Friday, December 28, 2012

After seeing Les Mis

Me: Daddy, you're my Jean Valjean.

Dad: Yes, now I just need to marry you off so I can die. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Oh to be a waiter and overhear my family's dinner conversations out of context:
“Yeah he was supposed to lead me around customs but he forgot. Guess my career smuggling alcohol into Muslim countries ended early.” (For the record, wasn't me).
“There was a momma bear and her two cubs walking up the river. I don’t remember where you kids were.” 
          “Wearing bear suits and playing in the river."
“So how did you attach the detector to the robotic arm?”  
"When you're watching glacier videos on youtube, you've got to be prepared to wait. I started one three years ago and still haven't seen it move."
“I bet that trucker was glad to get us out of his cab after a couple miles. Lucky for him that mom didn’t drive off while she could."    
          "You didn't all get in the truck. I still had one." 
“I had long hair and a big red beard so I at least looked sympathetic.” 
“Remember that slime mold you had growing in the kitchen? You used to feed it oatmeal every day.”
"And this coming from the woman who smacked a black bear in the nose with a copy of the Knoxville News Sentinal."
  • "All I want is to pack up my truck and drive the trailer into the middle of the Yukon and watch TV." 
  •           "You'll need satellite." 
  •           "I'm coming with you and I'm packin' a pistol."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Welcome in Egypt!

Two months ago, I had no clue that I’d be planning a Thanksgiving meal for 50 Egyptians, eating frozen yogurt from Pinkberry while the call to prayer rings out over the largest mall in Egypt, or cruising Cairo in a taxi blaring songs from the Black Eyed Peas and Backstreet Boys. Two months ago, all I knew was that I had to finish my dissertation and move out of my London flat. Beyond those moments, I had no plan. Then one day, while skyping a friend from undergrad who has been living and working in Cairo for the last six months, my stress-fried brain latched onto one sentence she said, “I’m bored, I need roommates.” Roommates? She needed roommates? I needed a room. How perfect! That was that, I was moving to Cairo. And so I did. And here I am. At least until Christmas.

It’s a funny thing, being out of grad school and once again facing the ever present questions posed to all twenty-somethings of what to do with yourself, your career, your life. When my graduate programme finished, I found myself in London, not ready to head back to the States but unsure of where I wanted to be or what I wanted to be doing. Fed up with feeling like a useless academic (as I’m not quite up to par with the type of academics that prove useful) and perhaps secretly bored with polite queues, I was drawn to the idea of somewhere where cars race and jumble into traffic regardless of lanes, men and women linger in the constant and reliable sunshine to drink tea, and buildings follow no blueprint but jut and jab corner after corner. I also felt a deep need to be useful in the world in a simple and immediate sense. I needed to be reminded of how much I enjoy working with individuals and grass-roots organizations to just make a single day better, even if the system is too large or too broken for any one person to understand, much less change.

So here I am, having spent my first week exploring Egypt as a tourist, taking overpriced camel rides around the pyramids, admiring the beauty of cavernous mosques, getting lost in endless lanes of the market, and eating, yes eating, to my heart’s content. For anyone who hasn’t tried Egyptian food, you have no idea how much you’re missing. Give me a lemon and mint juice and koshary any day and I’m a happy camper. I've cobbled together a vocabulary of taxi directions and numbers, and have come to love the daily shouts of "Welcome in Egypt! Where from?" I even spent a day relaxing on the shore of the Red Sea and watched the sunset from a tiny fishing boat with good friends and a really adorable puppy. My second week was mainly spent meeting new people and setting the foundations for the rest of my time here, time I mean to be used productively, time which I hope will impact me and maybe if I’m lucky be useful to others as well.

This past week, I began volunteering with a refugee school that provides education and a meal to students from Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Congo, Nigeria, and other countries from across Northern Africa. The school is open to grades one through five in the mornings and grades six to ten in the afternoons. The teachers and most of the administration are refugees themselves. Foreigners spend a month or two or six filling in any gaps that might have occurred in the curriculum or helping teachers manage crowded classrooms. All classes, other than Arabic lessons, are taught in English. 

After a day of visiting the school and sitting in on each grade level, I realized I’d fallen in love with the fourth years. Each morning, I sit down with one or two of them for a tutoring lesson and can’t help but be amazed at how happy and eager they are to learn, how ambitious their dreams are, and how much they’ve already survived. Nine-year old Nancy looks up at me with the sweetest eyes and tells me she wants to be a lawyer. Emmanuel laughs as he explains that he wants to be an accountant and that his friend, Mousta, wants to be a doctor, but only for fat people. Hannah wants to be a dancer. Gutama wants to be a lawyer. While practicing nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs with Grace, I ask her to finish the sentence using a word to describe Africa. Africa is… Hope, she answers. Africa is hope. And Africa is home. She smiles at me asking if she’s correct. And she is, more than she knows. Though I’ve hardly been here long enough to begin to understand this country, I’ve been told about the tension between Egyptians and Africans, especially refugees. Egypt has an open refugee policy that requires it to host refugees and asylum seekers, though the country struggles to provide for its own marginalized poor, leaving some Egyptians bitter and angry over the influx of African refugees that strains an already tight economy. The government, in response, excludes refugees from basic institutions, such as formal education. I’ve been told that each day after school, the refugees run home to lock the doors, hoping they aren’t tormented, beaten, or robbed by local street kids.

I suppose I’ll find out just how deep these tensions run as I’m not only volunteering with the refugees, but with those same local street kids that they fear. A few blocks away in a small building above a shop, there is a newly formed organization that teaches and trains Egyptian street kids in sustainable and practical life skills, simultaneously instilling in them self-worth and determination in improving their situation. The staff of this organization are stretched to the limit, trying desperately to provide students with ways out of poverty, ways to gain agency in their own society.  On Fridays, I’m hoping to begin working with young girls, teaching them crafts made from recycled material that they can then sell. If I can get my hands on some disposable cameras, I’d like to teach composition and critique of photography (like Zana Briski did in her incredible documentary, Born into Brothels).

The problem I’m finding, however, is that my time here is quickly running out before it’s even begun. I have slightly more than a month left, certainly not enough to follow through to a lasting impact with any of these projects. And my weekends will most likely be spent exploring and adventuring. From sandboarding on the dunes and horseback riding through the desert, to diving in the Red Sea on the Sinai and touring Luxor and Aswan, I have far more to do than I have time for. Like India, Cairo has struck a chord with me and a few months here is more like a taste than anything else. But it’s the kind of place that sticks with you long after your gone, quietly calling you back again. So we’ll see where this month takes me, and later, how long I stay back home in the States before answering that call once again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


"It is when you are able to view the world from all sides and perspectives that you acquire that gentle touch of art, which reflects your deep belonging to humanity in general."

Toufic Araman, photographer

Friday, September 28, 2012

Buried Life

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;                        
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us--to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.

From "The Buried Life"
Matthew Arnold

Friday, August 31, 2012

Respect for the Rattlers

“Great love and great achievements involve great risk.” –Dalai Lama

I always intended to write the full story of my summer with the people who handle venomous serpents for their faith. I had great intentions of chronicling each church service with them, of all the media interest and their responses to the camera crews, photojournalists, grad students, and spectators that showed up week after week. I thought I would write as best I could what set them apart from other churches and other Christians; after all, that is the topic of my dissertation and what led me to them in the first place. And though for my dissertation I will have to write the details of my experience, the more I saw strangers rush in to get the pictures, sell the story, or throw in their own two cents on the lives of the people I’ve come to know as friends, the less I felt I had any right to say anything. And the more time I spent with them, the more real, inspiring, and important their beliefs became to me.

You see, if you spend enough time with anyone, what at first seems strange, intimidating, or confusing will cease to be so; it will simply become normal. And when the spectacle is gone and all that’s left are ordinary people, it’s not so hard to relate. The people I met this summer have been called fools and idiots by strangers, are condemned and outcast by fellow Christians, and their beliefs and lifestyles are summarized by the press in five-minute clips and 200 word articles. But then there are also the scholars who have worked with and written of them for decades, the journalists who stayed longer than a day to write books instead of articles, the Christians who send their support and encouragement despite differing beliefs, the traveling evangelists whom they welcome, and the visitors to their churches who keep coming back. This alone should be enough to conclude that there is something about the people and the faith which defines them that touches others. Very few who have heard of the practice of serpent handling have remained indifferent to the idea. The very basis of this practice, the faith required to uphold it, seems to incite a reaction in all of us, be it one of interest, approval, or judgement.  

I have a hunch that what is really so intriguing to each of us is not so much a matter of doctrine or religion, but one of passion and commitment. There are a lot of self-help books, religions, and philosophies telling us we need a purpose in life, a goal to drive us and sustain us. As children we are often asked what we want to be or do with our lives and answers come easily. As a child it is easy to identify our dreams because no one has yet told us our dreams might well be impossible to achieve. As we age, we so often readjust our purpose in life to match what we think is possible, instead of adjusting our lives to match our purpose. We know all too well that living for something bigger than oneself implies that the self must become very small and that sacrifice and suffering always accompany those who take risks. Every now and then, however, you hear stories about people who were brave enough to take on their purpose without making amendments. They are people like Greg Mortenson who, as a broke and unemployed mountaineer, accidentally discovered a village in Pakistan without a school yet pledged that someday he would return to build one. He has since built hundreds. They are people like journalist George Hogg, who in the 1930s set out to cover the Second Sino-Japanese war, and instead lead 60 orphans over 700 miles through the mountains to live in safety. They are people like Kierkegaard who sacrificed his personal happiness for the task of writing what he believed to be necessary to reform Christianity.  But they are also people like my landlady, who recently quit her job to write a book about her own journey. They are people like the serpent handlers, who literally place their lives on the line because they believe it is part of their purpose.

In the introduction to The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho calls an individual’s purpose his or her personal legend. He writes, “Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our dream […] But if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.”  It is the courage, passion, and commitment which so many of us, myself included, lack that stirs such a response when we hear of people who are taking risks and making sacrifices to fulfil their purpose. Sometimes we are encouraged and inspired, sometimes we are envious. At the root of our reaction, however, is our own purpose. It is not an easy road to travel and quite often it is a lonely one, but I’ve come to believe it is an important one. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The woman in pink

I gathered my nerves and stepped inside the little church, closing the heavy door behind me. As my eyes adjusted to the lighting, dim compared to the blinding sunlight outside, I took in the small sanctuary, rows of pews, a simple wooden altar, and the stage-like area behind it where a handful of men sat playing around with guitars and a keyboard. The pastor stepped up and warmly introduced himself before giving me the rundown on what to expect and what was expected of me. Given that this church has seen loads of reporters, he kindly explained that a seam in the carpet served as the boundary no journalist could cross while taking photos. I nodded in agreement but had left my camera in the car just to be safe. I was early and almost no one had arrived yet. I nervously sat down in the front row next to two girls who looked to be about my age and began to chat. While we talked, a toddler ran up and down the aisle stopping every few minutes to stare at me. I smiled. He fled. Each time he ran a little closer towards me. I smiled again. He fled again. Then in a bold move, he reached out and poked me. I laughed but must have passed the test as before I knew it he had crawled into my lap and was sitting peacefully. Right then, majority of the church members walked through the door. A few threw curious glances my way but most seemed reassured by the little boy’s trusting presence. And with that, I had been welcomed into the church by a two year old.

About twenty five people of all ages took their places in pews and on the stage and the music began. It was loud and lively, the kind of music you can’t help but stomp along with. A woman in pink made her way to the front, picked up a microphone and began to belt out a beautiful old timey gospel song. The room came alive and I swear that tiny church seemed about to burst from the joy of the congregation. People began to dance and spin, stomp and jump. A few began to shake. This is what I’d come for.

A young man picked up a glass coke bottle and lit the cloth wick inside it, holding the flame to his hand as he danced. The pastor leaned down behind the speaker and lifted two great big rattlers from their boxes. Immediately the toddler in my lap turned to me, pointing at the snakes making sure I was watching. In truth, I was amazed at the size of the rattlers but was almost more interested in the overall atmosphere of the service, serpents or not. There was a sense of excitement and passion that filled the church. I felt strangely still by comparison but like the heat radiating in from outside, I could feel the warmth of the service. The pastor held the serpents with one hand while stomping in time. He passed them to another young man who gently placed his hand under the rattlesnake's head supporting it, then drop the snake to his side as he danced. He passed it back. As the music wound down and the snakes were placed back in their boxes, members settled back into the pews. The pastor stepped behind the podium and began read from Psalms. He spoke of trusting God in our darkest days. Encouraged by the shouts and affirmation of the congregation, he spoke of his own darkest days and the trials he had faced. Church members chimed a chorus of “bless him,” “preach it brother,” and “go on” when he seemed hesitant. When he himself shouted confidently, he was met with applause and shouts of “Amen.” His sermon was organic and dynamic, like a creek sometimes surging from flood waters and at other times quiet and calm. Though I’ve heard plenty of Pentecostal sermons throughout my undergrad, this one differed in one key aspect: it felt honest. Time and again I’ve heard pastors shout from their podiums, then whisper for dramatic effect and I’ve always been sceptical of the theatrics of it all. This sermon, however, surprised me with how genuine it felt.

At the end of the sermon, the pastor called for testimonies beginning with visitors. All faces turned towards me. I was so surprised and suddenly shy that all I could do was nod my head no a little too fiercely when he attempted to hand me the microphone. I heard a faint “bless her” from somewhere beside me, not the kind that is meant to encourage, but the kind that is said with the same tone as "awwww, poor thing". Then thankfully the focus passed away from me as other members began to testify. While thanking the Lord for her blessings and asking for prayers for her concerns, the woman in pink paused. “I have a song that I need to sing right now,” was all she said. Then, standing in the back of church, she lifted her hands and began to sing. Her voice filled the momentarily silent room. I expected someone to grab the electric guitar and anticipated her song being drowned out by the loud music that I had grown used to. But no one did. She sang her hymn, a cappella, verse after verse. 

Everyone has those moments that somehow make it into your heart, so deeply that it seems as if time has stopped but your blood pumps on through your veins. Whatever else might be around you fades and only the things that you hold in your heart remain. This was one of those moments for me. My research was forgotten, my awkwardness at being a stranger in the church, my temporariness in the States, my lack of a plan for the next few months after graduation all seemed to vanish. It was simply me and that voice. The song ended. The service came to a close and I made my way to my car. Driving home that night looking at the mountains, I realized just how much I had underestimated the realities of studying belief. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chicken Ridge and the Dismal River

6:45 am. Sunglasses- check. Atlas- check. GPS-check. Two sets of directions printed from Google maps- check. Krispy Kremes and Coke, breakfast of champions- check.

Several weeks ago, my first day as an anthropologist began with the daunting task of driving five hours into the hills of West Virginia to find a man I’d never met who pastored a church I didn’t know the name of that was meeting in park without an address. I was eager to begin my research and attend my first Sunday service with the serpent-handling communities in Appalachia. Having been raised in East Tennessee and having attended a Church of God university for undergrad, I had an idea of what Pentecostal worship looks like but knew little about the few churches that hold fast to Mark 16 which outlines the five signs of believers given days after Pentecost. Sometimes referred to as Signs Following or Holiness churches, these congregations take up venomous serpents, lay hands on the sick, drink poison, speak in tongues, and rebuke demons in the name of the Holy Spirit. I had been invited by a well-known pastor to attend a revival and see for myself the signs of Mark 16. So off I drove into the mountains hoping to make it to the park by 11:30am. The service started at 1pm.

6:50am. GPS fails to recognize the town I need.

7:30am. Ten minutes lost on the wrong exit.

8:30am. Left the interstate to search for a highway.

9:04am. Highway becomes unmarked back road.

9:45am. Find a gas station but lose cell service.

10:30am. Twenty minutes lost to a side road that dead-ends with a trailer where two very unhappy-looking folks sit staring at poor lost strangers.

10:52am. Pass a Holiness church hidden in a back hollow.

11:07am. Accidentally run over a frog.

11:15am. Five minutes lost to helping a turtle cross the road in penance for the frog.

11:30am. Change plan to hoping I can still make it to West Virginia by 1pm.

12:01pm. Lost in a place labelled by a cardboard sign as “Chicken Ridge.”

12:10pm. Pass the Dismal River and chuckle at the name.

12:46pm. Pass an abandoned coal mining town, half covered by kudzu.

12:52pm. Pass the Dismal River again. No chuckling. Check atlas for clues to where I am. No luck.

1:00pm. Change plan to aim for arriving at 2pm.

1:22pm. Back to the Dismal River. Outlook becoming dismal.

2:28pm. Pull over for a moment of hysteria at the fact that I’ve lost the entire state of West Virgina despite being within miles of the border. Change plan to finding West Virginia.

3:16pm. Find original highway.

3:39pm. Cross into West Virgina.

4:21pm. Wrong turn.

4:36pm. Pull over, regroup, take a picture to prove I found West Virginia, accept defeat and head home.

7:00pm. Return crestfallen and slightly batty from an unsuccessful 12 hours alone in the car.

My first attempt at putting into practice everything I’ve learned in the past five years had been thwarted by my own lack of ability to navigate. I had missed the revival. The next day, however, brought news that drastically changed my perspective and my research. Thirty minutes into the service, while I was lost somewhere along Chicken Ridge, the pastor I had set out to meet had been bitten by the rattlesnake he was handling. Late that night, he passed away. Over the next few days, I watched as journalists picked up the story and flung it far and wide around the nation. I heard and read reactions that ranged from sympathy and support to confusion and condemnation. What became apparent was an extreme lack of understanding of this practice, known by most only through the one page articles cropping up in newspapers detailing the most extreme outcome of serpent-handling.

My research took on a new hue in light of the unfortunate turn of events. The reality of what these church members are doing, of everything they are risking each time they picked up a copperhead or rattlesnake hit me like a brick wall. It’s a reality that they know all too well as it was their pastor, their friend who was gone. And yet they continue to practice the signs. For me, the strength of commitment and dedication to this practice serves as a testimony to the power of belief. I feel that a faith that can sustain death and loss deserves respect. After all, aren’t we all seeking ways to face this same reality? As a researcher, my questions remain the same yet as a person entering into a living relationship with these communities, their answers have become invaluable to me.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sounds of home

I’ve always thought that the hardest things happen on the most beautiful days, when the sun is shining warm on your shoulders. But I also think some of the most beautiful moments happen in the rain. Growing up, I’ve spent countless hours sitting on my front porch listening to the rain. I’ve been lulled to sleep by the sound of a summer rain on a tent time and time again, and taken hundreds of barefoot walks after the rain stops. Even now, I’m sitting by my open window, listening to the thunder, and breathing in the sweet clean air that only comes with a good rain. There is something incredibly soothing and rejuvenating about rain. It washes away all the dust that has been gathering, all the stale air that can fill the soul. And after the rain, the world feels ever so slightly newer, like the earth took a giant breath and then relaxed again.

This week I’ve needed the rain more than ever. I’ve needed the thunder. I’ve needed the chance to stop and regroup, to refocus. To remember exactly what matters in this crazy world. A family emergency brought me back to Tennessee for the week. While everything seems to be turning out alright for now, it’s been more than enough to remind me how quickly the world can change on a sunny day. It also makes it a hell of a lot easier to forget all the silly little stresses of a daily routine and to put the world on hold for a minute to listen to the rain. In a few days, I’ll head back to London, but I like to think I’m taking a little bit of the Tennessee rain with me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I use public transport about every day and mostly take the exact same routes from home to campus, campus to coffee shops, coffee shops to home, but for some reason the little moments of today’s journey around London seemed to stick with me. Maybe it’s because I’m gearing up to write an essay on ethnographic writing, about the ways in which anthropologists put down in words all the things they see and hear daily in different cultures, or maybe I’m just more observant today. Either way, until I have something more exciting to write about, the following are snapshots of my journeys around London.

Walking from my flat to the tube, I pass my favourite view of Portobello Road. Bright pink, blue and yellow buildings line both sides of a narrow street that runs perpendicular to the famous market road. Just as the buildings shrink with distance, the ideal spot for an artist playing with drawings of perspective, a clock tower rises from behind Portobello, capped with a sea green dome.

As I swipe my oyster card walking into the tube, I smile at the same man who sits behind a glass window making the same service announcements everyday looking utterly bored with his life. He rarely smiles back but I like to think one day he will.

When waiting for the tube, I’ve taken to making up my own superstitions. I consider any day that I see a mouse to be a good day. I’ve learned, however, that if I see two mice on the same track, it’s gonna be heavy day.

Today, I had the hardest time not dancing to my music while waiting for my train. Listening to Grace Potter and standing perfectly still is just plain impossible, so I gave in to being one of the few people you see bobbing along to the music you can only assume is playing through their headphones.

While walking down the street, I looked up to watch some pigeons on a ledge and when I looked back down, everyone on the street had looked up to see what I was looking at. Ha, made you look.

Still walking, while texting, I ran into a tree.

While sitting at a coffee shop today, I looked out the window and saw what was either a dog-training class or a circle of strangers simultaneously being attacked by unruly dogs. Rationality led me to assume the former but I looked up a few minutes later and found the group had already broken up, with only a few dogs still running wildly back and forth around their owners. Guess it wasn’t a class.

Most days I take the tube. But there are some days when sitting in a stuffy train car in a dark tunnel deep underground just seems unbearable. So, as a special treat, I take the bus even though it takes at least fifteen minutes longer to get home. My bus from campus to home happens to run the same route as the infamous open-top tour buses so I get to enjoy a particularly nice ride down Oxford Street and past Hyde Park.

While riding down Oxford Street, I usually get in a good dose of window shopping, making mental notes of which stores are beginning to bring out their spring clothes. Slowly but surely the window displays are brightening up with hot pinks and aquas and flowery pastels. I cannot wait for the days when it’s warm enough for shorts and skirts and dresses.

Today while at a red light, I was watching a shop keeper standing by the door to his shop. He was holding out his hand and rhythmically tapping each finger with a pen. In a moment of boredom he sighed and stretched out his arms, then swung them around, accidentally flinging his pen out the door, into the street, and right under my bus. His face flashed a moment of surprise before quickly looking around to see if anyone had seen. In London, even without CCTV, I’m pretty sure someone is always watching, if only from the top of a double-decker bus.

My bus circles around the statues of a giant upside-down horse’s head and what I can only describe as a family of gummy-bear people by Marble Arch, and then drives alongside Hyde Park for the rest of the ride home.

Though these moments have become so ordinary to me, as an anthropologist in training, I should be careful not to overlook them. They are moments of my own participant observation.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The beauty of failing.

Failure can seem like such a terrifying thing sometimes. When you’ve invested yourself in something, fought hard, and lost, failure becomes this heavy dark cloud floating around your head. The other day, I was having one of those days where you just can’t seem to get it right. Nothing dramatic, just a series of small mishaps that built upon each other until the day earned the title of a not-so-great-day. As I hopped on the 328 bus to World’s End, contemplating the symbolism of the bus’s final destination given my not-so-great-day, I couldn’t help but get a little lost in that clouded feeling of failure. Some things I had really hoped would work out just weren’t going to, and I faulted myself. When I got home, however, my flat began to remind me of a very simple and very important life lesson. Fail big. And move on.

I say that my flat reminded me, because oddly enough, it was sort of like my little room was trying to cheer me up. Despite there being no wind inside my room, my curtains seemed to be trying to blow open to let in the sunlight. I picked up an old book and a fortune-cookie fortune fell out that read, “You are kind-hearted and hospitable, cheerful and well-liked.” I laughed out loud and then smiled at the book’s kindness of dropping such a note into my hand just then. I turn on the tv for background noise and caught the tail end of a Scrubs episode. A character in the hospital that everyone thought was going to be ok had just died leaving the shocked staff in that familiar cloud of failure. But at the end of the episode, the main character went home alone to turn on the tv to watch sitcoms and say that amidst the sadness of failure, there are still moments that can make us laugh and smile. Again, I smiled, at the irony of a sitcom cheering me up by telling me that sitcoms can cheer you up. Then, as I settled in with some readings, the tv still on in the background, the movie Elizabethtown came on. I’ve seen it before but never really appreciated it. I set down my readings and began soaking up the images of Kentucky and the south, scenes of places I’ve passed through on my own road trips. The main character, Orlando Bloom, has just lost his father and been fired from an incredibly prestigious job. He knew failure. Then Kirsten Dunst comes along and reminds him that life is about playing hard and striking out, and then getting back in the game anyway. Orlando Bloom slowly begins a journey of letting go and moving on, outlined by a montage of moments on his road trip of self-discovery, coupled with inspirational songs and narrative.

As simple as that message is, and as often as we hear it, it’s still pretty hard to embrace it in practice. Fail big. That means taking incredible risks on a daily basis. In one of my courses, we were talking about how we live in a risk society nowadays. There is so much uncertainty surrounding us. College degrees no longer guarantee a job, jobs are not so secure once you get them, economies worldwide fluctuate like crazy, the environment is seen as fragile and in danger, and technology is producing as many unintended “side effects” (to quote Ulrich Beck, a post-modernity theorist) as it produces progressive advancements. It’s no wonder that in the last twenty years there have been an explosion of new disorders and syndromes and everyone seems to be able to diagnose themself with something, most often relating to stress and anxiety. Daily life seems riddled with risk and uncertainty and the potential for failure. And in response we take protective measures to keep failure at bay. Deleuze, another academic, explains our desire for control amidst risk, and how that leads to exclusion. Like in a gated community, you have to have the password to get into the secluded yet safe world behind the gates. Similarly, we can build up emotional walls in a world where trusting strangers is just too dangerous. We wait for someone to come along with the password before letting them in on a personal level. We are incredibly guarded against the possibility of failure.

But what about the beauty that comes from failure? The growth that results from rebuilding after those walls have been torn down. Anyone who has failed miserably at something he cares about knows that he is stronger for it. The trick is having the courage to step outside the gated community in the first place, to live without walls at all. I think that if you truly live like that, you’ll probably end up making a fool of yourself pretty frequently. But I also think that in the long run, it’s all about perspective. When we are so zoomed in to our daily goals and successes, even small failures can look huge. But if we zoom out, there’s a much bigger picture and all that uncertainty fades into the background. If we zoom out, we can truly see all the beauty in failure and the necessity to live life boldly and fail often. And so, though it’s easier said than done, fail big. And move on.