I want to begin this post with a thought for all of the people who are suffering in our world, namely the floods in Brazil and Australia, continued pain in Haiti, and the gruesome shooting in Arizona My heart breaks when I read about what’s happening, and it’s hard not to feel impotent and unable to relieve that suffering in my remote Kazakh town. However, I’m here of a conscious choice in the hope that I am doing the best I can with what I’ve got right now, and that it will propel me to do better in the future.
I’m under no illusion that what I just said is true, but it’s what I tell myself to get through these existential crisis’, because for now, I teach, run, read, and think. I was recently challenged to think about human rights, and how I would define them, and in the context of what’s happening in the world, I spent a week walking and thinking to myself. In the end, my thoughts are simple, I want to live in a world that respects the idea of human rights that you would tell to a child. I’ve read Marx, Smith, Kant, Mills, etc, but they are all to complex, too convoluted, too contradictory, and don’t envision a world I want to live in.
How would I define right and wrong when speaking to a child? Do you try to spell out complex theories of geopolitical politics, autonomy, and historical theory? No, because it’s too hard to justify to a child, and doesn’t really even make sense to us. In fact, what I heard as a child and hear most often told to children that is life isn’t fair, but maybe it will change. It’s not easy to spell out morality for children, because like physics, the most elegant and difficult theories are often the simplest. When I think about it, the kind of morality I want to teach to my students, and hopefully my children some day is the morality of being good to one another, treating each other with love, and trying to create a society that treats its citizens with love and as human beings. I want to live in a world that recognizes and promotes people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I want to do all that I can to bring that about.
Life. Right to protection from death, food, water, shelter, clothing, good healthcare.
Liberty. Freedom to do, think, act as one wants without substantial harm or infringement on the human rights of others.
Pursuit of Happiness. The opportunities for education, work, and enjoyment of one’s time on earth. Equality should prevail to the extent that it doesn’t infringe on others human rights.
I hear enough bullshit problematizing positive rights, and people trying to intellectually justify why they should be exempt from helping each other, but at the end of the day, I ask you, like I ask myself every day, what kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want your children to live in? More than that, what kind of world do you want your children to believe in? People use religion in many different ways for many different reasons, so I decided to read more about it. As I’m reading the Bible and Koran (albeit slowly), what’s struck me is the emphasis on love. People were rejected from the Kingdom of Heaven not just because of what they did, but because of what they didn’t do. Furthermore, that love for one another is the trump card, the be all end all, after which everything else should come. Not being religious myself, but still finding truth in these books the way that I find truth in Dostoyevsky, Jabbra, Marukami, and Marquez, I’m amazed that people can come away with anything less.
I don’t mean to rant again, but seriously, do we want to live in a world where people don’t have basic healthcare, and suffer when they don’t have to? How would you tell a child that someone should suffer when we have the resources to prevent it? Where high education costs and underfunded public schools retard growth and dreams? How would you justify to a child that some children deserve better schools, better education, and better opportunities simply because of what they were born into? How can you explain to a child why we fight wars to bring peace, or why we tell consenting adults that their love is unnatural, why people can easily access guns in the name of liberty, or why people can work day and night and still barely have enough to get by? I want to live in a world where human life is valued, but not just life as in a beating heart, but life as in seeing someone as a fellow being with desires, fears, and emotions. If you’re comfortable saying that life isn’t fair, then I ask you, what’s beyond that, will you continue to educate your children in nihilism? Or will you tell them that they can change the future? And if you ask them to change the future, why aren’t you changing the present?
On a lighter and stranger note, I had a moment the other day when I wondered if my crazy hippie parents weren’t on to something when they used to rave about violence in the media. My host-sister and I were watching Vampire Diaries and it occurred to me that it is socially and officially (rated for underage viewers) more acceptable to watch people rip out each others throats with their own teeth than to watch two people having sex, or even see a woman’s nipple. Whereas people have sex all the time, and it is in fact our very reason for existence, it is considered more harmful to watch sex than sadistic murder. I don’t get it. Stepping back from modernity for a moment, I’m afraid. Anyways, that’s what I’ve been pondering lately.
Today the fog rolled in bringing back the cold, but from Monday to Friday, Sergeyevka began to feel like Havana. A Southern breeze blew in the clouds and above zero temperatures, and suddenly I felt like I could dream again. I tried to intensify this emotion by listening the the Orishas and the Buena Vista Social Club, and in kind of worked. I could take deep breaths, enjoy the light breeze, and take my gloves off without immediately feeling my hands go numb. I needed this wonderful week, because after almost three weeks of bitter cold vacation/canceled school, I was going insane.
Vacation was anything but. Our modest two bedroom, one bathroom house quickly got crowded with six people, charcoal heating, and constant television. Every run I went on was an exercise in not getting frostbite, dodging wind patterns, and adjusting frozen facemasks. Food, conversations, and books became bland, and the days dragged on. I hate TV, seriously, I hate it with all my body, it sucks energy and life from a room at best, and inserts bile and irritability at worst.
Going to work on Monday was salvation; waking up early, walking underneath the morning stars, and teaching my students all made me feel alive again. Unfortunately, much of this life force was spent fighting with the school administration about my schedule. I tried to convince them that I was not over-worked, and that if I was going to teach a group of students, I wanted to teach all of their classes. The upside was that in the midst of our sparring and negotiating, I managed to sneak in third and fourth graders. Score. If there’s one there’s one thing in Siberia that gives me life, it’s teaching the younger kids, joy, snot, and love seem to radiate out of them, and it’s impossible to be in a bad mood after teaching.
Today I heard for the umpteenth time that my Kazakh sounded flawless compared to my Russian. Not good. I speak Russian every day, I studied Russian during training, and when I’m really bored, I even study Russian in my spare time. If I speak Kazakh once a week, that’s a lot, I barely studied it during training, and I sure as hell don’t study it in my free time. This is very depressing. Usually I pride myself in my ability to not completely f’up an accent, but I must be doing something seriously wrong, because I know I can’t be any good at Kazakh. The only explanation I can think of is that I’m speaking Russian with a Spanish accent because the languages are so similar. Because both languages are fighting for the same limited space in my brain, I have I growing dread that I am getting the worst of both worlds, I’m speaking Russian with a Spanish accent and I’m losing Spanish due to learning Russian.
Other than that though, life keeps rolling on, and running is infinitely improved by our heat wave. I felt it today for the first time since I changed my form; my gait smoothed out, my shoulders relaxed (new phenomenon), and my arms swung loosely at my sides. My legs felt like spring-loaded pistons, an entirely new set of wheels that propelled me along like nothing. Unfortunately, the learning and adapting process may have given me a stress fracture in my right foot, but I’m not sure. I’m going to beg my host-sister to film me though, because today I was stopped by a giant Russian who told me he thought my form looked funny.
It must have been the change in weather that made me feel gamey walking to school this on Thursday, and I contemplated taking my first sick day of the year. However, my seventh grade class rocked, and the first section of sixth grade was a the usual bro-fest that I love, so I got through alright. My head started to spin during eighth grade, so I decided to bean my students with chocolate. The idea wasn’t original, even though I thought so at the time, but it was therapeutic for all involved. Some part of my brain channeled Deb Smith, the wonderful and utterly unique professor who taught Sociology of Sex in college. She didn’t need us to pay attention, because for obvious reasons we were already captivated, but she made the lessons even better by screaming and throwing candy at us when she liked what we had to say. Anyways, the eight graders got chocolate, and it momentarily killed my queasiness.
Quick note on this class: I am captivated and impressed when the eighth grade boys hold court. Before and after every class they circle up and discuss what I assume to be the meaning of life in the modern world. There is a hierarchy to who sits or stands where in the circle, but no one is excluded from it and everyone seems to know their place. From the boys lounging near the center to the boys craning their necks on the outside, everyone is in the circle. They look to me like old men, hands in pockets, easing back against chairs, gesticulating solemnly. The thing is though, it isn’t fake, and there’s a sense of ease and comfort that spreads out from the circle. I’ve never seen it before, and probably won’t again, but I respect the culture I see them creating.
After chocolating the eight graders, my counterpart left school citing illness, so I was left to teach the last two classes on the first day that I was considering taking a sick day myself. The ridiculousness of the situation propelled me through the classes, but it was all I could do to walk home before melting into my bed. However, I did make my daily stop to converse with our old sheepdog that’s tied up by his doghouse in our driveway. I feel for the guy, and hopefully will be allowed to take him on runs, or at least walks soon. I’m afraid for his sanity though, so every time I pass him we have a quick chat and then I’m on my way and he remains at his post, forty-below no exception. It is not a dogs life in Kazakhstan.