Sunday, April 29, 2012

magicians and memories...

It has been over a year since i last wrote...about Bhutan. today, as i sit in kansas city, missouri, the rain falls and the thunder rumbles. there is a skylight above me, and as the rain falls on it, i cannot help but remember and RETURN to my attic in Bhutan. when the rain would approach us from ridges away, we could feel the pressure in the air change. the sounds in the himalayas would sharpen and i always smiled at the clear and distant sound of a bell ringing...or children playing...a cow mooing. (i always loved those cows) i could feel what was coming in my bones.  the clouds would lower and crawl over the mountains that surrounded Thimphu, and slowly, the skylight in the little attic would tick. tock. awkwardly as the rain found its rhythm. i would imagine the monks who lived up in the temples in hills being consumed by the mist and clouds and, looking out of my windows, i would watch as the clouds slowly covered everything tall. and i would wait, in silence...for the rain to reach its volume on that sky light.

i have a sky light over my bed at my mother's house. when i was much younger, my mother, in her infinite wisdom, knew that i needed the window. perhaps, even then, before all the world whirled me in these circles, she foresaw precisely how the skylight would always and forever be a reminder... a storyteller.

when i was younger, i would lay under my sky light in the desert, watching the moon, or the clouds moving over the tiny hole. i would listen to the rain and the sound of the wind. when i found my attic in bhutan...i would sit beneath the skylight there, assembling my shields, waiting patiently, for the secrets of the world to find me in the morse code of the rain. i would dream of home, with eyes wide open. often times, i would allow myself a few tears for the distance between what i loved and where i was. now, i feel i am much older than before. and i sit, again, under a new skylight. feeling the distance between what i love and where i am.

my insides swirl, for something i find intrinsically and ultimately difficult to swallow. i now feel the strings on the ends of my eye lashes stretched thin through the air...toward two homes. one in the desert and another in the Himalayas. the rain whispers quietly. it does not whisper secrets anymore, it whispers memories (perhaps those memories are indeed MY secrets), that i now allow myself (perhaps only today) to treasure in the half light of this day.

you see, it's difficult to remember sometimes. a memory exists because of the absence of something.

in the past, i had to force myself to forget a great many things-bad things...and i force giggles now at the fact that i am, every single day, trying to carefully control the memory of a great many things-beautiful things. (the universe and it's ultimate jokes on us.)

it is a long distance to travel...
the himalayas are very far...their truth and secrets are so specifically dedicated to the soul of a place that lives in a world that could never exist here. the undertaking of carrying that world in my tiny shell is far too overwhelming and often times i feel myself sinking into my attempts to do so.

a few days ago, amidst a week of complete disasters, i received word of a second friend who has passed on in those mighty Himalayas. i wrote, discreetly, that i was sure "the cloud you floated off on...would surely rain down on us often...sharing light and all the tiny pieces of the world that are infinitely connected. safe journey, dear friend..."

it takes the wind from my lungs, to see it has rained everyday since i got the news of his passing. my friend was a guide. he led people through the Himalayas. there was no ridge he had not walked and climbed...and if you were a visitor to Bhutan, it was unlikely that you would not be honored with the joy and wisdom of his friendship (not acquaintence-but friendship). he knew people from every corner of the world...he brought those people together over paths in the himalayas...difficult paths...long paths. he guided people through difficult and painful journeys...journeys that were wrapped in beautiful sights and discovery. he was a revealer of secrets and a gatherer of fuel. i was not the only "chillip" he taught to climb the himalayas.  ...the power of a person who can teach others to climb the himalayas flies into my mouth now-a fleet of one million butterflies arching up and then down like a rainbow.

in my final months in Bhutan, with the incredible help of several amazing friends, we came together to help 200 children in Changjiji. Journeys through the Himalayas, toward monasteries and historic sites where deities lived were an integral piece of our plan to educate these children about their history and their place in that history. Those journeys required a all knowing guardian and compass. Those journeys also required kindness from others to provide the children with that guide and shelter when we reached our destination in the mountain tops. My friend, who i am now certain is one of the world's chosen guides, called me two days after i mentioned our need for such kindness and simply said "everything is taken care of...will you all be ready to go this weekend?" you see, he cancelled the plans he had for other paid treks and trips...and along with "Ata"--another of the world's chosen guides...had found that kindness in his friends to provide the children with horses to carry their food, tents to sleep in and two guides to lead them up the mountains. Robin made it possible for the children to meet the challenge of the journey...and overcome the challenge-to the point of erasing the idea that it was ever a challenge at all...turning it into a beautiful dream instead. those children needed beautiful dreams...they needed to learn how to discover their beautiful dreams. Robin helped teach them how. he was that kind of magician.

there are so many people in the world who have had the honor of Robin's kindness. in my particular case, Robin made the most important journey of my life possible. Robin made my purpose in life...possible.

before leaving on our first trip with the children, Robin and i stood outside Benez' with several of our friends, discussing the importance of these journeys the children would take. I remember Robin said "I've always wanted to help more." the children climbed hard and fast for five hours to reach the camp ground where we laid plastic down between them and the cow dung (i still feel so bad about that) and woke up above the clouds. we sang and danced together on the mountains top and upon our return....we were greeted by magic...and welcomed into a world that we had all only imagined, until then.

We had just returned from the palace, and, truth be told, most of us were still breath taken by the unbelievable magic of our three day adventure, and an ending that was from a dream. We all gathered at Benez again and Robin leaned against the railing outside of Benez', one foot crossed over the other as usual, smiling, holding his beer. We all hugged one another and Robin looked at me smiling in bewilderment, "This was so amazing, Sochi. This could not have been more amazing. I understand now." Robin told me later that he felt fulfilled... in return, all i could do was thank him, even though he didn't seem to need my infinite thanks at all.

he never needed thanks...not even when he brought me two pounds of avocados from the south, as a simple gesture of kindness and to reassure me subtly that i could still taste home from far away.

i spoke with my mother yesterday, after not speaking with her for a week... i explained the madness that had ensued on this side of the world...and then, with hesitation, told her of Robin's passing on the other side of the world. she did, as she always does, what she could to reassure me and offer me some comfort...finally saying "you have photos of the children. you should print them and make an alter in your studio." she understood, as she always does, the importance of sharing the piece of Robin's story I had the honor to be a part of.

it is a difficult thing to live in two worlds. it is a powerful thing to have the ability to transport yourself from one world to truly feel yourself in another place...the speak with another hug your family in another place. i often wonder if they can hear me as i whisper to them in the wind. i often wonder if the moonlight delivers my embrace to them from this side of the world. i did everything i could to prepare myself for this challenge... but now realize, i could never be completely prepared for the daily task of balancing this system of knowing and memories, unknowingness and forgetting- that exists in my soul.

i tremble now, feeling an incredible anxiety and uncontrollable need to return to Himalayas. i fear i have lingered too long away from that home.

i have hungered for this search for so long. my search, most definitely led me to Kansas City and i understand why it did. all the world is full of reminders and i have the power to choose which reminders i heed.

i cannot predict the course of my life...i am reminded, again, that no one can.
i understand the fear and trouble that is born out of unknowingness and still...i choose not to predict my course and continue on searching for beauty and truth.

i accept the lessons i have learned and know that they alone are my compass through the unknown that i humbly embrace...

i have had the honor of learning how to use my compass from one of the the world's chosen guides...
i know i must honor that lesson which is the single most important lesson i have learned and lived...
"slow and steady, one foot then the have to keep moving, Sochi"

the rain has slowed now... and the sun begins to shine through a layer of clouds over the middle of america. i'll hold Robin's words close now. his simple words hold all the truth i need.
i'll hold Robin's words close reminders speak so clearly and loudly that i cannot avoid them anymore.

as always...i smile
...because i am still able to send my greetings...from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

the echoes

i made my satellite landing back in the desert lands about seven weeks ago. it was smooth, secret and safe.

i sit now, cross legged on the floor of my father's old house. i must admit, this house is somewhat unfamiliar to me and somehow that offers some ease in trying to write all this to share.

the hugeness of this open city carries sounds from all around up to the hilltop where this house is. trains heeooooo heeoooooo in the distance...the hum of the high way softly stirs...and a gentle humming reminds me of the not so gentle circumstances of this border town.

i've been tracking the path of a tiny insect who has now made it's way up to the top edge of my tiny monitor. 16 months ago...this bug would have been squashed or flicked i just watch him and smile as he goes back and forth back and forth...16 months ago i would have been more comfortable on a bed or couch...or at a i enjoy the cold wooden floor of my studio...ash tray and coffee beside me...all is on the same level...

a giant piece of mattboard rests on a (crazy possibly way too fancy) easel...i've started covering it with words...i thought i could try to make a map of my brain...sort some of what has grown within me...DEFEND>MIGHTY>DEPART>FALL>RISE>HELP>WEAK>TIME>GROW>GOOD>BAD>DECIDE>ACCEPT>SIMULTANEITY>BIG(NESS)>SILENCE>SUFFER>CHANGE>LOVE>DISAPPEAR>PERCEPTION

tonight is the first night i feel ready.

finally. i allow myself to "commence to begin..."

my last days in Bhutan were perfection. spent them in paro, which was-from the moment i saw it-and will forever remain my favorite town in all of bhutan. (of course i still have more to see in bhutan, but some things ARE SIMPLY CERTAIN) the silence in paro is delciously overwhelming. it swallows you and chews you gently...the way a baby teethes at something. it massages you and calms you and gently comforts you to open yourself..."as spring opens its first flower." (DELICIOUS cummings!) the openness of the valleys always let me breathe there. i felt safe in paro...never afraid of tremendous beauty or blinding oblivion or awkward strangeness and displacement in foreign land. paro felt like home.

the days i spent there were absolute beauty. they were also among the most difficult i experienced. i found myself secretly grasping for the intangible...desperately trying to absorb everything. i did all i could to keep it together. i looked so carefully, listened so keenly, and spoke slowly. i didn't want to forget anything. i wanted desperately to take everything and wrap it up in a blanket made of vast sky...i wanted to hold it the way my mother held me when i was mini, all crazy like from fever. but the voice that grew in me during my pilgrimage in the mountains kept whispering...reminding me i would have to let go.

on the morning of my 2?th birthday, i woke up and lay there quietly...gently forcing my sadness away. welcoming the memories of my family who i would soon see...and reliving with all my love, the moments i shared with all the new family i made.

on the morning of my 2?th birthday i boarded a plane and flew through the sky on satellite X away from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

once i walked through the airport doors i could feel my satellite approaching. i knew i would have to let it pick me up and take me. after my soul forced itself to find a way to say goodbye...i looked back once with tears the size of hot air balloons begging me to burst. i closed my eyes...turned quickly and walked around the corner to sit and wait for the plane to pull up. (you get to walk out to your airplane in's such a celebrity experience)

as i walked out to board the plane, a gentle japanese man smiled at me and said "may i show you". i looked at him confused, but smiled and said "certainly...what is it?" he scrambled through a tiny sketch book and held a drawing of me up proudly. he pointed at it and pointed at me and said "i saw you from across...this is you". he proceeded to smile very big and show me his giant portfolio he had surely lugged along with him on his tour of Bhutan. i smiled very big in return as he encouraged me to take a photo of him holding his drawing of me. i hugged him and thanked him and looked once more toward the mountains...giggled and thought to myself "even in my final moments here, this place is just magic."

i must admit, once i boarded the plane i let go a bit and proceeded to cover my face with my norwegian sister's scarf as i cried and cried. the image of it now is amusing and ABSOLUTELY otherworldly: completely out of control emotional desert woman-sitting in a window seat on a tiny Druk Air plane-ready to fly clear across the planet-wrapped in a Norwegian woman's scarf-flying over the himalayas-wishing she had listened to the pilot more carefully to know whether that was mount everest in sight-weeping at the end a great big fat journey!

after i released an allowable amount of liquid from my eyeballs i looked toward the isle and the steward said "aren't you xochi?" i giggled at the hilarity of the encounter. my friends would often make jokes about how Druk Air flights are like reunions that would normally occur in public places. any Bhutanese flying on any given day likely knows most of, if not all the other Bhutanese on the flight. in the airport itself i had already run into a handful of Bhutanese folks i knew and sure enough, the steward was a dear friend's brother and the folks behind me were relatives of other friends. as i responded to one of their questions with the ever infamous Bhutanese question "what to do" i giggled and thought "i guess i really did make home here..." they, as is the custom in Bhutan, began to poke fun at me for "looking so sad", offered me or encouraged me to consume sufficient amounts of whiskey and managed to cheer me up by the time i landed in bangkok. as i got my things together to deboard it occurred to me that it was my birthday. i mentioned it and cell numbers were immediately offered to go paint the town red later that night. if there is any reliable characteristic among most Bhutanese it is that they most definitely love and know how to have a jolly good time.

had a funny landing in bangkok, observing scantilly clad young thai girls latched onto the arms of what i would consider kinda gross looking American G.I.'s in the airport as they exchanged their thai baht for dollars and vice versa. i was to be picked up by lovely ugyen in bangkok. a part of me enterained the thought of painting the town not only red, but i soon opted to stay out of trouble. (i'm a magnet for trouble) i happily avoided the madness of bangkok's crowded zone and excitedly hugged ugyen before we caught a cab out to the boonies of the city. after about a forty five minute cab ride i found myself in peace and quiet and soon thereafter eating delicious fish, sipping on a crisp cool bottle of water in the humidity and HOTNESS of thailand. the time was lovely but, of course, difficult. i could feel the crash landing back into the big world. i could feel my physical location pulling away from bhutan and pushing toward the other side of the world. i could feel that immense lack of control oozing all over my skin and insides. my goodbye in bangkok was somehow more raw than the goodbye in Bhutan. i suppose i knew i was really leaving by then...all was still like a dream, but my departure from bangkok offered my tongue a taste of the reality that was unfolding all around me the way confetti falls from disco balls...(this party wasn't of the "fun confetti" nature, however)

bangkok layover was short and i was off to catch my connection to japan. i was carrying a huge scroll painting with me and the always rule abiding japanese customs folks gave me the BIG FAT "NO DICE" as i tried to lug the scroll of life through security to my gate. cumbersome but CRUCIAL scroll. i had a bit of a verbal scuffle with a very sweet girl at a mysterious counter (felt really bad on account of the always lovely manners offered by Japanese folks)...but was finally allowed to carry on the scroll of life.

by that point i completely numbed myself...i'd be flying over the PACIFIC soon (simultaneously toward and away from) and the BIG SADNESS was doing everything it could to creep its way into me. i knew it wouldn't be fair to be completely devastated and sad. so instead, i sat and people watched...(caught a glimpse of a narco from sinaloa alllllll the way in japan...horrific disgusting "drug situation")

after a very long flight...i landed in Los Angeles and allowed myself THE SMILE. (((((almost home))))) ....i switched on my rickety old field mouse of a phone and immediatly dialed my mother and younger brother. the feeling of their voices on the other side of a domestic phone was heavenly...any description beyond that i'll keep secret and safe.

after three very long and brutally inevitable satellite completed its orbit around planet earth (quite literally...from start to end of my big fat journey i actually did fly around the world!) satellite X made its landing in the desert. greeted by mother, younger brother and father at the airport i immediately felt a swoosh of comfort and warmth wrap me up safely and soundly in the lovely presence of my (((family)))) ...

tricky business these arrivals and departures can be. "natural phenomena" many of my students quoted on several different occassions.

my first nights home were confusing. i spent moments in the evenings watching the sky streak with red as the sun made its descent. every night i would rise (and still do some nights) at 3:00 am. i took to walking to the edge of the arroyo i often remembered fondly while i was in the mountainland. i would sit until the sun came up staring out at the vastness off the sky and land. i would watch the sky do it's mighty melting from one spectrum to another. the flat horizon i had only dreampt of for many months prior laid there like a flattened soul. now i read through old writings and find one piece of something:

"in the middle of the world aflame the sun is carefully gently lowering behind infinity's tricks"

while making home in Bhutan, my (((home))) echoed in me always. i was often told to mind "the now" and let go of then and later. for the most part i did what i could and tried to understand (disregarding the clicheNESS that philosophy lives within) the crucial survival that is born of those words...but stood secretly and firmly behind my belief: to remember and live within a thing that is far from immediacy honors that thing. (i had arguments for every cliched philosophy anyone could throw at me...oh the xoch stubbornness. i smile.)

i lived among clouds and thinness of air. i lived alongside beautiful souls, smiling hearts and living, growing hope. (Bhutan breathes hope like no other in the world: ANOTHER CERTAIN THING) i met truth and abandoned fears. i embraced loneliness and found courage. i discovered my will, accepted shame and scorned falsity.

now i find myself dancing swooshing swaying among and within echoes of Bhutan. i honor that home the way i honored this one. i remember it. i carry Bhutan deep within me...i carry it on my face and in my words. i honor it for the smiles that bloomed and continue to bloom because of it. i see it everywhere and dance among It's memory.

that BIG BALLOON sure loves flopping you on your back and everywhere in between.

many people ask me the same quesiton when i encounter them for the first time since having returned (i stayed hidden for some time so first encounters still occur often)

"what did you make of your time?"

in the first month i would scratch my head and elbows nervously and try to explain i didn't have words yet. now i smile and say "i was lost and found simultaneously. i was many things simultaneously...i tried to make beauty and wound up finding it! (or letting it find me)" scratch my elbow nervously again and contiue "my time was beautiful. it continues to be..."

i left my home on a 'WILD HUNT'...reserved in my predictions...never expecting to find what i found. findings were beyond smiles and progress. findings were beyond things one can touch and see. findings were more than mighty mountains and memories...more than words and ideas. they were larger than kabooms and battles...easier than land...harder than it is to be a cliff. i am different...all the world is different now...all that lives under these eyelids gathers more fuel i continue to simultaneously arrive and depart.

the land was more than its mountains...more than its peace and silence...more than its secrets, both ugly and kind...the land was living truth and singing revelation. i know i will be there again...

Bhutan was quite simply....beautiful.

how does one embrace the steps that turn to leaps?

how do i reconcile the echoes?

i smile.

as always...there is more to come. i send my warmest greetings from the ever lovely desert lands..."this side of the world"...wherever that may actually be!

Friday, November 12, 2010

...knowing there's an answer.

[a group photo taken during the ASPIRE after school camp. Campers and facilitators pose together after a day of cleaning up the community and starting the AIR SHAKE MURAL.]

There are thanks to be delivered! My time in Bhutan would not have been possible without the help of some extraordinary people. I thank each and every child I had the honor of spending the last 14 months with in Bhutan. I thank HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck without whose support the entirety of my experience in and contributions to Bhutan would not have been possible. I thank the Ella Lymon Cabot Trust Fund Inc. for the gracious support of and funding they provided for this entire project. I thank Mrs. Norma D. Hendrickson for the grace she has always given me and for her incredible sponsorship and support of my time in Bhutan. I thank the UStanlee and Gerald Rubin Center as it was a major catalyst for this project. I thank Asha Kama Wangdi for his vision and his invitation to work with an organization that motivated and inspired me to chart my unique and independant course in Bhutan. I thank all of the colleagues, friends and family who have been so instrumental to the smiles I have shared in this place. A few must be named:

Mr. Jurmi Chhowing offered me absolute and unfaltering friendship, support, wisdom and encouragement which allowed and inspired me to stay the course. Mr. Tshering Wangdi has been both an inspiration and a beautiful friend. Madame Kesang Phuntsho Dorji has been my catalyst for many smiles, truths and a great deal of courage. Madame Yuki has been the sunlight. Dawa Pejor, Sonam Kesang and their beautiful family were my beautiful rescue boat. Lama Schenphen Zangpo has been the best “red-robed” buddy I have ever had…and a person I will always admire. Letho, Junu and Jigme whose genuine warmth has made me smile everytime I walk into their cafĂ©.

And of course, I thank my beautiful family.

Having accorded thanks where they are deserved I will begin.

In honesty, i have never been able to say what is easy for others. Several character flaws/strengths make it difficult for me to deliver information normally…so i will simply say:

during my time in the Kingdom of Bhutan, I have allowed myself to remain open constantly to the youngsters I have worked with so that I might be able to share with and learn from them. On a personal level, in my inside hidden parts, i have opened myself as i said i would...and when i had to, i shut myself as i needed to.

October 10 was the closing of the ASPIRE camp. that was my final initiative in Bhutan…my final but most definitely not the most important. PROCESS…it has been a PROCESS.

[photos of the some of the different areas the camp focused on and the facilitator who led those areas. Lama Schenphen-meditation. Pre-mural-art class. Madame Kesang Phuntsho Dorji-music. RENEW's visiting councelors spend a day of camp with the children and share their questions, answers and experience.]

To be honest, I admit I do not want to write this blog. too many details, masses and discrete-tremendous occurrences have whirled me to this day. to this point. And I have no idea how to put into words what I am feeling. but i know i must write for the sake of sharing and goes.

To better find an easy place to start I’ll share the magic of “ASPIRE”. the closing day of ASPIRE was beautiful. The camp itself was absolutely FANTASTIC…its mechanisms were interesting to watch at work, it’s results were intriguing to see unfold. Before I begin, I MUST thank the volunteers who were the FUEL for this project (in no particular order). Mendharawa Dorji, Yiwang Pindarica, Namzay Kumutha, Wangchuk Dorji Namgyal, Kesang Phuntsho Dorji, Kuenga Tenzin, Tenzin Namgyal, Jurmi Chhowing, Tashi Pelyang, Robinisimo, Lama Schenphen Zangpo, Harry HAL Shaw, Sonam Palden, Kinley Bokto, Tshering Wangdi, Subash, Ngedup Jamtsho, Madame Tshering and other volunteers from the Bhutan Olympic Committee and Palden Phuntsho. There are many many more who were instrumental to the success of the camp, but these volunteers gave their time with dedication and went "beyond the call of duty".

[The children deliver the "air shake". With such a large number of children, it was impossible to shake hands with everyone when 'deals' and 'promises' were made...and so, the air shake was born. Ugyen shows off his interesting approach to the first aid lessons visiting "doctors" Mark and Nick gave. Mr. Jurmi Chhowing teaches through analogies in creative writing class. Mr. Harry "HAL" Shaw rugbyFIES the camp. Cultural trips were an essential part of the camp. The children climb to Taktsang-an historic monastery in Paro. Dawa throws down some dedication during a friendly game of soccer under the coaching of volunteers from the Bhutan Olympic Committee.]

The camp was a follow up initiative to the summer camp a few of the teachers at the school in Changjiji had initiated. I say a “sort of follow up” because the mechanisms for the two different camps were in fact very different. it’s important to note the extreme differences, which I realize now, some people failed to understand. At the most basic level the camp was intended to provide positive time use for children when they are not in school. (this is what EVERY youth camp usually does.) in places that have minimal resources to offer hungry hungry hungry youth, positive self initiated time use is a useful base to keep in mind when youth projects are approached.

The defining characteristic of this camp was the idea that it was completely driven using tools that would help children learn how to think critically. This emphasis on critical thinking was not blatant…it was subtle, hidden…covert and effective. (perhaps it was more important to give them the tools and let them discover how relevant they were and how they might be used) Of course expression and creativity were the words used to inspire the children. creativity and expression were the most relevant ways to teach them how powerful their booming brains could be if they thought critically. the driving force within the entire two months of magic was the value and development of critical thinking though. Basically, ART (in all its forms) triggers sections of the brain that allow reflection, observation, analysis and (most importantly) response.

DIRECTLY from the proposal I wrote for ASPIRE (a supplementary introduction to the proposal was prepared by teachers at Loseling Middle Secondary School):

There is no formal art training or critical thinking curriculum in the Bhutanese school system. The time has come to give all children, whether they are enrolled in school or not, the benefit of creative, analytical and expressive concepts and learning opportunities. The problems Bhutanese youth are facing have been caused by a very complex web of issues. These problems are multi-layered and multi-faceted. A simple solution to the problems does not exist. Youth must be encouraged to think critically and creatively in order to find effective solutions for such complex problems (their OWN solutions). Without an ability to analyze and dissect themselves and their environment, the youth of Bhutan will continue to face hardship and suffering as they search for meaning in their lives.
According to the Journal of American Art Therapy, “Meaning’ in art is renewed by the creation process. That process is a way in which life can be examined and processed.” Youth must have a means by which to examine their lives as Bhutan changes rapidly. The same article goes on to state that “there is an aspect of art that can focus more on efforts to create and witness the flow of expression in the images that arrive out of art making. Those images can be used to teach people about the mind. (So emphasis isn’t on fixing, changing, curing or interpreting mental states, they are merely witnessed.)” The youth must find tools that work specifically toward the development of their ability to analyze what is happening around them. These tools will help them understand their surroundings and the rapidly changing society they are an integral part of. It has been proven through quantitative research that brain activity is notably different after drawing or painting for one hour. It is that creative stimulation that can replace the stimulation of substances. Rather than seeking stimulation from external forces, youth can use creativity and expression to discover the things that live within themselves.

To put it simply, hooray for the introduction and acknowledgment of the importance of an art curriculum in education systems! This was the first camp in Bhutan that was specially crafted to target HOW youth can think about their role as positive contributors to their country.
[photos from the Closing Ceremony of ASPIRE. The AIR SHAKE ASPIRE mural was inaugurated. A drama performance was presented based on Life Skills lessons led by Mr. Kuenga Tenzin, Ashi Mendharawa Dorji and Mrs. Sonam Paldem. The Changjiji Choir shocked every guest at the ceremony when they performed "Stand By Me". The audience chanted for an encore. Haikus hung amongst the guest as the participants in the creative writing class read them aloud. The children also prepared their very own performances-dancing and singing to the audience's delight!]

Some examples of why this is necessary:
A question like “what are your aspirations?” was-almost-approached with the idea that only one aspiration would be possible for the children living in Changjiji. “how can you ask for five?!” Fortunately, after some reflection on the essence of the camp, it was agreed that children, most of whom are not yet 19 years old, should absolutely have more than one aspiration. (this low level of expectation and motivation was one of the “intriguing details” I discovered.) in an entire lifetime, it is only logical that we be as many different “people” as possible! One life is a lot of years to fill and humans were given these nice huge brains and endless souls to use in the process! not to mention, what better way to apply the creativity they were developing than to have them generate ideas for their life’s accomplishments!

After a brief discussion with the group, it was made clear that aspirations were something like dreams, wishes and goals, but different in the sense that a certain type of hunger has to be driving you to aspire. An aspiration is a heightened goal, not a “realistic one” but a truly ambitious desire. Aspirations, I have always felt, are THE ultimate. They are the product of SEEKING rather than simply wishing and doing. A goal is a goal, an aspiration is much more!

i suppose i knew all along i wouldn't be satisfied simply helping a few kids. i knew i would feel FALSE if i only taught some kids how to draw, paint, build and assemble. And whether or not I knew exactly what I was doing, right from the start, when i (seemingly) crash landed in the Himalayas...this entire attempt was in no way simple.

[Tandin Norbu and Madame Xoch bust a move during AIR SHAKE MURAL prep day. Tandin Norbu is a very talented free style dancer, soccer player and Captain at his school in Changjiji.]

all of this, from start to “end” has involved helping children understand how to figure out what is within them. (it’s not possible to teach them how to express what is inside them if they don’t even know what is inside them, or have never been encouraged to figure it out-when I say encourage the idea of *acceptance* is attached) reassurance was necessary to let them know it was ok to want to figure it out...and it was ok to want to share as they figured it out...

[en route to Phajoding-located above Thimphu. The first of three cultural field trips, the climb to the camp site was 4 hours long and one of the most difficult in Western Bhutan. We all panted, huffed and puffed...some of us (Xoch and most of the other "old folks") thought we might die. Will power and mental strength led the wayand we mastered the challenge, arriving safely at the camp site above the clouds.]
i wanted to encourage them to constantly search for ways to have a look at their insides, check out their surroundings and express how they feel or what they think about the relationship they discover between the two...and that art, in its purest form is simply sharing what your body and mind house. Even if, perhaps what your body and mind houses is difficult for ‘outsiders’ to swallow (outsiders being the folks looking at, watching, talking to, and –hopefully- listening to you)…IT IS ALWAYS VALID. And the beauty is that, when you share the treasures, also known as questions and ideas, within you they begin to change, they bounce off of others and a plethora of other ideas mix, blend sometimes collide with them. And then! Then the lenses in your eyes adjust a little and all the treasures you house feel different, look different and become DIFFERENT. And then…here comes the gold…this magical thing happens. You look in front of you and there’s no book, you look around you and there’s no fall silent and realize, most of the time, you just have to look inside yourself and discover things using all that you’re made of! The periphery only serves as an added field of challenges to help develop what is within you.

Then that becomes your compass…and because it is unique to you, it will always help you understand, within your own ideas and reflections, the direction of YOUR SEARCH!

And so…to avoid sounding presumptuous i will simply share my observations.

[Self portraits painted by student in the art class. After five minutes of silent self reflection, the children were asked to paint who they felt they were.]
in a broader sense, the youth in Thimphu (one might safely include the other relatively larger cities in Bhutan) crave individuality. they crave identity, both individually and as a group. they are hungry for knowledge. they are hungry for exposure. they have an almost undeniable desire to share their stories. once shared, they expect to hear others'. they are brave and strong. they are confused and afraid. they are fragile...they are experiencing the most dangerous effects of the modern world's machine. THEY CRAVE THEIR VERY OWN identity-but because the critical analysis that is required to explore things has not triggered yet, they can only think to absorb and imitate.

The camp volunteers, children and I worked together to discover ways that they could search within themselves for methods to find peace of mind and develop their hunger and craving for knowledge. (my approach has never been and will never be one where I take on the role of the superior madame…all knowing and completely in control…I have never been one to spout knowledge, information, blind orders or perspectives. nor have I demanded to be in control in order to teach and learn. it’s a high hope but one I haven’t wanted to give up on: the best teachers understand that the best thing they can do for anyone, regardless of their age is to help them understand how and why to learn. Providing basic knowledge is perhaps the primary focus, but anyone can spout knowledge…a true teacher teaches WHY that knowledge is important and that the most important teacher in anyone’s life is themselves.)

And so I have always and only worked WITH children in Bhutan.

many of the youth in Bhutan quite simply want some clarity, a voice and some freedom.

(after all, they were given a taste of all three when that image making machine reared it's dangerous face before them in the late 90's) perhaps it is a balance they are (usually blindly) searching for. A balance between dependence on all the beauty their traditions offer and independence from the rules of a small, remote and sometimes constricting place. that balance is surely the single most important thing they can find in order to carry their country's future forward.

Now, the beauty begins when one accepts that youth deserve that freedom. (all this depends on perspectives…but logic dictates, a craving and hunger for knowledge can never be nurtured if youngsters aren’t free to explore anything and everything)

I will digress a little bit and touch upon the “aspiration(S!)”--the final step in the ASPIRE camp was that the children had to write their aspirations. The aspirations would then serve as their promise to themselves. the list-the “situation” it required to request a list and not a single aspiration was a major revelation for me in terms of why certain situations exist in Thimphu- would be signed by the HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck and the “camp coordinators”. That the children were able to search within themselves and decide, based on what they discovered, where they wanted to start their search was incredible. At the start of the camp, such a reflective process was not possible.

A major factor in the creation of the children’s list of aspirations was quite simply their acquisition of more TOOLS. when it was made clear that the more TOOLS (both academic and creative, tangible and not) they have, the more free they would be, their potential began to glow. When the youngsters discovered that if those tools are individualized and modified the REAL MAGIC began! they began to understand that this was one way to achieve maximum applicability of their tools and power through their tools!

There are different types of freedom. Wait…no. To be free and running wild and unguided is not actually freedom. That’s the interesting idea we all have at some point in our life of what freedom might be. To be free and running with understanding, perhaps the most basic understanding, of the simple fact that one is running, and desire to grow wisdom’s wings (instead of a chicken’s flappers)…well…that is true freedom. Whether one is running from or toward something is relative and doesn’t always matter considering more often than not, both directions guide the course. Of course both of these concepts of freedom serve very intriguing and interesting purposes…one is just more dangerous than the other-more counter-productive (or maybe the slower, longer and more confusing route).

[Dawa and Yeshey listen carefully to the words of an elder who was visiting the historic Kichu Monastery at the same time as the ASPIRE camp during the Paro cultural field trip.]

So let’s just get to the nitty gritty of it. There’s an alarming substance abuse problem in youth in Bhutan, more specifically in its capitol city. The only number I could give is based on the hundreds of youth I’ve worked with since coming to Bhutan (all of whom are below the age of 21)…and sadly, the “number” I have observed is something like 85%. That number of course is approximate and involves only youth, I've worked with. This figure is the number who have used or are using. The number goes up if I address youth who know about, have tried or know someone who has tried or uses substances regularly.

Youth often mention “family problem” issues when asked what leads them to abuse substances. These “family problems” are, of course, a cause for emotional distress and turmoil…however, the substance abuse is not caused by domestic violence. Substances are used as the coping tool because youth don’t know how else they might be able to cope.

And this is where I realize my years of youthful madness can be used for positive things. When I started using ART as my coping tool the magic of tough stuff revealed itself to me. Of course, it’s tough. Of course, it’s confusing and painful. Of course, you feel like a baby sea turtle running desperately for the ocean.

ART gives you eyes! Rather, it allows you to adjust your lenses and focus your line of sight in whatever way your insides command. It requires honesty, doubt, questions, mirrors, darkness, light and answers…or the acknowledgement that there is an answer. I guess most of the time, just knowing there’s actually a way to find the answers (that are indeed out there somewhere) can give you more peace of mind and hope than anything else in the world.

I’m glad I was able to help the children I worked with let their hunger for answers grow. I’m happy I was able to help them find hope for the answers that are sure to come.

And so…at the end of this time in the Kingdom of Bhutan I find I can only do what I enjoy doing most.


I travelled here to share worlds.
I travelled here with respect and care for our world’s youth.
I travelled here to ‘keep hope alive’.

I cannot say precisely how I helped (only those who feel I did could say). I cannot say what hope I helped keep alive.
I can only say that within myself I have found hope I never knew existed. HOPE lives in the questions…and it lives in the possibility of an answer. HOPE lives and breathes in the voices and smiles of the children I had the incredible honor of knowing.

As always…there is more to come.

I send all of you my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Neighborhood Watch

...the second (and final) beautiful situation of the last two months, born out of the personal grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust Fund that made it possible for me to spend this time in Bhutan... time here is moving rapidly, i can't say when it will end...if it will every truly and completely end (i have a feeling it won't ever). i'm not usually easily proud but i am proud to have done what i said i would do. bends and turns in the road were a plenty (which is appropriate for this remote himalayan land). i have been opened in ways that led me to feel absolutely uncomfortable. i have been opened in ways that led me to feel absolutely invincible and courageous. i have been closed in ways that helped me understand what is necessary to survive and grow. i have been closed in ways that helped me understand the implications of comfort and perspectives. i have fallen and i have risen. all these things, i'm sure i will revisit for you all at a later date...for now, the most important thing to mention is pulled directly from the last line of the proposal i submitted to receive funding to travel to Bhutan:

"it is a bhuddist belief that 'if you are able to touch one thing with deep reverance and awareness, you have touched everything'."

that was my hope...i knew that if i was able to do that, every minute of my time in Bhutan, this journey would be everything i hoped it would be. for myself and more imporantly for the children.

and so...i will tell you all about the final project of the year i have spent in Bhutan.


On August 21, 2010 250+ youth from Changjiji hosted Thimphu’s first ever projection based international public art exhibition. The exhibition is called Neighborhood Watch. 11 cities simultaneously hosted the exhibition and showcased work from 13 different cities across the globe. Youth from Changjiji built a river of questions down the middle of the open air amphitheater and played an active and crucial role in engaging the community in the exhibition.

Children from the ASPIRE after school camp gathered at the amphitheater in Changjiji (which has only been used once for a community event since it was inaugurated three years ago) at 2:00 p.m. on August 21st. They carried two stones each from the river that flows through Changjiji, throwing them down on the ground when they reached the amphitheater. Poster board in one hand, crayons in the other, the children were ready to pose their questions. These children observed and helped with the entire set up process of Neighborhood Watch. As things usually occur in Bhutan, the tiny details are the more difficult ones to take care of. In the case of Neighborhood Watch, we were in serious need of electricity and overlooked the fact that electricity is not as easy to come by in Bhutan as it is in other places. And so, with the combined effort of many lovely lovely folks, we were able to wire some electricity together from a few different sources and the show was powered! The children watched every step and when night fell, we switched a huge light on their river of questions, lighting its course. Moments later, (after some very funny power outages and a smoking projector) eight projectors illuminated the walls of the buildings surrounding the amphitheater. As the children walked around looking at the images, their faces filled with curiosity. They were simultaneously fascinated by the projections themselves (light on walls coming from a machine) and the images that were being projected. They danced in front of the images, stood as beautiful canvas in the light of the projectors as the images streamed on them. Other visitors stopped and watched intently, waiting for something (I could never say what exactly). Dancing broke out, simultaneous song and the endless sound of CONVERSATION filled the air until 9:00 p.m.

That night (among some other close runnersup) was the closest I have ever come to TRUTH AND BEAUTY in my life.

Some Neighborhood Watch factNESS:

The method of the exhibition functions to challenge ideas of public and private space, how interaction can occur and exist in both, as well as how to address the barriers that are created by private spaces. Artists in the Neighborhood Watch Collective are called upon to create art work that is a reflection of their time and place. Essentially, the work aims to reflect life. As it is projected in public space, the artists are sharing their lives productively with others around the world.
Neighborhood Watch utilizes a unique method to carry out its mission. This is a completely community driven public art installation. Digital images of art work are projected onto the exterior walls of homes and three dimensional work (sculpture) is installed in the yards of homes. Everyone (the public, the artists and all inhabitants of the city and environment) is invited to watch and talk as they take a walk amongst the art work. The project hopes to spark conversations, questions, ideas and perspectives that can be shared through an interactive process. It is Neighborhood Watch’s hope that such an exhibition allows the community to interact with one another and share in an experience and a learning process, positively and productively.

Neighborhood Watch:A Projection Walk hoped to serve as a bridge over which societies across the world could participate in a true artistic exchange-a genuine exchange of the human soul. Participation, interaction, involvement and exchange of ideas were all made possible through participation from ASPIRE participants along with the Changjiji Community.

artists from the following cities partipated (8 of the cities held the exhibition simultaneously on August 21):

el paso, texas-USA
tampa, florida-USA
lubbock, texas-USA
austin, texas-USa
san antonio, texas-USA
victoria, texas-USA
san fransisco, california-USA
seattle, washington-USA


i am most excited to always...there is more to come

i send my warmest greetings from the EVER LOVELY Kingdom of Bhutan!
(all rights to photos are reserved by the Neighborhood Watch Collective and those artists responsible for the work. thank you for respecting this initiative's enthusiasm to share these photos with you for your viewing pleasure)

Monday, August 30, 2010

up where we belong...

Dusty red rooftops form patchwork where green paddy fields once lived. Friends of mine have recounted the way the area used to look some time ago. From what I gather, it must have floated on the surface of the earth, the way most of Paro seems to do. When I think of what the area used to be, I imagine the wind blowing making those incredible ripples and waves in oceans of paddy field, melting and morphing ever shade of green that lives in them. These are images I keep in my mind from short trips taken to Paro. These are images I see in my dreams. These are images that echo between the dusty red rooftops as I walk through the Changjiji Housing Complex.

When I hear stories of what Changjiji used to be I can’t ignore this strange sense of loss resonating in my chest. The peace and simplicity that used to live in Changjiji has disappeared. The housing complex has taken over the entire area. Block number 52 sits ten feet away from block number 53. Today, within those ten feet it is common to find youngsters hiding, carrying out any one of many different activities, the least severe of which would be smoking cigarettes.

While there are some obvious measures that could be taken in order to fix the “youth problem” as some may refer to it, there’s a not-so-obvious route being taken in Changjiji these days. Inspiring youth to crave the ability to reason and understand the world they are living in could possibly turn the “youth problem” flat on its back. Youngsters have to be encouraged to reflect on their world in healthy ways and to react to their world through positive means. The “ASPIRE” after school camp for critical thinking, creativity and expression hopes to teach them how they might be able to do that.

"ASPIRE" was born out of a desire to help the youth in the Changjiji Housing Complex through extra-curricular education, diverse exposure and positive use of time. Its approach is systematic, its reach is extensive and it's aims are heartfelt. Essentially, this camp was born out of hope. Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning.

The youth in Changjiji are suffering. They are not necessarily “bad”, they are simply swimming in this new (red roof top) ocean without any navigation system. It's difficult to say how things got so difficult for them in this particular neighborhood in Bhutan. These types of situations are usually the product of so many things; things that are usually left kindling in the heat of many tiny untouchable things. These things, after some time spent kindling, burst into flames and the fire grows. Perhaps I'm being too dramatic. I am not referring to a forest fire just yet...the situation in Changjiji is more like an out of control cooking fire. As for the children, they are in the cooking pot. As for the cooking pot, it' boiling over.
"Madame, I don't like my father. He is drunk always...he beats and sleeps. I cannot stay there."

"Madame, I have to fight. We all do. We get to show our fighting styles and show who is boss."

"Madame, kids go to the bridge to date but they have more than one boyfriend. They are having affairs."

"We make gang to protect ourselves. if someone comes we slice them"...when asked if they feel bad because other people are frightened, they respond, "no Madame, they can join and also be protected"...when I ask what they are protecting themselves from, the response is "it's just like that."

"My friend's grab my arm and twist. It's just like that, Madame"...this said with penetrating and somehow gentle intensity in her eyes.
These are the stories the children of Changjiji have to tell.

"Broken homes" are common in the housing complex. Children can reenact domestic violence scenes as though they themselves were inebriated parents committing physically aggressive or abusive or emotionally abusive acts. There are 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan, where to find it and just how to use it. Those same boys are filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. Those same boys are likely to be convinced that gangs are their safe haven and the only people who can show them "compassion". The number of school drop outs has also increased and the effects of their influence on in school children is alarming. 14 year old girls have friends who have multiple sex partners. It is normal for these children to see fights. It is normal for them to be confused and be left with countless unanswered questions. It is normal for them to feel afraid. Suffering, in all its varied manifestations is normal.

This is compassion gone wrong. This is defense systems smashing crashing themselves into offense systems. This is unrest in the peaceful kingdom. This is suffering in the land of happiness. This is a generational gap taking its casualties. This is fear unbridled. This is confusion exploding and imploding. This is misguidance and misunderstanding. This is not supposed to happen but it is happening.

In the face of all this, the children of Changjiji continue to smile. Their ability to keep smiling coupled with the absolute fact that these situations should not exist in Bhutan are the reason for the intiation of "ASPIRE".

At a time when the situation was almost irreversible, school teachers Sonam Palden and Kuenga Tenzin initiated Changjiji's first out of school camp in the summer of 2010. The "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope" was initiated by the counselors after systematic and careful observation and ground analysis of the youth situation in Changjiji. It was a ten day camp geared toward inspiring leadership, exposing the children to art and providing the community with hope. The camp was designed specifically for forty youth who were a part of the counseling system at Loselling M.S.S. Facilitator were chosen from diverse backgrounds, specialties and walks of life. Much to the camp facilitators' surprises, on the first day of the camp seventy bright youth stood in the common grounds of the school waiting to be registered. And so it began. The children were hungry for the opportunity. The children were ready for the opportunity.

The Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope was a huge success. One could say that the product of the children's week in camp was difficult to swallow. Paintings screamed with dark, dramatic lines and colors. Poems sang of their suffering. A newsletter revealed the issues, setbacks and hardships of the Changjiji Housing Complex. Difficulty swallowing such displays is to be expected, but ignoring such displays is unacceptable.

It was obvious that the initiative had only just begun to see its potential. A (some might have said ambitious and impossible) proposal was drafted for a follow up initiative that would use a similar framework and systematic approach. As they usually do in Bhutan, the stars aligned and the United Nations Volunteer Fund, The Bhutan Olympic Committee and other private sponsors made it possible to carry out the extensive two month after school camp for creativity, critical thinking and expression.

The youth situation (I will now refer to it as a “situation” because I always stay away from the idea of any youth being a "problem") in Bhutan, is far from simple. To find a solution to the issues that are boiling over in Changjiji is no small task. However, it can be said that the youth situation's seeds are in Changjiji. The negative aspects of life in Changjiji are pumping through the veins of Thimphu making Changjiji the epicenter of the problems youth are facing in today's Bhutan. According to counselors at Loselling M.S.S., the number of students abusing cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and other psychotropic substances has inexorably escalated. Frequent gang fights have resulted in injuries to the young children of Changjiji, while drug use is crippling their health, minds and spirits.
We couldn’t just ignore it. We couldn’t just push the issue aside with stern punishment. Youth should not be kicked out of school, nor should they be held in jail so long that it becomes impossible for them to return to school. While these are, perhaps, just punishments for some of the things youth in Bhutan are stumbling their way into, these punishments are in some ways, counter-productive. Attitudes have to be nourished, guided, and even changed in many cases. Quite simply, youngsters need help because they don’t understand what’s happening around them, whether it deals with their own selves, their families, their community , their country or their society.

"ASPIRE" was aimed at reaching out to the youth of Changjiji to stop this multi-faceted problem from its source, directly at its core. It can be said that substance abuse, gang fights and rebellious behavior are forms of crying out, acts of sheer boredom or acts of frustration and anger. The youth of Bhutan are craving individuality and a means by which to express themselves and this camp was designed specifically to cater to their hunger. Ten facilitators and mentors serve as the gears of this huge machine. They have all volunteered their participation driven by a sincere belief in the absolute necessity of this new initiative.

“I could have the worst day ever. I could be feeling so low, but at the end of the day, after I’ve spent that time there I remember why I’m alive,” says Tenzin Namgyel, an ‘all-around’ volunteer who is contributing his experience and time to an initiative of this nature for the first time in his life.

All of the facilitators and volunteers contributing to ASPIRE hail from different walks of life. They all have different talents. They are all what one might describe as "different". From musicians to rugby coaches, visual artists to life skills experts, athletic coaches to writers and all the way through to street and theater performers-this is the fabric of the courses the children are offered during the course of ASPIRE.

“The camp that is being conducted at Changjiji is the sort of camp that should be conducted in every school in Bhutan. This camp is building a foundation and it’s the right way to go about things. Instead of telling them to do this or that, it’s helping to show them how they can decide what to do and how to do it best and as individuals,” Tshering Wangdi reflects as he remembers the first week of the camp he observed in mid-August.

The camp was meant to supplement the education youth receive during school hours with alternative education that could teach them how to use their time positively and constructively. The camp starts everyday with classes in five different sports activities made possible by the Bhutan Olympic committee. The children are split into groups and participate in basketball, football, rugby, athletics or taikwando. ASPIRE’s core curriculum offers classes in visual art, creative writing, forum theater, music, life skills and Driglam Namzha. To supplement their weekly lessons, campers are also taken on cultural field trips during the weekends. These field trips are intended to utilize their free time and remind them of the culture they must keep intact as they move their country forward.

Substance abuse is a major issue in the youth of Bhutan and is a major tangible target issue this camp would like to resolve. Substances are used as substitutes for boredom, quick fixes for emotional turmoil and as forms of stimulation. There isn't anything wrong with feeling bored. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with being confused or feeling sad or angry. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with craving some sort of stimulation either. Every human does! These things become a problem when they are evident in youth as young as 12 years old-youth who don't have the capacity or the facilities to process those feelings and react to them positively.

“It’s the ‘boredom in the kingdom syndrome, that no one does anything about”, says Jurmi Chhowing, creative writing facilitator.

ASPIRE is hoping to nurture that capacity and provide them with those facilities. Without these two essential things, youth will likely have a difficult time leading the future of their country. Youth must be given a guided opportunity to create the evolution of their culture. To create the evolution of the times they have been given.

There's not a doubt about it. The times they are facing are beyond our (I'm talking about us old folks) comprehension. Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in moving their culture, traditions and progress respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

Art, in its innumerable forms, is a language that all humans can use to communicate. It moves across and defies racial, social, educational, and economic barriers and enhances cultural appreciation and awareness. If Bhutan’s culture and tradition is to continue to survive and flourish its youth must understand and accept their roles as guardians of the country’s future. They must discover the power art has in fulfilling that role. In order to effectively serve as those guardians, youth must have an understanding of how they might advance and contribute to the country’s future. In order to effectively contribute to their future and realize the lives they wish to carry out, youth must be able to effectively communicate and express themselves. They must be able to think critically. Youth must be aware of and embrace every communicative and expressive tool that is available to them as they carry Bhutan’s future forward. They must take advantage of their expressive tools and utilize them to affect positive changes in their lives.

Youth must be encouraged to think critically and creatively in order to find effective solutions for such complex problems. Without an ability to analyze and dissect themselves and their environment, the youth of Bhutan will continue to face hardship and suffering as they search for meaning in their lives.
Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in society. Older generations can call upon the youth of Bhutan to move their culture and traditions respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

The children of Changjiji continue to smile. Those very smiles should never be ignored. Those very smiles are hope personified.

Those very smiles are a living breathing testament to the power the youth of Bhutan have and the potential they carry within them to ASPIRE to be anything and everything they may ever wish to be.

(this blog will be published in DRUKPA magazine, Bhutan's first ever monthly news magazine. if you are in Bhutan i certainly hope you will subscribe. if you are not in Bhutan i recommend you visit DRUKPA's website: )

as always...there is more to come...

i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"there are no children here"

I've spent these last few days in Changjiji. The Tarayana Foundation has kindly sponsored the "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope" in Changjiji. It is Changjiji's first out of school camp and it couldn’t come at a better time. Changjiji is suffering.

During our daily one hour sessions, each group of camp participants shares their stories with me. They are all between the ages of 12 and 19.

"Madame, I don't like my father. He is drunk always...he beats and sleeps. I cannot stay there."

"Madame, I have to fight. We all do. We get to show our fighting styles and show who is boss."

"Madame, kids go to the bridge to date but they have more than one boyfriend. They are having affairs."

"We make gang to protect ourselves. if someone comes we slice them"...when asked if they feel bad because other people are frightened, they respond, "no Madame, they can join and also be protected"...when I ask what they are protecting themselves from, the response is "it's just like that."

"My friend's grab my arm and twist. It's just like that, Madame"...this said with penetrating and somehow gentle intensity in her eyes.

"Yes madame! I went roaming up up up and thats where I had first N10 [a drug]. My head was like this after [moving his small fingers in circles with an innocent smile]."

"Drugs make everything fine. When parents beat or friends beat or parents divorce...its just like that."

"If older boy says, I have to do, madame."

"Too scared to walk at night alone, Madame. They will rag [steal] on me. If I don't give they'll beat and maybe stab."

"Madame, you cannot call the police. They will not come and when they come it's late. They are afraid of the bosses."

"Madame! Last year I left home for six months tour of Bhutan, didn't inform my parents. Went for tour of all Bhutan!" When asked if he saw everything he needed to see, his response was..."no Madame, I like to see other places. Much nicer than here and parents will only scold and beat for one day. I was gone six months."

A 13 year old boy looks at me and says "Madame, I'll tell you one story. A man didn’t give me 5 rupees for the bus to go to the emergency room. I got my friends and took 500 from him. I just reached like this into his box and took. This is for revenge. I have to show I'm boss.” When I explained that a simple act of unkindness or perhaps greed, or maybe flat out poverty led him to respond in a way that was at least 100 times worse than what this man did, the boy explains, "If I need he should give."

This is compassion gone wrong. This is defense systems smashing crashing themselves into offense systems. This is unrest in the peaceful kingdom. This is suffering in the land of happiness. This is a generational gap taking its casualties. This is fear unbridled. This is confusion exploding and imploding. This is misguidance and misunderstanding. All of this is very sad.

I often ask myself, how did this happen? Is all this in us as humans? Is there no way to stop it because it is in fact our nature? Is it a fact of nature or is it the absence of proper nurturing? (Oh that age old debate between nature and nurture!)

These young humans are in no way weak. They are, indeed, very strong. Stronger than I can ever remember being when I was a girl. I could probably safely say they are also stronger than I can imagine being now as an older lady. 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan and just how to use it, those same boys filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. 13 year old girls whose friends have multiple sex partners. It is normal for them to see fights. It is normal for them to feel afraid. And still, they smile.

I know a few neighborhoods back home that have hints and pieces of such problems. and of course, there are certain large cities in the U.S. a lady like myself would not even dare driving through, much less walk. However, in Bhutan?

How did this happen in Bhutan?

Parents are not debilitated with fear, parents are not being stabbed by gang members, parents do not even like to admit their children are going through these things, much less taking part in such things. So this only makes me ask again, in a country where its youth are the priority how did this happen in Bhutan?

Amidst an infinite and very complex web of causes and effects I manage to pull something from the sticky strings. That is, the idea of little humans growing up to be products of their environment.

Now, when I observe and question whether these little humans are a product of their environment I cannot ignore the voice in my head telling me this is one of the reasons for the problem. It is never completely a child's fault when they wind up behaving badly. There are so many factors that contribute to the LOSS OF VALUES that has led them to behave badly. This only leads me to ask how BHUTAN is home to such an environment. It's important to keep in mind that when I use the word 'environment' I am referring to an untouchable thing. I am referring to the workings of a machine that is, obviously, beyond control. I am referring to images and ideas about a world that is only seen on a screen. I am referring to mothers and fathers who are products of their own environments and are perpetuating this new environment. I am referring to the real and honest concern and attention that is missing in the broader realm of what these children are exposed to.

In a land where prayer flags flap in the wind everywhere, where mountains foster peace on their peaks…in a land where spiritual connections are living, breathing, walking beings...where the King plays soccer barefoot with boys from rural villages…how did this happen in a land like this? Has this happened because this new environment (the outside one) came too fast? Has this happened because the two environments that merged together didn't actually merge...they CRASHED. Though this country's development model in its great wisdom is designed to avoid the mistakes other developing and developed countries have made, something isn't working. Perhaps, it’s better to say something malfunctioned. Perhaps I am too close to the matter. Perhaps, the tremendous love I have for this country has made me worry too much. Be it as it may, these problems that might seem normal in other places, are especially heartbreaking to find here. Of course, I've always been a bit too sensitive and perhaps I'm speaking too soon.
Perhaps. But then again, Bhutan is small. There are stabbings nearly every week. Children are ‘roaming’ and hiding in friends' houses instead of going home. 12 year old girls speak of their promiscuous friends. At least half a city is abusing or has abused substances by the age of 15 (please do forgive me if this is inaccurate, but the children and I made an educated guess). Alcoholism is present in adults and youth.

Something has malfunctioned.

I could not say what it is that has malfunctioned. I even hesitate to write these things about Bhutan because I am not from this beautiful place and no given number of hours spent with youth could ever allow me to fully understand the scope of this situation. However, I have to share what I have seen and what the youth I have worked with have shared with me. I've always been one for honesty. The children deserve honesty. They deserve honesty because if that's absent, things will never be better for them.

Now, it must be made clear that Bhutan's most precarious youth situation lives in Changjiji. It is for that reason that this summer camp was organized there. Sonam Pelden is a counselor at Loselling Middle Secondary School and was instrumental in designing this camp. In her mighty wisdom and because of her admirable concern and dedication, she decided that something had to be done for these youngsters during their summer break. The situation is such that it is, in fact, possible that occupying their idle time like this, could avoid one more fight in Changjiji…could avoid one more stabbing in Changjiji...could avoid one more youngster starting a drug habit. Originally, the participants in the summer camp included 40 students who were nominated by the two school counselors from Loselling Middle Secondary School. These forty children were selected because they were more 'at risk' than the rest of the students. They are believed to be the MOST 'at risk' in-school youngsters in Changjiji. Unfortunately, most of these youngsters didn't turn up. 67 other youngsters, however, did turn up!! Of course, this has made the camp a bit more challenging for the volunteers who are guiding the workshops, but we probably all agree, we couldn't be more excited!

A young girl asked me today, "Madame, why do you like Bhutan?" I thought for a moment and replied "Bhutan gives me hope."

She smiled and continued questioning me curiously, "But why Madame? You are from America. That's the best place!" I answered, "Oh my dear, America has many many problems...we've just practiced hiding them for a long time. In Bhutan, there are no secrets. If I keep my eyes open I see so many things here. My country will never fix things because we are not always honest. People would rather close their eyes. In Bhutan, everything is very honest [whether purposely or accidently] there's hope to fix it because it cannot be hidden."

She smiled and I only hope she understood. At the very least, I know she was proud to be part of hope.

Thinking back to the things these youngsters have said to me in the last few days, I can only imagine what the selected students might have to say. My heart tightens when I think of what they might have said. My heart tightens when I wonder what they might be doing instead of attending the summer camp.

It’s unfortunate that they aren't part of the beautiful things that have been happened in the last four days. To effectively and thoroughly understand the stories we're trying to tell in our 'forum-theater' based performances the little humans and I have been systematically breaking down issues of substance abuse, violence, "affairs", crime, and sanitation. All of these issues are boiling over in Changjiji.

Our analysis method is simple. We start with one sentence that identifies the problem. 1) "Substance abuse is an increasing problem among youth in Changjiji." 2) "Changjiji is no longer safe due to an increase in violent incidents." 3) "Youth in Changjiji are increasingly having intimate affairs with multiple partners." 4) "Crime and fear are growing together making Changjiji a dangerous place to live." 5) "Poor sanitation is leading to low health standards and living standards in Changjiji."

After identifying the problem in one sentence, we identify the causes and effects of the problem together. I ask the youngsters questions and they also ask me questions. At this point, the chalkboard goes white with scribbled thoughts. Arrows shoot from one side of the board to the other showing us how EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and problems NEVER simply exist. They are always a product of many tiny details compounded together.

After breaking down the drug problem, one youngster pointed at the right side of the board and moved his hand to the left. He said "Madame, if the government stopped drugs in Phuentsholing [Bhutan's biggest border city and the port through which nearly all goods enter Bhutan] they would never reach Thimphu. There would be no drugs?"

I smile. This camp is indeed a “Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope.”

The youngsters are full of wisdom and insight. They know what is happening they just don't always understand it. They FEEL the effects of what could (most) simply be described as "tick tock KABOOM" they just don't always understand how to make those effects postivie…because they're only children.

The last two days of the workshop ended with 72 children singing "Blowing in the Wind" (a song by the American musician Bob Dylan) in unison. The group, made up of gang members, drug users, victims of domestic violence and more fortunate and innocent youth, sang louder as the chorus came. "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind...the answer is blowing in the wind."

I explained before we started learning "Blowin' in the Wind" that Bob Dylan changed the world of music. He sang songs of beauty to respond to an ugly war-one of the most violent and unnecessary war's the U.S. has ever been a part of. Rather than responding with anger and violence he sang beauty and the world heard him. I explained that when Dylan was interviewed about his music, reporters would ask, "Are you writing protest songs? Are you writing songs about the war?" and Dylan's response was always, "Na man...I just write about what I see."

I explained that Dylan simply told the truth. As his eyes saw it he sang it. He simply sang reality. The youngsters looked at me and nodded that hard and certain nod they rarely use.

As I looked at their faces it rang in my ears...the title of a book by Alex Kotlowitz I read long ago:
"There Are No Children Here."

But there are children here. They are children.


as always...there is more to come.

i send greetings from the ever-lovely Kingdom of Bhutan.