two mushrooms
bloom slowly.


Walls of hydrangeas
wedged against stone.
They beam from within grassy banks,
their lush purple blues
a reminder of twilight skies.


When it clears, the landscape shifts,
dust settled, haze gone.
That small village across the valley comes alive.
Every tin roof sends back sun,
every painted wall shouts,
every footpath newly snakes
across the green expanses.


The jeweled grass, soft and tall wilted waves
undulates between weeds.

Against this, a clear blue field.
The light flattens nature’s soft curves
into pure geometrical shapes,
and we enter stunned, relearning
our place in a new world.

Emboldened, we abandon umbrellas—
those bulky extra arms.
Their heft gone, we stride easily along

muddy pathways, avoiding stubborn puddles.