“The Case for Bad Coffee”

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Originally published here. I love this article and the memories it stirs of gas station coffee road trip breaks in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, instant coffee powder with my morning chai in India, styrofoam cups of Folgers at a community bake sale, and late night/early morning IHOP runs during a debate tournament. Bad coffee is about the moment and I’m glad this article celebrates it.

I don’t have memories of such bonding experiences taking place over a flat white at a Manhattan coffee shop or a $5 cup of nitro iced coffee at a Brooklyn cafe. High-end coffee doesn’t usually lend itself to such moments. Instead, it’s something to be fussed over and praised; you talk more about its origin and its roaster, its flavor notes and its brewing method than you talk to the person you’re enjoying it with. Bad coffee is the stuff you make a full pot of on the weekends just in case some friends stop by. It’s what you sip when you’re alone at the mechanic’s shop getting your oil change, thinking about where your life has taken you; what you nurse as you wait for a loved one to get through a tough surgery. It’s the Sanka you share with an elderly great aunt while listening to her tell stories you’ve heard a thousand times before. Bad coffee is there for you. It is bottomless. It is perfect.

Fate is funny

I found this while clearing out some old pictures on my phone. He got this fortune during a late night Chinese food run, back when we were only dreaming of traveling together.

 

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I am very excited about this post. Not only is this my first one from India…it is my 200th post on this little blog. Almost two years ago, I realized I was in a personal rut: lacking motivation, starved for creativity, and desperate for focus. Having never been a big blog person, I surprised myself when I started consistently following food blogs (because I was slowly learning how to cook) and then began branching out into blogs that were personal. I enjoyed reading others’ thoughts on life, hearing their stories, watching as their lives unfolded and even experiencing emotional parallels with them. Writing had always been a part of my life and while I wasn’t sure what stories I had to tell yet, I figured I would find out eventually and could have fun with a project along the way.

I didn’t think it would last (cleaning out my room before I left and throwing away handfuls of two-entry-deep diaries really hammered this home) and I am still trying to find my voice, an objective for my writing, some consistency to my posting, and grappling with the decision to invest more time into learning about photography and web design. Those things are important to me because I’ve found that I truly enjoy writing here….but am often unmotivated because I know that this is not a professional endeavor. As a personal hobby, I feel the liberty to come and go as I please, put this baby on the back-burner until I feel I have the time and energy to sit down and write. Writing and stories (both reading and telling) are a large part of my life, though, and I do intend on making it a consistent and ever-developing endeavor. I’m just not sure exactly how.

But for now–I am in India! My job comes first and I am already realizing that it will be more difficult to write than I previously thought (we are at school by 6:30 and leave school—hopefully—around 10:30). I guess I will have to work on the short-but-sweet posts and suppress the novel writer inside who wants to spend hours typing away into the night.

I arrived at Shanti Bhavan at 4:30 in the morning, after two egregiously long flights (10 hours to Frankfurt, 8 hours to Bangalore) and a two-hour car ride through rural India. I read, I watched movies, I slept (but not really), and did everything I could to calm my nerves. It wasn’t travel jitters. Flight jitters en route to a new destination for a trip are always eager anticipation. This was a more dangerous mixture of excitement and nervousness. I have never traveled to another country for work before, so on top of the typical nerves involved in moving someplace I have never been for a job different than any other I have ever had….I had 21 hours to think about it. Will I be a good teacher? Will I be a good leader? How will I adapt to a new country, a new environment?

For the first day and a half I felt like I was at camp: shacking up in a little room with unfamiliar furniture, letting myself get a little grimier than normal, constantly being surrounded by kids, starting my day with the sun and ending too close to midnight.

The kids were curious about me, but very shy. Except, of course, for the kindergarteners that immediately held my hand and knelt down to touch my toes because they were painted. At dinner the music alternated between Hindi songs and American top 40 tunes. One little boy—who told me to call him Peanut Butter—said his favorite song was Payphone by Maroon 5 and requested that I sing it. The 10th grade girls and I discussed our favorite Disney princesses and they told me they want to watch She’s The Man for Saturday movie night. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is obsessed with Despicable Me minions.

The second day, however, I was harshly reminded that I was in India. We drove into one of the nearby villages—a trip they take with every new teacher (they don’t use the word ‘foreigner’ at the school, believing that it creates boundaries) who comes to the school so that they can see where the children are coming from—and I couldn’t believe that the kids I laughed with, the kids who were so happy, loquacious, loved Disney movies, and knew all of the words to the songs I listened to at home, had been born here. Some homes were nicer–colored walls, floors, and doors. Some were only concrete and scrap.

All eyes were unabashedly on me. One woman followed as we walked, her spine so contorted the top of her head reached just my elbow. Even if she could stand to my height and meet my gaze, her eyes were milky white with cataracts. I had never been so self-conscious. About everything. My skin, my clothes, my nails, my watch. We walked around briefly, either ignored or gawked at by the villagers. Even as we left, they stood and watched. Maybe they were laughing at us—hoity foreigners in Indian clothing. Maybe they were curious. Maybe—and most likely—they could care less. We weren’t the first ones to drive though and we wouldn’t be the last.

Driving away, gripping the dusty seat of the jeep as we bounced, I wondered how the kids must feel when they go home. Are they ever excited? Do they miss their parents when at school? What must it be like to, after a certain age, surpass the intellectual capacity of everyone around you? Is there resentment from their siblings who cannot attend Shanti Bhavan?

The magnitude of their daily routines—announcing the news to the entire school, selecting topics of their choices and giving speeches and debates, practicing piano, guitar, and drums—didn’t hit me until I saw the village. I didn’t realize how miraculous it was that the pre-schoolers were so talkative until I learned that six weeks earlier they didn’t know a single word of English. I saw the school, with its clean facilities and technological capabilities, in a completely different light.

Later that evening, the school’s founder—Dr. George—actually addressed what I had been thinking about earlier. He talked about the choices the children have to make every time they return home, to places where the values that are instilled in them at school might not exist. They have to choose who they are and how they relate to their parents and siblings. Dr. George was so honest with them that I was a bit taken aback. They can’t watch movies where people kiss, but he is honest with them about things like alcoholism, domestic abuse, child marriage, and poverty. Not that he needed to sugarcoat it—many have already experienced these things. One girl—a graduate of Shanti Bhavan—has plans to write a book about her life, her truth.

A little over a year ago, for my 100th post, I was in Northfield, Minnesota listening to people’s stories and marveling at how people can surprise you if you listen. Now I am in India, constantly bombarded by stories (the kids never stop talking). They are my favorite things about this place so far and some of them have difficult stories to tell. I thought about what Dr. George said to me at lunch yesterday, that their goal is to break the children out of the poverty cycle, but that their ultimate goal is not to produce virtueless brianiacs.

“We may not make Einsteins, but the children are good human beings.”

Einsteins or not, it has only been a week, and I know I am going to learn a lot from them.

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To Texas (and thoughts on transitions)

To re-cap our roadtrip: two individuals with wildly different musical preferences (I’m a broadway baby and he’s a bluegrass boy) crossed the smokey mountains, survived a flash-flood in Nashville (and celebrated by eating delicious pancakes with this lovely lady), breezed through the flat farmland of Arkansas, and arrived safely in Texas 20 hours later. I’ll miss Appalachia, but it feels so good to be home. I forgot how hot the summer sun is here, but I also forgot how much I love the open skies and swift sunrises.

Being in mental transition mode since graduation last June, I keep preparing for the changes that are happening and being slightly caught off guard when they aren’t as monumental as I think they will be. Speaking to two of my friends who just got back to the U.S. after living abroad (in Turkey and Israel, respectively), both of them were surprised by how easy it was to both go and come back. They expected the transition to be more turbulent, to have longer adjustment times, to be reeling with nostalgia and culture shock.

The transition from D.C. to Texas is certainly no where near as dramatic, but as I sit at my kitchen table — having bleary eyed, lazy morning conversations over coffee — I feel like I never left. The new neighborhoods, highway construction, restaurants, and shops, however, remind me that this isn’t my town anymore. I have been absent for the changes and life has gone on without me. In fact, it has done laps around me and left me standing in a maze of streets I don’t recognize.

Humans are resilient and–as much as we may resist it–we are born to deal with change. We adapt, both physically and emotionally, to our surroundings and often don’t notice the changes until we look back and suddenly no longer recognize ourselves. In six days I leave for India, I don’t know where I will be four months afterwards, and the news that my parents want to sell our house within the next year means that this may be the last time (or second to last time) I return to this kitchen table.

I have a feeling the next few years will be like that, rife with constant changes and transitions. Psychologist Shannon Kolakowski writes on how to make the most of them.

 

1. Recognize that transitions are hard because they can shake your sense of identity. We naturally define ourselves in part by our surroundings. When these surroundings change, it can be disorienting. Getting married changes your identity from a single person to a partner. Having a child changes your sense of identity from wife or daughter to now include being a mother. A new job changes your identity or role at work.

2. Being in transition is a wonderful opportunity for growth. Take a look at the parts of yourself and your life that you most value– how can you bring those parts of yourself into your new role? Next, look at the areas of yourself that you’d like to make changes to. Perhaps you’ve been neglectful of some important area of your life. Transitions are an opportunity to begin practicing new habits and ways of interacting with others.

3. Remind yourself why you chose to make the change. In the midst of feeling a little lost during a transition, it can be easy to regret your decision. When doubt creeps in, review the reasons you made your decision. When you see the big picture, it helps you move from feeling overwhelmed to understanding that this is a temporary adjustment, and while it’s difficult now, you are willing to go through some uncertainty and discomfort for the long term gain.

4. Recall other times in your life when you’ve successfully dealt with transitions.What helped you get through that period in your life? Looking back, how do you feel about the past decisions you’ve made? What were you proud of, and what would you have done differently? Reflecting on your past can help you to make good decisions as you move forward.

5. When you’re in transition, it’s easy to become overly focused on yourself. One way to shift your focus is to look at others who may need your help. If you’re at work, it may be a coworker who you notice is having a bad day. If you’re in a prenatal yoga class, reach out to another mom-to-be that seems like she is having a hard time. Making an effort to support others helps you remember that everyone struggles at times, and that human connection can be a powerful aid in helping get through it.

6. Part of what helps you feel secure in transition is having a support system. Make an effort to stay connected; keep in touch with your family, call up an old friend who lives in the area you just moved to, volunteer or get involved in an organization, ask a new co-worker to join you for lunch. Find people who you can really talk to; whether it’s a trusted friend or close family member, being able to share how you’re really feeling can be a tremendous source of strength for you.

 

I think the reality is that most transitions happen so quickly that you can’t possibly wrap your head around the changes and what they actually mean while they are happening. I guess I will find out.