Tuesday, May 22, 2018

India 2018

India 2018

I never dreamed I would go to Kolkata.  In March, the Principal and I took 18 juniors and seniors in high school to Kolkata, India, on the Children of Kolkata Interim.

Here are components of a reflection I wrote a week later.

So, what do I make of my time in Kolkata after being home a week now?  I’ve really not continued to process it as much as I hoped so this may serve that purpose.

OPENNESS: I found that I was able to open myself to others on a level that I hadn’t before.  A human to human level; perhaps even a level that acknowledges the Christ in another. Connecting to Sheela (a girl cared for by the Missionaries of Charity) and many of the other girls through touch, smiles, eye contact, and intention did that.  All pretenses that are put up automatically as a part of a developed world dropped away and all that was left was one human being with another and love.

LOVE: Love as something big and bright and all encompassing.  Love that doesn’t need anything tangible back but that connects and is resonant with another.  

CONNECTEDNESS: Connectedness with my fellow chaperone David and the students on the trip.  Connectedness with certain girls at Shanti-Dan and other volunteers: Donna and Josephina. Connectedness to the Khans: Mohin and Nazim. Connectedness with people on the street that we saw and passed by - just by smiling and giving real eye contact.  At the beginning of the trip I was so enamored with James Drake’s ability to connect to kids and adults alike - strangers- that almost instantly became friends. How did he do it? I learned that he simply opened himself to their humanity and that is all it took.

PERSPECTIVE:  It is good to know that the life I live isn’t the only way to live life.  Somehow this real life is less real that than life. Now that I have witnessed and felt what I have witnessed, felt and known, I can always return to that Truth or live in that Truth.  I only need choose to do so. Look each person in the eye and see the real him or her, the human beneath the pretense. Be real. Be seen. Be open. Be connected. Be.

First world living - Kolkata:  I wasn’t horrified by what I saw.  I didn’t feel sorry for people. I acknowledged their strife for day to day living and I know I can’t know (in this lifetime) what it is to be them, BUT I was actually impressed with the way the society is set up to support the poor, the sustainability already in place.  This is things like, un-fired pottery for cups, bags made out of old newspapers, street markets that needed no extra plastic, easily accessible (albeit gross) public toilets, public baths, and public water supply (pumps). Public transportation/transportation for rich and poor (bikes, walking, Uber, bus, tuk tuk, rickshaw, taxi (1953?)), burning your own trash, taking your recycling to a place, spices sold in jars, cloth sold for sewing, virtually no packaging to clutter things up.

First world life - to be poor - Kolkata:  This is certainly just by observation, right?  But homeless people slept on mats or cots or in their rickshaw on the side of the road, bathed, got water, food, toilet, all there.  People talked to each other and problem solved together. No cell-phones to separate them from their fellow human being. Those with no one might be “lucky enough” to be taken in my Missionaries of Charity.  There , while they own absolutely nothing, they are cared for. They receive a bed, food to eat, clothing to wear, medical attention, exercise, physical therapy, education (for the girls at Shanti-Dan). From volunteers like us they receive more attention, kindness, and love.  This is what it looks like to take money out of the system altogether and simply pay attention to the needs of others and how what you have can fulfill someone else’s need. Amazing. This is not to say that life isn’t hard, probably often lonely, perhaps hopeless for some. That I cannot say.

Mother Theresa’s tomb:  I want to give this a bit of attention as it is something that has stuck with me.  The place was surprisingly powerful. Truly powerful. The heartbeat of Kolkata, I called it.  There was an energy there that overwhelmed me. I can’t say that I identified it as Love, actually.  But it was Energy and it was Real. I wanted to cry, really. The kind of overwhelming, powerful emotion - crying - that comes to you when you’ve just learned someone you loved has died.  And you know that they are gone but still with you. Like that. A powerful presence was in that room where her tomb was. And it was not present for me in the chapel just one floor up. I shall not forget that.  I have encountered other sacred spaces - this definitely counts as one!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Cambodia in Spring

I highly recommend going on a mission trip.  I’ve just completed my second trip.  This time I spent Monday - Friday of Spring Break with a group of 22 people from Church of All Nations, Hong Kong, who were working in conjunction with an organization called CWEF.  We had the opportunity to sight see a tad bit, support organizations which empower former sex slaves and homeless men and then teach children at a school and integrate into their rural community.  

Things I never thought I would do but have done:  

  1. Eat fried scorpion.  The tail - to be exact.  It tasted earthy and more like dirt than anything.  (I’m sure you can figure out why.) Don’t need to do that again.
  2. Eat fried cricket.  Fried in oil and seasoned with salt - not too bad really.  Just don’t stare in their vacant eyes too much.  
  3. Un-thatch and re-thatch a chicken coop roof. I was part of a team of about 9 people, true.  But I never imagined I would do it.
  4. Teach 4 - 14 year-old Cambodian children animals in English.  Their school is basic - a play yard, cement building with one room for each of six grades.  No electricity.  Natural lighting.  Black board, teacher desk, student desk, posters on the wall.  The children had fun and were engaged in the 45 minute lessons. But they really loved play time jumping rope, making friendship bracelets, and playing soccer with the kids from Hong Kong.  At the end of their day it was lunch time.  Children walked or rode bikes home.
  5. Meet and talk with a family with no electricity or clean water source, but squatter latrine out back.  As far as I could tell, they had only a one-room home made out of wood and dirt floor.  Platforms to sleep on, sit on, work on, use as a table or anything else.  Babies and children didn’t appear to have any possessions or toys and weren’t giggling or playing rough.  Just shy and smiling with beautiful soul-light in their eyes.  Father said knowing Christ has brought him a sense of peace in his poverty. Chickens, cats, and roamed freely.
  6. Breathe dust and dirt.  So much dust from the dirt road going through the community.  Always dust in the air as cars and motorcycles bop by.  Road crew came by to water the road to help tamp down the dust, but somehow, it was back to atrocious the following day. That means everything you have gets dusty: floors, pots and pans, cooking surfaces, feet, hair, arms.  And with limited water source, people can stay dirty a long time. 
  7. Help make five gallons of dish soap from the chemicals and water needed to do so.
  8. Shave banana plant for pounding into a meal mixed with rice husks for the farm ducks.
  9. Love, love, love human beings from a place and society foreign to my experiences.

What’s the take away? 
Well, I realize that outsiders can be helpful in lifting a community up, but that there are likely good ways and bad ways to do it.  You want to give them what they need to lead a healthier life, but don’t go in trying to change their society.  Something like building a water filter that can clean gallons of water at a time, is made from community materials, and that the people are taught how to do it and the value of doing it - that works.  Bringing in a hundred plastic toothbrushes, maybe not.  Where do they throw them out when then are done, since they are not biodegradable and there’s not easy garbage disposal?  And what if they can’t get more when you are gone?
Societies are running for the most part in a way that is sustainable for THEM.  It may look very different from what I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not functioning.  

Long term relationships with a community and its people seem to be a good way to go, but again, don’t impose your views upon them and don’t make the community dependent upon your support.  CWEF supports the school we were at by hiring teachers.  But then they ask the students to contribute a very nominal amount of money to their education.  This way, CWEF can back out and move to another community, while the school can continue to run off of the tuition paid by the students and the investment in education that the community comes to value.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas 2017 greetings

December 2017

Dear Family and Friends,

May your Christmas and New Year be blessed.

The Braykos continue life in Hong Kong, now in our fourth year there and our eighth year abroad.  Adam is now a sophomore and 16.  Alec is 13 and in 8th grade.  Brenda continues teaching juniors and seniors English at 80%, working with Forensics and Theater clubs.  Brent continues as Associate Principal of Teaching and Learning and working on school accreditation teams.  We all travel with school events occasionally (more on that shortly).  Our dog Rigby, a fluffy rescue that resembles a bear, is now 8.  And our cat Jigs is 7.  Hong Kong has been good to us.  We love the beauty and quiet of the South side of Hong Kong island which resembles the French Riviera.  It’s just a half hour to get to the cityscape of Hong Kong, with its Time Square high end shopping and plethora of international restaurant choices and view of Victoria Harbor.

Travel this year took us hither and yon - Alec to Thailand, Brent to Morocco, Brenda to China, the whole family to Cancun, Mexico.  In the summer we headed back to the US where Adam went to Art Camp for the first time and worked with ceramics; Alec went to a more traditional camp with a friend from the Madison area, and we all spent a week in Minoqua at a lake cabin with Brent’s brothers and family.

The summer was busy with visits to family and friends, as usual.  We always count our blessings when we are welcomed home by loved ones.  This summer we knew it was time to reorganize our “stuff” which was stored in pods and loved ones basements.  We knew this would mean garage sales.  We didn’t know it would mean three garage sales and the purchase of a house in Green Bay!  But that is what happened.  When a house comes to you after seven years of living nomadic summers, you take it.  We closed on our three bedroom home near Lambeau field the end of September!  And we are in the process of moving in now as we are back in Wisconsin for the holidays.  The house is small and perfect for our needs.  It has been “like Christmas” opening boxes of our possessions that have been in storage for more than seven years.  Ah, memories!

Personal highlights includes the conclusion of Brenda’s “Year of Brenda” as she declared it - a time to reset her mental, spiritual, and physical Self for her next 50 years.  It was a phenomenal year of learning and growth.  Part of the growth took place at a three day Spiritual retreat at a retreat center in Hong Kong which both Brenda and Brent attended.  (I would recommend Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward for anyone wanting to explore their spirituality at a new level.)

Adam continues to embrace veganism, running, and the creative arts and has added writing short stories for public viewing to this list of achievements.  One of his stories online has surpassed 1300 views!  He also plays guitar.  By far, Adam’s biggest news is the furthering of his transition from female to male with top surgery, which took place just a few weeks ago in Madison, WI.  Recovery is going quite well but it will be months before we know the final results after healing.  After living through many ups and downs, Adam now finds himself counseling others through their own difficult paths.  We are proud of him.

Alec continues to enjoy gaming (especially Minecraft) and speaking in interesting accents (Russian, British, Aussie), but has also made clear strides in vocal music.  He has built confidence this past year, singing in the leadership team at church with his parents for example.  This has led to a fabulous debut at the recent choir concert singing in an acapella quartet (a Pentatonix song) and taking a lead role in the Christmas musical at church.  He also is taking a leadership role in the Pick the Lock club at school (a math-related club).  He is a level-headed young man who makes friends easily and knows how to maintain them.  We are proud of him.

Brent continues being a phenomenal leader at HKIS and is enjoying working with our new high school principal.  He works with a personal trainer to stay in shape.  He loves a good massage and good friends and food.  He keeps the family organized and is a great husband and father.

Christmas letters are good at providing the highlights of life (much like social media) and not so good at expressing the ups and downs that come with living the life of a human being.  But we’ve had our share of those too.  We welcome more intimate conversations with you anytime, those that invite not only smiles but tears as well.  

May you be well. May you be happy.  May you be peaceful.  May you be loved.

The Braykos

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Mother's Day Tributes

It's Mother's Day.  So, of course I think about the fact that I am a mother - for 13 years now.  I also think about my mother and the mother figures in my life.  I have been blessed to have women who are my elders wherever I have gone.  These women have guided me and shown me through their example what it is to be a woman.  They have modeled love, joy, grace, relationship, health, spirituality, and generosity.

Mom.  Love.  I was blessed with a mother who has and does model love.  Mom's love manifests as giving.  Giving often and much. Mom taught me to love words and learning.  She enjoys contributing to her community - for many years as a teacher and still a worker-bee behind the scenes of various organizations to keep them running smoothly.  She is a planner and a list-maker.  She taught me the satisfaction of checking things off a list. But she also taught me to love the Lord and believe in that which is greater than things of this earthly existence.  She modeled self-advocacy and gracefulness in the face of adversity.  In her later years she tenaciously has maintained a routine to keep her physical body as healthy as it can be, stubbornly keeping several ailments at bay.  She laughs easily, cares for those who are underdogs, outsiders, outcasts, or "other".  She has modeled life-long learning, in part persistently engaging with technology as a Facebook, email, and Skype user.

Joan. Strength.  In life and in dying Joan was strong.  A quiet woman and joyous in much of her quiet endeavors, my mother-in-law always welcomed me into the family and into her life.  She was widowed twice and found the courage to seek love a third time.  She loved and accepted love.  She allowed life to be what it was going to be, the good and bad, the mundane and the miraculous.  Her life taught me to believe in miracles.

Kathy. Relationship.  It was through Kathy's motherly presence I was able to transition from a high school student to an independent college student.  Kathy was a working woman in charge of hormonal 17 - 21 year-olds in the cafeteria dishroom. She showed me through example what it was to be a leader in the workplace and what respect between supervisor and worker looked like.  Kathy provided the adult presence I longed for as I was acclimating to this thing called adulthood.  For many years after, I would always seek Kathy out when I would return to alumni events on campus.  I was always greeted with a big smile and a hug, no matter how busy she was with the new crew of young 'uns.

Bonnie. Connection.  I considered her a bit of a parental figure in my early 20's.  It may surprise you to know that Bonnie and Joe owned a bar that I frequented "back in the day."  Joe and Bonnie were always present in their little bar whenever my crew arrived to play pool and have a drink.  She kept a keen eye on me to make sure I was safe and smart in my encounters with the guys in the group.  I knew she had my back.

Karen and Lisa.  Respect.  Karen and Lisa  were mentors and friends throughout my teaching career. We met when I was a new teacher and they were about 7-10 years in.  I thought they were so wise and had it all together! And they did.  I admired their professionalism, interactions with students, and creative minds. They were and are still rare gems demonstrating true collegiality. I learned from Karen and Lisa what it was to be a professional of integrity.  They treated "the newbie" with as much respect as the "old guard."  Soon enough both were a good friends, too.  In that capacity I was especially drawn to observing Karen in the role of wife and mother.  She shared openly her journey as a mother of three.  I admired her relationship with her husband which is open, loving, full of music and able to handle the trials life set in their way.  Now I continue to cherish these wonderful ladies' friendship and watch their journeys in retirement.

Carolyn. Fun-loving. Carolyn is one of those larger-than-life master teachers who every student knows and loves.  "Mrs. Brown's brownies" were legendary at the school where I spent 17 years of my career. Carolyn blew in on a breeze from "Hoffman" Estates and changed the entire culture at our school with her vision, presence and stories.  I still think about Carolyn's interactions with students when I think about who I want to be. Her energy, compassion, interest, understanding, and joyous presence is a great example.

Maureen.  Healthy. When I went overseas after over 20 years of teaching, I landed in Korea.  There I found an amazing colleague just finishing her career.  A Canadian abroad, Maureen and her husband brought "home" with them wherever they went.  They hosted Christmas caroling parties and happily took us on hikes.  Maureen's eating habits were entirely different from others I had seen from her generation. She introduced me to things like quinoa, chia and hemp seeds, steel cut oats, and homemade energy balls.  She hiked, worked out regularly and generally took amazing care of herself. Maureen provided an example of what a balanced life could be.

Patricia. Spiritual. I'd never met anyone quite like Patricia.  Still teaching elementary music at 70, she had a spiritual center and meditative practice that spoke to me.  Patricia led a meditative yoga class for women that I attended.  She then introduced me to teaching to North Korean refugee women in Seoul.  In every session she would honor and love the women through song, word, encouragement and prayer. Patricia has served as a spiritual teacher through her example.

Janet. Energy.  Perhaps I thought that aging meant slowing down.  Janet refutes such a perception through her example.  She's still teaching in her 70's, providing wisdom, clarity, and humor to the craft.  She also is an inspiration in her health habits.  Eating well and exercising, including working out several times a week with a trainer in Primal.  She shows me up most of the time but also provided the inspiration to get started in the first place.  If she can be that healthy so can I.

I honor the women who have shown me the way.  Who will you guide with your good example? Who will I have influenced as a teacher, mentor and guide?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fifty: A February reflection

"Year of Brenda" unfolding

Understanding . . .
the Dark and the Dark places
frequencies and the frequencies of Life
the power of Now and presence
honor, respect and Love one another in marriage
mental health and mental illness
nutrition and how food works
climate change

Being. . .
beautiful and adorning myself beautifully
strong and balanced

Knowing. . .
my Purpose
the truth of my Self
the truth of my God
the Truth, the Way, the Life
the Kingdom of God
the true Light
the Christ
the Word

Lessons from 1982

One of the lowest and transformative times of my life was the late summer and fall of 1982.  I had just spent the most amazing week in SanAntonio Texas at the Lutheran Youth Gathering with 16,000 young Christians and I had been on top of the world.  But as soon as I was finished with that amazing week, my family moved from a city in Wisconsin to our new community, a small town in Iowa - population 1600 - a place with two stop signs and no stop lights.  SMALL. And new.  And lonely.

It was the beginning of my sophomore year in high school.  I had left everything behind in Wisconsin - a strong group of girlfriends, a boyfriend, routines and customs and places that I knew intimately and loved dearly.  And I had arrived in new town where everyone knew everyone and had known everyone since birth. . . and no one knew me.  I was a novelty - a girl from "the city" and "the preacher's daughter".  I didn't know what maid-rites were or how to intone words the right way.  I had left a place where I had become known and respected for my academic achievements, my ability to sing, my laughter and joy, and my friendship and good counsel.  But here, no one knew me; I had no friends, no one to turn to me for counsel, no laughter, no joy, no desire to sing.

Going from the top to the bottom and back out of it again was tough.  Really tough.  But it shaped me in ways that I still value.

I discovered what it was to be an outsider and I gained compassion for outsiders.
To this day, I seek out those who are new and pour my heart into making them know they are welcomed.

I learned the desolation of loneliness but found my faith grew deeper in that place.
To this day, I know that no matter what the circumstance, I am loved by a Father God who carries me when I am unable to walk on my own.

I learned that to make friends I could reach out to others first and not wait for them to come to me.
To this day, I credit the courage and confidence that I have to those days of high school when I had to make new friends out of nothing at all.

I gained an understanding of my Self and my talents.  By having to start all over again with no reputation, I was able to discover that I COULD sing well, that I WAS a strong academic, that I DID love reading and writing and playing piano.  I DID believe in God.
To this day I still sing, learn, read, write, play and believe.

I learned to accept gifts from others.  It was hard being helpless - not knowing where something was, what the routine was, how to build a friendship, how to do the most basic of things.
But to this day, I realize that I can accept the graciousness of others, so I do not refuse what is offered.

I came to understand that distance does not mean anything but a physical separation; it doesn't have the power to sever the connection hearts make with one another.
To this day, I have maintained close friendships with people from high school, college, and several cities I have lived in over the years.  

I learned that wherever I go, I take family with me.
To this day, my parents and sister are a grounding force to me.

And I learned that sometimes life trials will hit me.  And they can hit hard.
But I get to decide how I will approach it: with fear or courage, despair or hope.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Wearing Fifty (a poem)

I've been wearing 50 for a week now.
It feels the same as 49
but not exactly.

Fifty+1 week is not
"Do I have more gray?" or
"Why does my body not work the way it used to."

It is more
"I have fewer years to live than I have lived" and
"What do I want my health to be 10 years from now" and
"Am I making the difference that I dreamed I would make?"

Fifty is
12000 steps a day
3x a week at Primal

wrestling with a kid's vegan lifestyle
Rehydrating chickpeas and making hummus every other day.
Learning what to do with winter melon.

checking on the physical and mental health of my children
counseling my husband on career possibilities
starting a Facebook conversation to activate an intervention for a friend
back home whose alcoholism is damaging her whole life

seeing a spiritual counselor for my soul and shoulder
reading Eckhart Tolle a second time to re-center on the Power of Now
writing a poem about fifty, because I like poetry and want to like 50
understanding my dad just that much more as he turned 80

trying to help a hurt street kitten,
and knowing the best thing for it is to be with its feral mom
seeing a college acquaintance in the semi-finals of Americas Got Talent
staying in touch with family through Skype on the weekends

worrying about climate change and pollution levels in Hong Kong
then reminding myself not to worry - stay PRESENT
valuing mindfulness

loving teaching "Where are you going? Where have you been?"
to seniors who get just as creeped out as I do by the story.

Finding Cat Street antique market on a family outing.
Living in freakin' Hong Kong!  How am I in Hong Kong?
That's so crazy!

Realizing that I don't have a clue what life will bring.