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Many decades ago, when my husband Joe and I were in our early 20’s, we joined the Peace Corps and lived in rural, northern India for several years, during a time when our village was experiencing famine, where rains had been very limited, and nearby crops were terrifyingly scarce. 

Water source in our village.

When we moved into our new little village, several hours away from the state capital of Patna, Bihar, we tried to strip down to what we thought was simple living. We wanted to show our respect to those around us who were enduring a famine, and yet we failed to appear to our neighbors as anything but privileged.

We worked to prove to ourselves and our neighbors that we were living a minimal lifestyle and realized in the process that we needed to learn what minimal actually meant. We lived minimally, while others lived in deprivation. The difference between the two is enormous.

Our simple life with minimal consumption that we chose was still much easier compared with the stress from hunger and danger felt by our new neighbors.  We, as young Americans, had promises of future water, electricity, and food.    Our situation was temporary.  The situation of our neighbors was not.

Most of our neighbors had a simple life. They lived with dirt floors. Some had cement homes, but not many.  They rarely owned chairs or tables or much furniture of any kind.  They squatted on the ground instead, using the floor as their table.  The squatting technique was very efficient, as we never had to carry chairs with us in order to sit down and relax.  When our neighbors said, “Sit down, please.”  We all just squatted to the ground and began chatting.  It saved a whole bunch of time and money.

It turns out that we probably never did completely succeed in fooling them into believing that we were actually deprived. Because in fact, we were not. As Mohatma Gandhi taught, we were living a minimal lifestyle which is actually a relatively comfortable way to live.  While Gandhi supported a minimal lifestyle, he fought against deprivation. Deprivation meant lack of resources for even the most basic items of food, shelter and water. He fought against inequitable distribution; against the massive gathering of resources to fewer than 1 percent of the population while the rest starved. We are not deprived when we live simply. I learned this to be true many years ago. It remains true today.

Mohatma Gandhi’s simple living arrangement in Mumbai

Some families in our little community used banana leaves for plates.  Most ate with their hands. The food tasted just as good no matter what tools were used for eating.

After eating, they brushed their teeth with a stick from a Neem tree. Their water carried for teeth brushing often brought to their home in a small brass or aluminum pot, pumped by hand from the nearest tube well.  There were no manufactured tooth brushes, no tubes of toothpaste.  Just the branch, and scrubbing of the gums.

Some slept on small beds made of woven rope called “charpuoys”, often sharing the simple bed with others.  Others took to the floor, unrolling a cloth or woven straw mat on which to sleep. This was simple living.

During a famine, such as the one that we were in, almost none had sufficient food, including ourselves. This is because the markets did not sell much food. This was deprivation.

The year that we moved to our little village, there was a serious lack of rain which limited food supplies. People were thin and although I was 5’6″ and weighed 110 pounds, my nickname was “Moti Mary”, or “Fat Mary”.  They didn’t mean it to be rude that they referred to me as fat,  it was just a fact that I was fat, by their famine standards.  Powerfully fat. It was obvious that even thought we had less food than usual, our food supply was minimal; it was not deprived as was our neighbors.

We were living at the time, on the Peace Corps salary and saving half of it.  This was because there was little to buy. Supplies were limited.  Our local market sold matches, cigarettes (one at a time) , some spices, lentils, rice and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sometimes there was a basket of fish to choose from, hauled out of the Ganges River and toted the long distance to our inland village, without refrigeration. It didn’t look so good by the time it arrived.

Our villagers were weakened from the lack of food, dehydrated from the severe heat of summer, and many, including our government co-workers had difficulty walking more than a block or two before becoming exhausted. They often asked to sit for a moment by the side of the road to catch their breath.

They all needed food and water and had little. The seriousness of this calamity slowly overtook all other concerns. Mothers had difficulty breastfeeding; children had difficulty thinking about school; workers had difficulty walking to work.

Many times, as we walked from village to village, young mothers offered their tiny infants, or asked me to stop and see their baby, then pleaded with us to take the baby. There is no way to describe my sadness and astonishment to witness a mother holding her child out and asking it to be taken from her, in hopes that it would be fed. 

I was 23 years old at the time and had no way to explain to them what I would need to do to take care of all the infants in my village who were famished. I felt powerless, and ashamed that there was so little that I could do about a massive famine.   The infants’ shallow breathing and visible ribs, their frozen faces and sad, weary looks were difficult to experience. Yet, I knew that eventually I would leave and be going somewhere where there was food, shelter, wealth. My situation was temporary, theirs was not. Many of our families fled to other areas, seeking food.

We followed some of our families who had fled to the streets of Calcutta and we spent time with them to better understand what happened to them when they fled their homes seeking a better situation.  

We found our migrating villagers living on the streets of the slums of Calcutta, as a group, without proper shelter.  We found some who had made themselves a home in large drain pipe.  One of our saddest moments was finding women from our famine area who was standing on a huge pile of animal feces that had been shoveled up from the street. She was with her small children fastidiously separating the grains they found in the animal waste, one grain at a time.  They placed each tiny grain that they could extract from the waste and placed it in their basket so that they might later grind it by hand, using two stones, and make it into an evening meal. 

There was no place to run from this famine. It pervaded everywhere.

We frequently visited our local market in the early morning or late afternoon and found little to buy; perhaps a few tomatoes no bigger than the top of ones thumb; potatoes equally small; perhaps an unrefrigerated fish carried for miles from the Ganges River.  We learned that if we could put our finger through the already rotting fish, that we should not buy it.

Most of us were ill from the hot weather, limited safe water, lack of food and unsanitary conditions.  

We lived for several years in three rooms above a small cloth shop in the middle of the market. The building was made of cinder block. We had no electricity, no stove, only a small kerosene single burner, no running water.  In a tiny room in the back, there was a  hole in the floor, used as a toilet, flushed by the buckets of water we carried from a tube well shared by hundreds of families, located several blocks away.

We carried our water up the stairs and into our apartment using a bucket, using each bucket of water carefully and respectfully.  We boiled some of the water for drinking.  We might use a couple of cups of water to wash some dishes and then collect the rinse water for flushing waste down the toilet, or for mopping a floor.  We tried to use no more than a bucket or two of water per day, for all purposes, owing to how hard it was to carry the water for several blocks and up a set of stairs to our place.

Water was a scarce resource.  The water we used was not available to someone else. The lesson we learned in this little village, was that we actually owned much less than we thought of the absolute essentials such as water, air and energy. They were shared by all, shared with humans, plants and animals. We were all in this together.

One curse that we felt, was that no matter how egalitarian we tried to be, our particular kind of wealth, that is that we were people from a rich, “developed” country, was obvious. We all, as a people of the United States, consumed too much, very quickly, and without apology. It was our signature statement, as a people.

The fact that we had a bathroom in our simple apartment made us seem wealthy, to others who made the early morning visit to the fields.

But there were other signs of our wealth as well. We carried pencils and pens and had paper notebooks that gave us away.  People observed our obvious wealth when they came to visit us and saw plates, silverware, pens and pencils.  When we first arrived, Joe wore a watch.  Eventually he took it off and put it away as it caused so much distraction.

We put our things in a locked trunk  leaving only the essentials visible, such as a cup, a plate and a spoon, a pot or two for cooking, one blanket or a sheet on our wooden bed.  A pillow, a mosquito net, and that is it.

Yes, we still seemed wealthier than others.

Such a life as we led for two years, brought to our attention repeatedly, how much we had consumed, how recklessly we had consumed, before arriving in this little village.

We were amazed to learn how much we could live without.  As our lives got simpler, our needs diminished.

I will never forget how it felt when after several years, after we had developed good friends, had sat through numerous evenings listening to their tall tales, their music, their traditions and meals.  We left that little village, saying goodbye to people we knew we would never see again, wondering how they would ever survive the lack of rains, the excessive temperatures. On the day we left, everything felt so out of control because heavy rains had arrived and were splashing over the empty fields, creating great gullies where land used to be.  In a matter of a few hours, our people went from experiencing not enough water, to too much.

The day we left, cattle were swimming in the fields, backs barely showing above the water. We watched from our train windows, as  our coal-stoked train slowly crept onward towards Patna, seeing both sides of the train surrounded by flood waters, looking out at houses sinking in the water and mud.

We felt guilty and deeply saddened leaving our village, knowing we would probably never see anyone again. We  realistically comprehended how powerless we were to  do anything about their situation, given that the forces they were fighting were so ferocious and also acknowledging that although we had survived in this little village for over two years, we always knew it was temporary, that we had backup.

When I left our state of Bihar, I weighed 99 pounds, skinny and luckily still reasonably healthy.  Joseph and I were lightweight, wizened by what he had learned, and humbled.

It was our first realization of how little control we actually had over world events.    We felt deep respect for the families we left behind, and saddened by our lack of abilities to do much for them other than to reassure them that there were other parts of the world not yet in this sad state of affairs.  It was not like this everywhere, we told them.  It should get better.

We were trying to assume that “this too, shall pass.,” encouraging ourselves and them, to keep going.

And we said goodbye.  However, this too, has not passed. The unequal distribution of resources, the increased scarcity of clean air and water, the drastic growth of the human population at the expense of other plants and animals is continuing unabated.

Our memories of our villagers live on, inspiring us to live simply, in honor of these families we once knew and loved.  We have learned the importance of safe water and air, secure food supplies, and the necessity of proper distributional systems for shared resources, for education, health and quality of life issues such as welfare.  We all see what life is like without this safety net for the planet. Evidence surrounds us. We just have to look and see it, read the facts and comprehend the implications.

Our situation is not completely hopeless. We all have a little power and potential to live simply and give back to our environment as much as we can, knowing that in the future, it really could be dangerous if we do not conserve and replace our natural resources and use an equitable distributional system.

We all need to learn how to share more, to live more simply and wisely. We should acknowledge that famine, war, extreme consumption of limited resources, and the unfair or maldistribution of necessary resources anywhere, is happening to all of us. Deprivation can also become a shared experience, if we do not take care of our planet.

Trust me, living simply may be comfortable, deprivation is not.

Street living under deprivation

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Writing with Children

Micrasterias.jpg

Sketch drawn on-line by my grandson.

Just this last week, my grandson asked me to help him with an article he wanted to write.  He had discovered a pretty colored single-cell plant called Micrasterias in a Smithsonian picture book for children and wanted to learn more about it.

How hard could it be to write up the life of a single-celled plant?

It sounded like fun, so I helped him out by posting articles to him about Micrasterias Denticulata (the name of the cell).

As a joke, I said he was writing an article on “Mike Rasterias and his friend Den Ticulata.”  Mike and Den.

He spent a week writing the article, and asked a number of questions as he went along.  What was its shape, its size, how did it move?  What color was it, and  where did it live? Did it have skin?  How did it eat? We had a great time exchanging ideas on where to find out more information on this little one-celled plant.  I googled and found scientific articles, photos and videos that he earnestly reviewed and summarized his ideas, placing them carefully into his essay.

He discovered some interesting things.  It comes in colors of bright blue and green, turning ponds bright green when it grows in them.  It lives like a plant by collecting sunlight and turning it into energy.   He was amused that it moves via excretion of slime (what a perfect story for an eight year old boy). He also found out how to locate it in ponds and streams and how to make a slide of pond water with micrasterias in it for use in a microscope.

“I want everything on one page,” he told me.  He worked to condense his ideas until they all fit.  He typed it up on his own, learned how to use spell check in the process, and successfully got it all on one page.

After that, I asked him to present it to me first by reading it aloud and then again, by looking me straight in the eye and  summarizing his ideas to me.  I used my I-phone to video him presenting both ways, and then we discussed how his voice and presentation changed according to these two types of visual presentations.  It surprised him to see how his voice and pronunciation changed when he went from reading it aloud, to orally presenting it without any notes.

What started as a simple exploration of a one-celled wonder, became a fun process of learning for us both.  I like what he said in his last paragraph the best.  He said,

“From doing this I have learned how to use a computer better and I even learned that such a little thing can be so complicated and interesting to learn.”

There we have it again, simply complicated.

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Beach Junk for Art

Below is a water color painting I completed on a piece of old plastic found on the beach.
An artist friend asked me to help her find a piece of driftwood she needed for a commissioned art piece she was trying to complete.  She had searched several beaches near her house and couldn’t find the correct size, and asked for help.  

On our beach, I doggedly searched for the piece of driftwood with her specifications and found only some small pieces of wood, along with old shoes, pieces of plastic, an unhinged toilet seat, a few seashells, as well as plenty of seaweed and lots of old, jangled, plastic rope. 

Are you surprised by my description of what I found on the beach?  You shouldn’t be, as most ocean beaches are cluttered with junk.   Much of it is plastic.  

When I told my friend that I couldn’t find anything she wanted, she replied,  “Well, we should just switch to painting on plastic.  There sure is plenty of that laying around.”   

A few days later, while again scrounging around on the beach, I found a rather large piece of blue, eroded, plastic that used to be part of a 25 gallon container.  It was an interesting shape, so i took it home then scrubbed it up and left it outside to dry in the warm sun of our Island of the Abacos.  

Then I painted the plastic, first designing the structure with gesso, a kind of acrylic base, then following up with watercolors.  The roughened and worn plastic surface moved the water colors slowly around in interesting ways. Where the plastic was still smooth, the paint moved about quickly and then mingled and mixed with other colors.  

As I shifted the brush size and character, I started to get some pleasant varied patterns on the old plastic.  

Pretty soon, I was lost in the painting and having a great time.  

The end result has a sort of shiny, porcelain look to it.  

I like finding junk to paint on.  And I sure like the price of the canvas.  

Plus, now there is one less piece of plastic garbage on the beach.

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Letters of Endearment

A big brown office envelope arrived in the mail from an old friend and inside I found, much to my surprise, a bundle of letters written by me fifty years ago when my husband Joe and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in South Asia.

At that time, we were living and working in a deeply rural village that, one might say, rode tight against the earth’s surface.  We felt the tight ride while we experienced several years without electricity, running water or flush toilets, among other things. We encountered food scarcity along with our neighbors, witnessed the horrible power of famine and drought followed by flooding, malnourishment and disease.  We felt this tightness to the earth while simultaneously learning to appreciate our neighbors’ courage, affection, and strong community spirit which helped them to survive and sometimes even thrive, under such tough conditions.

These letters brought it all back, like a flood.

Joe and I felt guilty, knowing our situation was temporary and that we would leave our village after several years.  We worried about what would happen to the many friends and acquaintances we left behind, who did not have the freedom to walk away, as we did.  Our youthful hand-written letters confirmed our affection for our community, told stories of friends we had made, and also pointed out the many frustrations of residing in impoverished circumstances.

In those days, we wrote letters on pieces of paper and sent them via the postal mail.  From our village, roughly half of the letters we sent managed to arrive. We often waited months for a reply and our letters declared our frustration with having to wait so long.  At least half of the letters that family and friends wrote back to us were also somehow mislaid or lost by the postal system.

After several years in South Asia, Joe and I returned to the US, to more schooling, then returning again to Western Asia for several years, then back again to the US for more graduate training and new jobs and responsibilities.

When we returned to the US for the second time, Joe and I had started a family.  On top of our jobs, we had three children over a five-year period, taking up any extra time we might have used for writing letters, especially since during these same five years we moved back into the United States and then back out again, this time to Western Asia.

Once, during an emergency, we were evacuated with our two small children back to the US, due to heavy street fighting.  We were instructed not to return until things quieted down.  Our friend who shared the letters helped our family set up a temporary place to live.  She also helped us locate blankets, pots and pans and spoons and forks to use while we waited for word that we could return.

I owe her many letters of thanks, and I am about to write them.

Each time Joe and I have moved to new places we gathered more responsibilities, gained new friends and lost others.

Although we had the privilege of enjoying technically challenging and very interesting jobs, we confronted complicated administrations and large inter-related bureaucracies that sometimes held projects back, messed up plans and created stress.

During this period of heavy work responsibilities and young children, we wrote few personal letters.

These same complicated bureaucracies gave us the power and support we needed to our family to continue our work in the area of international development, an area we both wanted to work in.

I owe numerous people who worked in these administrations with me, letters of appreciation, too.

I have unfinished letters to write.

Letters of condolence.
Letters of love.
Letters of appreciation.
Letters of thanks.

Letters to my wonderful adult children, expressing gratitude and pride, telling them how much I love them;

Letters to my grandchildren, leaving word tracks for when I am no longer here, to make them smile and trust that life is good.

I owe thank you notes to people who changed my life.

A letter to my husband, thanking him for all the love and affection, fun and adventure, hilarity and frustration, devotion and friendship, for his mightiest protection, biggest debates, most delicious omelettes, ever.

By the way, dear, thank you as well for all those morning cups of coffee.

I owe a letter to myself.  It may be the most difficult one to write.

I owe letters to the people I thought I hated but really didn’t.  Letters to people who suffered unfairly.

Letters to those who reached out and received no thanks.

Letters to the privileged and seemingly spoiled who would not know why I wrote, even if I did.

In addition, I owe a note of appreciation to the small boy, wearing just simple cotton shorts who used a broken branch with leaves to sweep under the sacred banyan tree, making the dirt smooth;

I owe a letter of affection to that little girl who told me her stories of being married at the age of twelve, and the uproarious tales of how she outwitted her husband and got to come home to her widowed mother;

I will send a letter of sorrow to that dead body I saw lying in the streets waiting unceremoniously to be picked up by the early morning carts;

I have written numerous letters of thanks in my head to those men holding machine guns who stopped our bus and who read all correspondence we held in our purses and backpacks and left without killing us;

I owe a letter of amazement to the midwives who delivered village babies on rope-woven wooden beds with no running water and no clean towels;

A letter of love to the villagers who sang all night to us while we sat together on dirt floors and listened to a tiny wind-driven accordion wailing to the moon.

It is time to write a letter to my mother to tell her she is forgiven for not noticing;

A letter to my father saying that I view him with compassion and realize it might have been worse, he could have become President;

A letter to my brother, saying goodbye, sorry it did not work out;

Letters to my sisters reminding them of how much I cared.

A letter to my childhood dog whom I miss greatly, especially since he was my nanny.

Letters to my hair dresser saying thank you for getting me out of the sixties look.

Letters to the grasses and trees that welcomed me on mountain slopes and

A thank you letter to near clear blue lakes and to all bright stars of the night.

Letters of appreciation and awe to the unknown for all that it holds.

Thank you, my friend, for keeping those letters for fifty years and then sending them back to me as a gift.  They are provoking me to write what I had forgotten to write, until now.

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Recently, my sister sent me a small book of Japanese Haiku as a memory of my mother, who passed away several years ago.  

It is a small hard-cover book that my mother purchased as a gift for her beloved aunt, who had cared for her when she was a young girl and needed a place to stay.  The inscription is lovely, and says,

“To Aunt Edith at Torch Cottage – To one who has enriched my life beyond all means of explanation. With all my love for your love which has never failed me.  Janet, Spring, 1964”

It was titled, Japanese HAIKU, published by Peter Pauper Press out of Mount Vernon, in New York in 1955-56 and sold at that time for $1.00.  It offered two hundred twenty examples of seventeen-syllable Japanese poems by Basho, Buson, Issa and other Japanese poets, mostly of the 15th and 16th century.  It was translated by Peter Beilenson.  


The book explains that a haiku poem is comprised of seventeen syllables, looking something like this:
5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables.

The tanka has 14 more syllables added to the haiku, for 31 syllables total, looking like this:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

7 syllables
7 syllables

This is a grand total of 31 syllables.


Below, is an haiku and tanka that I prepared as an illustration.

5   NIGHT COMES BUT NOT YET
7   THE DIM SKY SPEAKS TO ME NOW
5   BLUE, WHITE, GOLD, ENDLESS.

7   DECLINE TO NEW BLOOMS OF GREY
7   ALL BECAUSE OF THE END GAME.
                                                                   MJC


Historically, I am told, several poets were involved in the writing of a tanka usually with the first poet preparing the haiku and the second poet completing the last two lines, thus becoming a tanka. Small drawings were often added, artistically, to the poem.  

Additional examples of poems and art based on the haiku and tanka are shown here.

Inspired by this little book, I wondered whether it might be possible to paraphrase my mother’s words using the rules of Japanese haiku and tanka poems and here is what I came up with.

TO MY LOVING AUNT
LIFE ENRICHED BEYOND ALL MEANS
BY TORCH LAKE COTTAGE

FOR YOUR LOVE THAT NEVER FAILED

GRIEF ENSNARED BUT NOT BY YOU
                                                               MJC


Although I have never really completely understood why poetry has so many rules and quite often rebelled against them when forced to use them, I find this simple way of playing with words and syllables intriguing.  

Thus inspired,  I think over the next few days, will try to come up with some personal versions of haiku and tanka, with personal drawings illustrating them, just for the fun of it.

Who knows, perhaps a tanka a day keeps the doctor away?

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Celebrate Openly

I do not sufficiently show my gratitude for being alive. What an off chance it all seems to be, what a lucky coincidence.  

I haven’t yet  sufficiently expressed my appreciation for the beauty and wonderment of raw, wild nature.  


I need to celebrate more openly the pleasures of learning, of conducting research, of reading and writing, of painting a picture, of observing shapes, colors, designs and patterns of life.

Alain de Botton recently wrote about the importance of culture in helping us to develop traditions and rituals for celebrating life’s meaning.  

Even in the most dire circumstances, life can be filled with spirit and grace. It can be celebrated. I have witnessed this while living in desolate rural areas and in densely populated urban areas, in villages suffering food scarcity, in places of war, and political unrest.  I have seen life celebrated in many languages and in various ways, through learning in educational institutions, museums and libraries, and in simple community rituals, showing it in the way they line up in meaningful ways on the sides of hills and deep into valleys. sharing traditions of language and culture and song.  

I see ritual and celebration in the way animal herds gallop, the way birds fly in flocks, the way fishes move in the waters.  I see celebration and meaning in cloud formations, and in the many stars that shine in the black night of the sea.

Susan Gubar wrote about ways of seeking the gift of grace by being receptive to a sense of beneficence or loving kindness.  This might be acquired many different ways such as engaging in quiet meditation, through dance or breathing and body exercise, by taking long walks in nature, bike riding, running alongside a road, or while painting a picture, making a craft or playing music,  in the simple act of appreciating literature and the arts.  

It may be felt in the results of a magnificent piece of research, or in the development of a new technology or in the discovery of a new way to do something.  All offer the need for morality, appreciation of spirituality and community; a feeling of grace. 

It may even be felt simply through the execution of routine acts of love and friendship such as a ritual sharing a glass of wine at sunset, or a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise, or hugging a child, patting a dog on the head.

Leaving it at this.  I say, I wish to learn to be positive about all people who celebrate life and who seek to understand its meaning whether they do it through cultural expression, education and learning, scientific discovery and/or religious practices.  


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A Scattered Approach to Dying


“When someone is cremated, can their ashes be strewn around?” I ask. 
“You can place them  anywhere you want” she replied, “after the death is registered.”

“Then in that case,” I said, “Scatter some of my ashes into the winds.  Throw some under that apple tree in front of our cottage and drop the rest into the ocean. Don’t bury me anywhere.  I’m too claustrophobic.”





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