Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy Holidays 2011!

The year opens: a hot day in a dusty, apocalyptic valley of crushed homes and rubble. But on the hillside, one of our heroines is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. It is January, and Petra is in Haiti…

Petra spent the first three weeks of the year working with Explorers Sans Frontiers (ESF), an NGO that provides mobile medical clinics to people in Port-Au Prince tent cities. Petra reviewed ESF’s activities and recommended ways to improve their efficacy, looked at how ESF works with partners, and helped out in the clinics. Many aspects of daily life were difficult, but she loved the heat and the sounds and smells of the camp waking up in the morning. She also became fast friends with her ten-year-old host Reggie, spending many hours in the sun learning Creole and playing tic-tac-toe.

REGGIE: Ah! Reggie a gagner!
PETRA: Oui, magnifique! Reggie a gagner perfectment: Formidable. Tu as gagne mon coeur aussi.

Meanwhile, in a dark, wet, ancient, brick alleyway thousands of miles away, our other heroine shivers in the cold while contemplating the beauty of a solitary Christmas tree backlit against a medieval cathedral. It is still January, and Erika is at the other end of the global experience spectrum…

Erika spent a delightful Christmas and New Years enjoying the beautiful architecture and cuisine of Italy with her sister Lisa and their mom Lilli. The three of them hiked in the Cinque Terra, one of Erika and Petra’s favorite places on earth; explored the city of Siena – where Lisa now lives – from top to bottom; and had a revelrous New Years in Venice.

LISA: Each neighborhood in Siena has a distinctive identity and history, and they’re very competitive. Each is represented by a proud animal symbol: dragon, rhinoceros, porcupine, lion, caterpillar, seashell …
ERIKA:… Seriously? That must be a fierce caterpillar! What neighborhood are we in now? Ma, check the map?
LILLI: Um…snail. But it looks like a very fierce and proud snail… I wouldn’t want to mess with that snail.

Back in New York: Having sailed through the fall semester, Petra decides to tempt the academic fates by signing up for five spring courses. Erika works in academic administration with various charter schools in Harlem and the Upper West Side…

ERIKA: Hey sweetie! Want to meet me for a coffee in Little Senegal after work today?
PETRA: I want to but I have to study for my economics exam! What did you do at work today?
ERIKA: Created endless databases: Excel and I have become one. But didn’t you just take your economics exam?
PETRA: No, that was for my OTHER economics course. I’ll see you… come summertime?

Summer finds our heroines separated by thousands of miles of ocean. They strive to contribute their skills and enthusiasm to solve the world’s toughest problems, from southern Africa to Central America …

Over the summer, Petra went to Zambia as the leader of a research team gathering and analyzing local client quality- of-life information for global microfinance organization FINCA. She loved it: though based in capital city Lusaka, it was her job to spend most of her time traveling around Zambia with a fantastic team of co workers, interviewing more than 400 financially-insecure people about their lives and businesses. She managed to squeeze in a wildlife safari in South Luangwa National Park and two trips to the stunning Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean border: in the process, she fell in love with warthogs and almost learned to cook nshima. Petra still misses the call of the muezzin in the morning, and looks forward to exploring more of the beautiful continent.

Erika spent three months interning in Costa Rica with CIRENAS, a new environmental education and conservation non- profit located on a pristine peninsula in Western Costa Rica, surrounded by thousands of acres of protected rainforest and coastal ecosystem. To say it was “remote” is an understatement. CIRENAS is off the grid, and getting to the nearest town requires fording two rivers and a many-miles trek on dirt roads through the jungle: horses are frequently the preferred means of transport. Erika absolutely loved it, and is pleased with the contributions she was able to make to CIRENAS’ education programs and developing organizational structures. She misses the quiet, the warm Pacific Ocean, the natural beauty, the fun of learning a new habitat, and especially the friends she made there. She does not miss being surprised by giant hot-purple crabs crawling out the shower drain.

Our heroines are joyfully reunited for Autumn in New York, where they settle in for their second year (the first time in four years that they’ve been somewhere for a second year!)...

Petra’s fall at Columbia was busy and productive: Her favorite courses are Advanced Statistics, Research Design, and Water and Sanitation in Complex Emergencies. The time has gone faster than she would have imagined possible, but she’s learned a ton and is confidently looking forward to reentering the professional field in a few months’. Actually, she’s already working part-time at the Earth Institute (a Columbia think-tank) working on monitoring and evaluation approaches for oral health in the Millennium Village project. It’s exactly the= kind of work she was hoping to do upon graduation, and so is super-psyched to be getting started already.

Erika started school again herself this fall, jumping back in with enthusiasm and dedication. She’s started pursuing a MA in Nonprofit Management at The New School, which she has been surprised to find is even more progressive and action-oriented than Smith. Erika has also been surprised to discover that she’s very good at Financial Management as well as Statistics; she, of course, is the only one surprised by this. She loves her fellow classmates and has been delighted to make several awesome new friends: it’s convenient for socializing that the school has hand-selected such an inspiring group of radical change-makers as her school peers.

Other highlights of the year included playing in the snowy aftermath of last January’s NYC and CT blizzards, visiting Erika’s brother Reed, sister-in-law Sue, and their boys in Maine, learning some great new soup recipes, spending time with Petra’s parents on the coast of Maine, celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary soon after New York State legally recognized same-sex marriage, cleaning up a friend’s garden, volunteering at a community garden in Brooklyn, visiting Erika’s mom and attending the Hebron Harvest Fair, seeing Erika’s extended family and celebrating despite the snow at her cousin Corban’s October wedding, a warm and delicious and relaxing Thanksgiving at Petra’s parents’ home, and the joyful hectic visits of many friends who came through the city.


Next year promises more excitements: Petra is off to Haiti again in January to consult with World Vision Haiti as part of her work at Columbia. May, when Petra will be graduating and starting full-time work (job offers gladly accepted!), is coming faster than the speed of light. Erika’s eager to start her new courses for the spring, and is considering finding a part-time position to expand the breadth of her non-profit experience. But for now, it’s a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets: who knows what the future will really hold? Until next year… [Fade to black]

P.S. We hope you enjoy the picture on this year’s card. If you will allow us a moment of sincerity (to borrow from John Stewart), our idea was to playfully raise questions about the commercialization of Christmas: hence, the image of us facing down the Wall Street Bull bedecked with reindeer antlers as it has apparently rampaged through Christmas. The various festivals that combined to form the modern winter holidays are celebrations of birth, hope, redemption, renewal, peace, family, and love. We’d like to focus on those values at this time of year (and all year long), rather than let capitalism and materialism charge through our holy days.

The imagery also references the “Occupy” movements that have captivated the country. Being in NYC, we are very aware of the movement’s presence: protestors occupied a building at Erika’s school, friends have participated regularly to the point of arrest, and we have visited the encampments several times. We strongly support many of the movement’s central themes, including a drastic redistribution of wealth. And we feel incredibly blessed to live in a country that (at least usually) makes space for free speech, productive dissention, and change. We hope that the radically progressive movement can survive being judged by its worst members, and can someday effect real change, making America a more equitable and fair society.

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