May Newsletter!

Howdy once again from Phnom Kravanh, Pursat Province, Cambodia!

I am currently sitting at the office enjoying the cool weather and looking around for ripe mangoes that have fallen to the ground. Our office has 10 mango trees, growing several different kinds of mangoes, and all of them have been producing the most delicious snacks lately. Today is my first full day back at the office following a whirlwind of travel and time spent with friends. I’ve had 3 mangoes already and there’s no slowing me down. 

The beginning of March began with a trip to Pailin province with my coworkers in celebration of International Women’s Rights Day, a public holiday in Cambodia. Pailin is near the border of Thailand and in the heart of some breathtaking mountains. It was great to spend time with my coworkers on a roadtrip that was just for fun and leisure, and to see a new part of Cambodia that was so different from what I had seen before.

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A field of cassava in front of a large golden buddha statue in Pailin province
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A river me and my coworkers visited in the mountains during our trip to Pailin province

Here are some pictures of me and my friends Marin and Sokkun fishing in the river near Phnom Kravanh one evening after work at the beginning of March.

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Marin throws the net as Sokkun watches

 

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The students at the school I teach at finished Semester 1 during March as well, the culmination of which was marked by a fundraiser/celebration with the help of the monks at the pagoda down the road. The students collected money from the community by driving around on a hand tractor during the first day. Then they attached the money to golden trees.IMG_4007

Each class competed with the others to see who could raise the most money. At school the next day, the monks from the pagoda were invited to walk in a line between all of the students and teachers. Everyone had a bowl of rice and a spoon, and as the monks passed by, rice was placed into a large bowl held by each monk. I was told that when rice is offered to the monks in this way, the spirits of the ancestors of the village are invited to come and eat as well, and in doing so, bless those around them. Then the monks had everyone gather in the courtyard, and blessed the school. The money raised will go towards constructing several buddha statues for the courtyard at the school.

During April, there was lots of celebration for Khmer New Year. Our office invited monks from the pagoda to come and bless us, and in the evening we invited village leaders and friends to join us for karaoke, dancing, and dinner.

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The monks prepare to bless us

I was able to read a blessing in Khmer that was recorded by my supervisor, and my coworker Bong Sokkim read a blessing in English. The videos of us reading our blessings were played for everyone that night at the party.

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Holding a traditional decoration made by Bong Meakkra from banana leaves. I helped cut out some of the Khmer letters for this bulletin board, and wrote down the blessing in English.

I travelled to Banteay Meanchey province with my supervisor, Bong Ing, for the actual Khmer New Year holiday shortly after our office celebration. I was there for 5 days, enjoying the celebration and excitement that the holiday brings. It is customary for people to stand along the road and throw water and baby powder at passing motos and cars. I very much enjoyed using a large squirt gun to blast people as they passed by on the road. The water and powder also function to keep everyone cool: it was very hot during Khmer New Year, with temperatures rising well over 100 degrees fahrenheit every day.

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One of my favorite moments during the 5 days was the village ceremony/celebration held in Bong Ing’s home village. During this time, everyone in the village was invited to sit on plastic chairs, facing away from the monks that stood behind them. Then, one monk chanted a blessing into a microphone while the others used buckets of water to soak everyone sitting down. This blessing and dowsing with water went on for over 10 minutes. I remember watching one monk pick up the hose at one point with a sly grin on his face, and then blast/bless everyone really thoroughly.

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After the village blessing was complete, the elders of the village were invited to stay and have their hair washed by everyone else. It was really moving to watch Bong Ing wash his father’s hair, and to see all of the other village elders being washed as well. 

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Ing washes his father’s hair

I rested at the office for a couple days after Khmer New Year, and then traveled to mid-year retreat with the other YAGM Cambodia crew! We spent retreat in the coastal town of Koh Kong. This area is beautiful, and we got to explore quite a bit of it during retreat, as well as have lots of meaningful conversations. It was the first time I had seen some of the Cambuddies in over 4 months, and it was so good to find support and community with all of them during retreat.

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Abbi, Maddy and Chelsey on a boat ride to climb a mountain in Koh Kong!
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All the Cambuddies on Koh Kong Island! 

Following retreat, I continued to work my way south along the coast, visiting 3 more coastal towns/cities and 2 more islands, all along the Gulf of Thailand in southern Cambodia. Chelsey and Abbi were kind enough to have me along during these travels, and we had lots of adventures that I simply don’t have time to share in this newsletter (all the more reason for you to message me and ask about them!).

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We had to trek through the jungle on the island of Koh Rong to reach our accommodation. Chelsey and Abbi were up for it!

It feels good to be back at home at the office! A mere 6 weeks remain ahead of me before I leave my placement for good and have to say some difficult goodbyes. My goal for the rest of my time is to spend it with my community and my friends, soaking everything in and doing my best to feel like I am leaving well, and in peace.

I hold so many stories from this year. Most of them are best told face to face, with plenty of time to share all of the best parts. Stories allow us to understand larger concepts and bring us closer to understanding our world. They are useful tools when tackling issues of social justice. This newsletter feels like much more of a summary and a timeline than an actual telling of these important stories, so if you are curious about anything I mentioned here, please reach out to me! I would love to video chat, voice chat, message, email, fax, or shout really loudly in the hopes that you hear me, with you! HIT ME UPPP.

Love to you, peace to you!

 

What I’m reading:

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (found it at a used bookstore in Kampot, gotta love Sherlock Holmes).

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (from the same bookstore)

To My Twenties by Kenneth Koch (from his book New Addresses), find the poem here:

http://structureandstyle.org/post/13747906184/to-my-twenties

 

What I’m listening to:

CARE FOR ME by Saba

Light Upon the Lake by Whitney (CAN’T STOP LISTENING)

This is America by Childish Gambino, watch the music video here: 

 

Follow me on instagram @in_the_mtns for regular photos and updates. Right now, I am in the middle of sharing stories and photos from the last 2 weeks spent along the Gulf of Thailand in southern Cambodia. 

 

Thank you SO MUCH for all the ways you support me.

You can always donate to my cause: http://support.elca.org/goto/colterandcambodia

 

 

Global Education

My friend Andrew, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Comoros, compiled some thoughts on teaching from around the world! I’ve written a bit in here, so has Andrew, and so has my good friend and fellow YAGM serving in Mexico, Tori!

Falling Jewels

What does it mean to learn? From our very first days we have been absorbing the world around us. Our families, friends and communities were the first teachers in our lives. Sharing their love. Showing us the big wide wild world. And I think very few of us would say that our learning and growing ever ends.

And my learning comes out when I struggle through a class-grasping for a way to explain a concept to my students. Or I learn to take a deep breath – people show up when I need them. A long day and my host mom has guava juice waiting for me. A lesson I’m anxious about goes extremely well because of the graciousness of my amazing students. I share in the joys of those around me and continue to constantly learn.

Today (March 27) in the United States is “Education and Sharing Day”. I…

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Meak Bochea Day

Full moons are considered auspicious in Cambodia, and this particular full moon was quite special for reasons other than the lunar eclipse.

I rolled out of bed and went to the place on the wall where my khakis were hanging from a nail. It was time to get dressed and greet the day. When I grabbed my pants, a mouse crawled out of my pocket.

“GOSH DANG IT!” I yelled to the office at large, my hands shaking with adrenaline well after I dropped my pants on the floor and the startled mouse dashed out of my room. What a way to begin the day!

For breakfast, my coworkers and I shared a meal of small fish fried in a pan, and rice. I asked Mrs. Sokkim if she ever had mouse troubles at the office and what she did about them. She told me there was a table in her room where she always found a mouse when she entered her room. So she moved the furniture around, and then the mouse left.

After breakfast, and sporting my jeans instead of my khakis, I hopped into the passenger seat of our office’s Toyota Hilux (a high-clearence, small-framed truck). Me and 5 of my coworkers had business in Raing Svav, where we would be interviewing the village’s road committee and taking some photos for a report.

The clouds were hanging low and drizzling rain. As we continued further down roads I had never travelled, mountains I had only seen from a distance drew nearer, their peaks covered in clouds. It was wonderful to notice the plant communities shift as we drove higher in elevation, and to see a few types of plants that I hadn’t seen before.

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The driving started to get pretty slow-going, and Vanna (our staff driver) was managing the large ruts, slick roads and large rocks very well. During one particularly rocky section, I was reminded of the tips my Dad would give me while driving 4-wheelers or 4-wheel-drives in the mountains with him. Vanna was doing a great job of keeping the tires on the high points!

As we continued further, a pair of moto drivers stopped to warn us about the road ahead. I could tell, even before the Khmer was translated to English, that things weren’t looking good. Bong Touch confirmed my suspicions: the road ahead was nearly impassable, even on the light, easily-maneuverable small motos. The rain had turned a few stretches of road into a muddy disaster.

After some more rut-dodging and mudhole avoiding, we reached the first nasty section. Everyone got out of the truck to scout the best route. I pulled out my phone to take a video of a truck driver taking his cattle through the section in the opposite direction:

Vanna managed this stretch with relative ease, and we all climbed back into the truck. I wondered if that was the worst of it.

It wasn’t.

About 5 minutes later, we reached a significantly longer, significantly more messy stretch. The ruts in the middle of the road were over 3 feet deep in some places, and just walking through some spots left my sandals caked in heavy, greasy, clingy mud. It was at this point that Bong Vanna got our little truck quite stuck on the edge of the road.

After some pushing, some calculated acceleration, and some luck, our crew managed to push the truck back onto the road. Vanna finessed the rest of the stretch with a striking amount of grace, and promptly pulled the truck over.

As we were getting out of the truck Mrs. Sokkim asked me, “Do you have roads like this in America?”

With a bit of Montana pride, I explained that we did! I could think of plenty of times that snow and ice and rocks and mud had made a drive more exciting than usual.

Then, I stopped for a moment to consider my own privilege.

Most of the time, a decision to drive over adverse terrain or in adverse conditions was just that: a decision. Driving a rutted or rocky mountain road was almost always for scenery, not travel out of necessity. I bear the privilege of traveling rough roads for pleasure.

Second, the roads I travel out of necessity were often smooth and paved, and thus, not as likely to erode, wash out, or become impassable after rain.  

After some thought, I did my best to tell Mrs. Sokkim that my choice to drive rough roads was not because I had to. She seemed to understand.

Vanna talked to 3 men driving hand tractors who agreed to pull our truck back through the bad stretch of road.

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Our truck getting pulled by hand tractor (in the back of the photo) as some folks watch and help. Notice the cans of gas strapped down to the man’s hand tractor in the foreground, necessary for traveling long distances.

We grabbed our lunch for the day, our bottles of water, and our bags out of the truck. We would be continuing the rest of the way on foot and on motos.

We walked on a road winding through a green mountain valley, the peaks disappearing and reappearing behind clouds. The bottom of my jeans were caked in a healthy layer of red mud. The uphill side of the road rose up to a ridgeline, and I loved watching the ways water had eroded the hillside as it ran into the stream alongside the road. Leafy evergreens were growing everywhere.

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After about an hour of walking (Longheng made sure to let the group know he was hungry), we arrived at someone’s home along the road where our moto drivers were waiting for us. They drove us further up the valley, and then towards the opposite side, where the mountains were taller. We arrived in the village of Raing Svav around 11am, a bit tired and ready for what was next.

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Raing Svav, looking towards the mountains! 

Me and my coworkers met with the members of the village road committee, comprised of respected older men in the community. The committee is responsible for overseeing the building of a new road in town, a project LWD has partnered with them to fund and complete. The road was close to being completed, but the contractor’s machine was broken and waiting on a part for repair. We travelled the new road in its entirety anyway, although I had to dismount my moto a few times to let the man driving it cross a stream, or get over a rocky section. During one such dismount, I heard Longheng once again announce he was hungry.  

The completed sections of the road looked great! I felt proud that LWD had contributed to empowering this mountain community toward self-reliance. The members of the road committee were warm and welcoming, inviting me to see their community, smiling and laughing along the way. They stopped to pose for several pictures along the way, standing on the new road. As I watched Bong Touch snap photos on his smartphone during the third photo-op, Longheng looked at me and said “I’m hungry!” and laughed.

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My coworkers waiting as Bong Touch takes a picture of the road committee. Notice Longheng holding lunch he so pines for as he sits on the moto. 

The road connected to another road, forming a large loop that lead back to the center of town. From here, we drove to someone’s house to eat lunch (much to Longheng’s excitement). The house must have been one of the committee members’, although I never asked. When we arrived, a woman was cooking a fantastic looking stir fry. The smells of sizzling pork, tomato, onion and cucumber evoked another whispered “hungryyyyyy” from Longheng. I walked over to watch her stir the wok with a practiced hand and remove a burning piece of wood to lower the cooking heat. She laughed and smiled when I told her it was “chngoy” (“delicious smell” in Khmer).

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Although I wasn’t quite as vocal as Longheng, I too was quite hungry by the time lunch was served. The food we ate was a combination of food we had brought and food prepared for us, and there was more than enough for everyone to eat their fill. I was the last at the table still eating, enjoying every bit of the best stir fry I’d ever had, and saying “chngaiñ” (“delicious”) over and over again with a smile on my face.

I felt full! And not just filled with food, although that was certainly the case. I felt filled by a community that had welcomed the foreigner, showed him where they lived, drove him around despite his weight being a bit too much for such a small moto, and treated him with warm smiles the whole time. I felt so happy to be in the mountains again, and to be welcomed by the warmth I’ve come to know from mountain communities. Even the view through the bathroom window was good!

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After lunch, our trusty moto drivers drove us as far as they could, leaving us to walk through the stretch that had prompted Vanna to turn around in the morning. We met Vanna on the other side, sitting with a family he had met and spent lunch with. Vanna has a knack for striking up conversations with folks wherever he goes, and I can always count on him sitting and enjoying the company of a new friend he has met while the rest of us were busy. I’m trying to take notes so I can get better at this too!

I did my best to stay awake on the long ride back to the office, but admittedly fell asleep during the final 45 minutes. When we arrived, I took a much-needed shower and hung up my muddy jeans. We ate dinner together sometime later, Vanna cooking a massive scrambled egg in the wok. It came out of the wok in one big round, and he joked that it was the moon! I was excited to see if the sky would change from overcast to allow us to see the super blood moon eclipse!

Full moons are considered auspicious in Cambodia, and this particular full moon was quite special for reasons other than the lunar eclipse. It also coincided with Meak Bochea, a buddhist (and also national) holiday celebrated on the full moon of the 3rd month of the Khmer calendar. This day commemorates the final teaching given by Buddha, which is said to have been attended by 1,250 followers, all of them not told by anyone to arrive, and all ordained by Buddha himself. Buddha is also said to have correctly predicted the date of his own death during this event.

To my disappointment, 7 o’clock, 7:30 came and went, and the clouds were still obscuring the moon and its changing state. I gave up hope of seeing the eclipse, and went to my room to relax before going to bed. At around 8:20, ten minutes before the eclipse would reach totality, I heard Mr. Soben yell “Colter!” up to my room. I went to my window to see him excitedly pointing at the moon.

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For My House, For My Home

To begin: wise words from my friend Rachel Carle.


A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices:

A teen mom, under the rule of a greedy despot, proclaimed that those in power would be cast down from their thrones and the rich be sent away empty-handed, condemned the oppressive structures of empire and capitalism, and meant it. She gave birth to a baby (brown-skinned, Middle-eastern Jew, descended from slaves, became a refugee) who eventually took the Emperor’s title “Son of God” and took to the streets, creating a counter-cultural sort of kingdom, a life of public protest, in which the marginalized were centered and raised—the sick who society left uncared for, the poor who society left hungry, the foreigners who society left unwelcome, the women who society left taunted… This is the cast of revolution. This is the beginning of the story.

Wishing you that depth of peace and that sort of joy. Wishing you a Merry Christmas.”

 

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The bride and groom, their parents, and their wedding party, being announced by the MC/wedding singer.

 

Yesterday was Christmas Eve and I went to a wedding. I found out I was invited to attend the wedding the day prior.

I ate all sorts of delicious food and enjoyed the company of my coworkers attending the wedding with me. Everyone always looks their best when they attend weddings, and it’s wonderful to get fancy with my friends.

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At this Khmer wedding, the bride and groom threw a bouquet of flowers over their shoulders. The person to catch the bouquet is said to be the next person to get married. To my surprise, I was the one to catch the bouquet!! It was immediately stolen out of my hands by a very cheeky older woman (more on her later).

 

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This is not the bouquet I caught, but one made from flowers given to me by children after the wedding was over. They would giggle, run up to me, hand me a flower, say “Hello!” and then run back to their laughing friends.

I am used to eating lots of food on Christmas Eve with my family (a mark of privilege, to be sure), and I ate quite a lot of food at the wedding. It was all so delicious!
As the only foreigner at the wedding, I was made something of a guest of honor. Also, as is the case with most Khmer weddings, there was a live band with several rotating singers on a stage (see an older blog post for more on my first Khmer wedding). At one point, the bride’s parents were up on stage dancing and singing a song. The bride’s father pointed at me and motioned that I should join him on stage! There were over 200 people at this wedding, and I felt a bit shy in the moment, so I shook my head and smiled to decline his offer. He walked off the stage and came to my table and grabbed my hand, and pulled me on stage with him! Here’s the video, captured by my friend Longheng:

As you can see in the video, the woman in the black dress got quite saucy with me an was moving her posterior in my direction. Everyone at the wedding thought this was quite funny, myself included.

After the wedding, we drove on our motos (I rode on Longheng’s) to meet some more friends.

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My coworker Sokun. Safety first!

The rest of the evening was filled with more food, more smiles and laughter, and one or two times when I dropped my phone on accident.


On Christmas morning, the noise I woke up to was Longheng dragging a bucket across the floor of the bathroom. We had met friends in the city of Pursat the night before and stayed at a guest house instead of driving all the way back to the office (my home). I got out of bed and put on my clothes: my pants and shirt were stained by beer from an enthusiastic man cheersing me at the wedding the day before, and there was a layer of dirt on my shoes from the dusty roads we drove to meet more friends after the wedding.

We left the guest house and put on our moto helmets. As I sat on the moto, I remembered that it was Christmas Day! I wished Longheng an enthusiastic “Merry Christmas!” As we pulled out onto the highway in Pursat, I saw the morning sun breaking through the clouds. Orange and yellow peeling through the gray curtains. I was overwhelmed with joy, and loudly yelled “MERRY CHRISTMAS” as we passed by shopkeepers opening their stores for the day. Longheng laughed and then joined me in my holiday greeting to the road at large. As we turned on the road to Kravanh, I again saw the sunlight streaming through the gap in the clouds, and again yelled out “MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!”


As we drove along, we passed flooded fields, wetlands brimming with lotus flowers, a man driving two buffalo on top of a cart of grass, and children riding their bicycles to school.

I remembered how my father always changes his Christmas outfit at least twice before church, asking the family’s opinion on his sweater, and how he always wears his red and black wool coat.

We slowed down on the road to let two dogs cross, and Longheng pointed excitedly to the side of the road just in time for me to glimpse a mongoose shoot into the bushes.

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I remembered crying the last two years at church on Christmas Eve as we sang Silent Night by candlelight. Singing as a part of a large group has its own way of stirring parts of my spirit.  

I washed the dust off my face and feet with a bucket shower when we arrived at the office. Longheng and I drove to breakfast, and I wished our server at the restaurant a Merry Christmas. She repeated it to me and smiled. I ate couyteaw (breakfast noodle soup) because they did not have baay soj jrook (rice with pork) at the restaurant today.

When we arrived back at the office, I moved the christmas tree over from where it was in the back of the yard, and put my presents underneath. I listened to some christmas music and called my family. It was so nice to see their faces and hear their warm words. I feel very lucky to have such a loving family to call.

I managed to play 4 games of Dominion online with my good friend Jon, who joined me from Montana. We played countless games of Dominion in person last winter break, and it was wonderful to feel a sense of closeness and gathering that accompanies folks occupying the same place (even if that place is virtual).

For lunch my coworkers made one of my favorite Khmer dishes, lok lak soj kho. I ate two bowls of rice and felt very full.

Throughout the day I missed small things and big things from home. I reminded myself that this was a Christmas unlike any other I will have. It was in a place that is beautiful in ways I know already, ways I will come to know, and ways I will never know but will feel the fringes of.

I am grateful for the warmth of community that sends me out to live in this place. Today I was reminded so many times of the love shared with those people. I am filled with longing and deep happiness all at once.

Here’s my favorite Christmas song of 2017, from Chance The Rapper and Jeremih’s mixtape “Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama.”

Temples

*Please walk through this blog post as you would walk through a temple. Videos are meant to be played in the entirety, words are meant to be read slowly, pictures are meant for reflection. Meditation, deep thought, and prayer are encouraged*

 

The first temple I ever felt was my mother’s.

Her womb, her life. The life they gave me. 

Since, my soul has sought holy places.

 

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Last March, I felt holy space in desert canyons. 

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carved and worn stone

red rock and water

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water and stone

holding life

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In this space, I chose.

Amidst the company of friends

and water

and rock

and life,

I made a choice:

to live the next year

as water,

as stone.

Alive.

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I chose to be stone,

to be shaped and weathered.

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I chose to be water,

to follow topography

(of my surroundings

and things beyond

my control)

and move.

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During the summer,

I saw holy space

as water

as it first left winter.

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I felt

water

as it moved

quick, clear, cold,

bringing life.

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I felt

stone

changed

by water.

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***********************************

 

Last week

I saw stone.

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This stone

was carved by human hands

1,000 years ago.

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This stone

has been weathered

by water, wind, feet, and hands.

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I felt wonder.

I felt small.

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I felt connection

to the life held

in these temples.

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I felt peace.

I felt understanding.

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What is left

in these spaces

after wind,

water,

hands?

Sound,

and life.

 

***********************************

 

Temples built by humans are created by the most wealthy in society, and continue to exist for the most wealthy in society. Many Cambodians will never see the wonders of Angkor and its many temples because they are not financially privileged.

 

Temples in the United States (National Parks, National Monuments) are no different. The ability to visit National Parks in the United States remains a luxury for those able to afford time away from work, pay the fees, and spend money on travel.

 

Temples are living, breathing places, meant to be seen. More importantly, they are meant to be felt.

 

https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/utah/grand-staircase-escalante-national-monument

https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor

 

 

 

 

(Utah desert photos courtesy of the extraordinary Scholar Moulton. Thank you to all who have been present with me in these temples during the last 8 months; for shaping me as much as the places have.)

How Do You Love Others? (Answer: I don’t know)

One of my fellow YAGM serving in Senegal had some moving and thought-provoking words recently, regarding privilege, conflict, power dynamics, reconciliation and love. Please give this a read!!

Case(y) in Point: Thoughts & Experiences

For quite some time now, I’ve wrestled with the question of what it actually looks like to love others. As in, what should go on in my head and heart when someone wrongs me, or how should I react when I see someone in need, or what degree of self-care and self-love do I have to engage in in order to love others the way they deserve to be loved. Over the years, my views of what ‘love’ is (and what it looks like and how it feels) have evolved. I’ve come to understand that kindness and meekness are not the only ingredients in love. I’ve also come to believe that intentions count for some, but they are not everything – I can’t claim I’m justified by those intentions if my pursuit of loving others has actually caused destruction. Additionally, I’ve come to understand that many of us are floundering…

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