Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Key to Impressive Stuff

April 9

From generating electricity by playing soccer to creating a farm in a school to collect rainwater and increase agriculture productivity, from solar-powered lanterns in Kashmir to using better architecture to improve health outcomes in Bolivia – the Clinton Global Initiative-University (CGI-U) is one of the most inspiring and wide network of young, passionate people. Look at to find out more about the cool projects going on all over the world, designed and led by individuals as young as college freshmen!

When I filled out the extremely long volunteer application, I didn’t think too much about how awesome the event was going to be. And my pleasure at being part of the photo/video committee was short-lived because right after that I saw I was signed up for 8 hours on Friday and 12 hours on Saturday. Like come on, I’m a grad student. I have 15-page papers to write about important social issues with minimum solvability and practicum and laundry!
And prospects continued to look dismal – I had to buy khaki pants, I bought a pair that was too big, and the volunteer shirt was not exactly really stylish either – and it was all men’s sizes! Come on, aren’t you developed countries supposed to be all about female empowerment? Make guys wear shirts that don’t fit them!

BUT then Friday rolled by and I got my special volunteer card – as a photographer I got special credentials that actually had my name on it! (And when I use these exclamation marks I am not being sarcastic. I was quite excited about having my name and CGI-U photographer on the card!).
It started off with little joys, like free lunch, and beautiful weather, and a cool job assignment (taking photographs of participants with the ‘commitment’ board. Everybody smiled with teeth! That’s how I could tell they were really excited to be there). And then I got to hear Bill Clinton for the first time (at least that I can remember) and live! The theme that echoed again and again at the conference: you need passion to succeed.  

It might be a cliché but then you hear it from people who have accomplished things as diverse as a nonprofit in Afghanistan that is educating young girls to Twitter that has some hundred million users and they all have one thing in common: a dream and the belief that they can make the dream come true. And just like that, the cliché becomes a living reality sitting in a suit – or a trim skirt – on a stage in front of hundreds of kids waiting for inspiration. And for someone to tell them that yeah, sometimes having passion is really all that you need.

It was really a great weekend for the event. Our campus was lovely, with trees blooming tiny white and large pale pink flowers – crabapple and magnolia. The sun was out, the jackets were off and Frisbees and soccer balls being tossed around. There were young kids in groups, stepping out of their comfort zones, talking to people from across the country and others who had flown in from Greece and Israel and Turkey. As a social work student, I’m not really a stranger to people with determined desires to change the world and make a difference. But this was extra cool because there wasn’t just talk about self-awareness sessions and lobbying and social justice. These kids had awesome ideas on how to reform agriculture and conserve the environment, ways to use technology to link demands in the developing world to demands here in the US and create symbiotic relationships; there were plans to educate girls in a country thousands of miles away and to empower women by teaching them how to start their own business, there were solar-powered cookers for an orphanage in Nepal and nutrition-interventions in Cambodia. Just a plethora of innovative ways to make this world a better place!

It was also such a great change to be surrounded by optimism. Like the founder of SOLA (School of Leadership-Afghanistan) said: “I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I wasn’t an optimist.” And the energy was contagious, and this positive energy is a great start. If we get depressed about the horror and starvation and sadness in the world, we won’t really be able to do much. And sitting around moping and being a cynic is definitely not the way to change lives!

Other than the general positive vibe, there were definite other perks of volunteering: a picture (of all volunteers) with Bill and Chelsea Clinton, seeing cute secret service guy several times, hearing business and social entrepreneurs talk, seeing Colbert live, and having Matthew Perry say hi to me. And he made that awkward Chandler face too as he walked by me, caught my eye and said, “hi..!” I said hi back, of course. *dramatic sigh*
Of course I might have preferred cute secret service guy saying hi to me but hey, I’ll take what I get! 
No regrets for that 20-hour weekend volunteering! 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Press Pause

March 8

I don’t know exactly when or how it happened. I can’t look back at a certain day or even remember what year it was. But somewhere, somehow, all the clocks of the world were wound up to run faster than before. The gods nudged the universe a little too hard, spurring the solar systems into overdrive. The sun rises faster and the stars spin into the light quicker, and so, time cartwheels away, always a few steps ahead of us.

I can distinctly remember the years when time would trudge slower than an old lady pushing a walker. The memory that always comes to mind is those months of summer holidays when it would be so hot we’d feel like our body was melting away (in Karachi) and the flowers would wilt and char under the relentless manic sun (in Lahore and Islamabad). I can hear the hum of the air conditioner, and I can remember the arguments over whether the ceiling fan helps in cooling the room faster or hampers the process. I can feel the lethargy that weighs down our bodies and I can see me and my cousins sprawled on the sofa in front of the TV, watching really bad music videos and complaining about the bad videos but still loving them.

I miss that. I miss having days laid out in front of me like a path of dry autumn leaves that I can hop and jump and crunch along, or like a lazy river that I can float along while the sun plays Pictionary on my eyelids. That luxury of time that allowed us deep breathing, star gazing, dreaming and falling in love with the wrong things.

And then some time around college, that thing with the clocks and the universe happened and ever since, I always feel like I am in a rush. Homework, family, friends, health, love – there are too many lists, post-its and planners and I feel like we get so overwhelmed in the business of everyday life we forget the meaning of it all.

There are things we do in life just as a means to something else – for example, laundry. Laundry is rarely an end in itself; we wash our clothes so we can have something nice to wear and possibly go somewhere. Or in the case of jobs, we generally, primarily do them to earn money and take care of our family, clean our homes so we can sit down in a nice-smelling area and hang out with friends or enjoy a cup of tea. What happens too frequently though is that we use up all our time in the means-part of our life and by the time we get done with the laundry or the job or the homework…its past 11:30 pm and we are too tired. And that sucks.

I have been trying to take time and pause, to think about how many hours I spend doing things I genuinely enjoy doing and those that can count as ends in themselves, and how many hours I spend in the mundane busy activities that don’t really mean much in the long run. It helps, I think, align my life and get some perspective.

Every now and then, things fall into place on their own accord, and through no conscious effort, I look up and realize I’m smack in the middle of a perfect moment. A few minutes ago that is exactly how I felt. I looked around myself and felt so grateful for our little home in St Louis, with its rickety chairs and flippant futon, the mismatched blankets we have draped all over the furniture to cover up raggedy spots, the student style decoration consisting of arts and crafts and yard-sale vases and posters, the fairy lights along the doorway, the fake flowers on the table. Everything is calm, and clean, and the citrusy candle burns warmly on the center of our $20 coffee table. And just for that little while, all the post-its fade, the micromanagement pauses. Just for that little while, I feel like the clocks have stopped speeding and I have a few minutes to just be.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Let It Snow

February 22

I admit, my preferences for weather have changed since I came to the US. If I wake up to an overcast sky and the sound of slow rain, my face doesn’t light up with a terrifyingly big smile. I do not feel the need to throw open my window (which in my case would require me using a brick to break the glass cause the window in my room isn’t really a window) and lift my face to the light cool breeze. The reaction is more whiny here. A melodramatic groaning and turning over in bed. My heart complains and my body cringes in the anticipation of the cold wetness that will envelop me as soon as I step out of the house.

One of the reasons I don’t like rain here is obvious: human nature is designed to appreciate rarities. A gray sky hanging low with clouds and cold rain felt good in a warm, humid city like Karachi or in the burning heat of Lahore because it would be a welcome, seldom break. Another reason of course was that I did not have to walk around everywhere and travel on the bus to get to work and school and grocery stores. Rain loses its charm when everyday life worms itself in and hangs over the brow like a stray hair you can only feel and not really touch. (Oh the days when a spring shower was the best excuse to miss class and drive to a café for coffee and cinnamon rolls, or the chottay walay samosas at Defence morr).

And not to be judgmental or anything, the rain here… lacks spunk. There are no intoxicating whirls of wet earth that dance in the air, singing of the soon-to-arrive storm, people don’t come out into the streets or on their terraces, there are no sweet mangoes to buy nor anyone to fry pakoras. St Louis gets the occasional crazy thunderstorms (the kind that make little children cry because it sounds like a giant keeps falling from the sky on to metal roofs) but too often it is a boring humdrum rain without the crash of drunk clouds clanging into each other, no lightning shows in the sky.

I considered myself an expert on rain. But snow. This white stuff that turns the world into a winter wonderland, silencing everything as it falls in slow, dreamy twirls, blanketing streets and branches and cars and roofs, this is still new to me. I am not one for cold weather but I am glad that this winter was an actual winter.

St Louis had a winter storm! Canadians would fall off their rocking chairs laughing if they saw our perception of a winter storm but it started around midday and continued with its “wintry mix” of snowflakes, polished little hail and rain, creating a mess on roads all over the city! Schools were closed for the day and offices shut down early, people were stuck on highways, and our stairs are still covered with snow that freezes over and then melts a little more every day when the sun is out, then turning into ice overnight.

Waking up the next day was amazing. The air was crisp and cold, the sun was out and the world was a shimmering pure white canvas – at least in the morning. Every breath felt like it was cleansing my lungs, and the crunch of snow underfoot was comparable to stepping over dry leaves in Fall. We made snow angels, took dutifully cute pictures lying in the snow in our backyard, and had divine hot chocolate two days in a row.

I love the idiosyncrasies of snowy days: random ugly little snow creatures that appear in front of houses – this large blue-button eyed snow-gnome next to our house, and then the giant magnificent dinosaur snow-ice sculpture in the street behind our house! The dinosaur even had teeth. The slipping and sliding, the stepping into slushy puddles of surprising depth, footsteps crisscrossing snowy backyards and front porches, random messages left on pristine embankments, spontaneous snowball fights, little kids stopping suddenly to plunge their tiny gloved hands into snow piled along the sidewalks.

I think I like it. Despite our treacherous stairs and the sidewalks that have turned into wintery obstacle courses and the fact that I have not been able to wear anything but big boots. Bring on another winter storm!