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Being back in the US, I seem to have found myself in a myriad of conversations about the nature of what it means to be American, US foreign policy, and whether we should become more isolationists. I struggle with these debates because I can see where the isolationist argument comes from, but it is so far from my own views on what makes life fulfilling that is hard for me to comprehend.

Recently, after a number of these conversations, I was at a conference. Paul Farmer was giving the keynote speech and he said something that perfectly summed it up for me. “There is no ‘us and them’. Just ‘us’.”

Just us.

It was such a simple statement and yet it summed up so much of what is wrong with the current debate in the United States. We tend to put everything in the context of us vs. them. But who is “us” anyway?

Take a trip from New York, to Minnesota, to L.A., to Louisiana. Really pay attention and you’ll see just as much difference as you would if you flew from Paris, to Libya, to Rwanda, to Nepal. You would see people of every color, hear just as many varying dialects and languages, and encounter just as many religions. (In actuality, I’d put money on the fact that a Parisian would be more comfortable in Rwanda than a New Yorker in the Deep South.)

Ask anyone, anywhere, what are the most basic things they want in life, and I bet whether they’re Palestinian, American, or African, you’ll hear the following: access to food and health, a safe place for their family, and dignified work.

Food. Health. Safety. Dignity.

Once we realize that these simple things are what we are all fighting for, maybe then we can stop fighting about “us and them”. Maybe then we can realize that the boundaries that create “us and them” are simply constructed by ourselves. Maybe then we can change the conversation to be about just “us”.

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I have always loved the Northern Neck of Virginia. As a child, visiting that part of the state was like taking a step back in time.

My father’s side of the family had settled there in the 17th century, making it a place full of romance and mystery for me. We always seemed to visit on hot summer days. My great aunt (we called her Auntie) still lived in the old family house and always seemed to be dressed for church with stockings and a dress; her white hair pulled back in a perfectly set chignon or french twist.

My Dad would take us kids over to play with the horses (the farm used to have an old racetrack which has since turned into a strip mall), to splash in the pond (made when they needed new bricks to rebuild the burnt down house in 1836 – it is now covered by a road), and to the Dairy Queen on the corner for a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate (that at least is still there).

It was another one of those familiar hot days when we were visiting. This time not to the old family house, which had been sold when I was a teenager because my grandparents could not afford to pay the inheritance tax on the farm when my great aunt died, but to a resort close by and nestled into one of the small creeks that give the area its salt water charm. Biking around we stopped for lunch at a little cafe in Irvington, The Local. I wandered to the back to get some cream for my coffee. Suddenly I was in this place that was so familiar and so like home to me, and yet was taken back to another place that I love, but that is so far away and so different.

The sign above was posted at the coffee bar. I read it and chuckled, instantly transported back to a time when sugar was salt, and my Indian waiter could do nothing but shrug and pretend that he understood my complaint. If only he had known! He could have put me in my place and with a simple shake of his head explained, “Aguni madame. It’s only for the discerning gourmet.” I smiled, reached over and dropped a small spoonful into my cup. As I slowly stirred, I thought, “Things change. Maybe salty coffee is an acquired taste.”

Throughout everyplace I went in Africa and several places in India, a common request from the small kids is “school pens! school pens!” Some legitimately need them, and some don’t. But they ask anyways because a lot of times the plea works.

I, however, never parted with a pen. I only had four and one mechanical pencil with me for the year, and, given the difficulty or near impossibility of replacing them in many places, I coveted these as if they were priceless.

But of course the plea works when there are superfluous pens to be had. With so much poverty, there is a lot of hope wrapped up in giving away a pen. Giving away something so utilitarian and yet at the same time so trivial but which signifies so much opportunity seems less like charity than just handing someone a crumpled bill or a few coins. Even I tend to keep a piece of fruit in my bag while traveling, just in case.

But now, months later I find myself in a new dilemma. I am the unemployed one with no disposable income, in the middle of a busy city, and I am suddenly in dire need of a pen. Since I am not ready to start asking people on the street for one, into Staples I go. My objective is clear: find a pen and don’t spend more than a dollar. Anything more than that is a waste as I have my four pens tucked away in a bookbag an hour’s subway ride away.

I scour the aisles, looking and looking for one inexpensive pen. After 15 futile minutes I come up with a box of 20 pens because it is the cheapest option. Cheaper to buy 20 then just one packaged up all alone.

20 pens! I only need one but I now have 20 pens because, more important than worrying about how those other 19 pens are going to go to waste, I need my dollars in my wallet. One whole year with no pens to give away and now I find myself in a place where I could stand on the street all day trying to give away my box of pens one at a time with no one wanting to take one. Because who in central Manhattan needs something as trivial and utilitarian as a pen?

N/R/QIf there was any doubt that New York City is a place all to itself – I just watched the man sitting across from me on the subway, who, mind you, had been sitting there completely normal for the past 5 minutes, pull a bottle of purple berry juice out of his white athletic sock. Just when I thought that was weird enough, he proceeded to pull up his other pant leg where a small bottle of almond milk had been tucked away for safe keeping in his other sock.

If this were JFK airport, he would have so been arrested by now.

Mesa Verde is our last national park stop on the trip. This was one of the few places I knew I wanted to visit before we left for our trip. Thousands of years old stone houses tucked into cliff faces, encompassing the history of a whole population that disappeared mysteriously at the peak of their civilization hundreds of years ago – how could I not want to go!

Santa Fe has some truly charming older motels. At one time they must have been a fair distance outside of the city, but over the past few decades the city has encompassed them. We chose the Silver Saddle – by far one of the cutest hotels I have stayed at ever, and even better because it was only $45 a night. Plastered walls, a cotton quilt, and a beautifully tiled bathtub gave it all the charm I needed. Add a balcony and it would have been perfect. Oh, and I almost forgot, there is a margarita haven right around the corner.

At the Silver Saddle - In case you forget to bring your cowgirl boots, just borrow the pair by the front desk!

A couple locals had directed us to Maria’s for dinner. They mentioned that Maria’s had good margaritas if we were interested, but they left out the small fact that they offer 100 different types of margaritas — and I always thought a margarita was a boring, unchanging drink. From the outside the place looks deceptively small, but when you walk in, you’ll be greeted by a meandering collection of never ending rooms. Not to worry, margaritas are on the menu no matter where you end up sitting.

The closed gates. Just try to tell me that this doesn't look like a place with sacred dirt.

In Santa Fe I stopped by to see a work colleague. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, she had convinced us that we had to go see the town of Chimayo about 45 minutes outside of Santa Fe. Apparently there is a famous sanctuary in the Chimayo and to take some of the dirt from the ground of this sanctuary is supposed to have bring good luck and health. Decision made. I figured at this point, I should be taking all the help I could get.

Unfortunately the sanctuary closed at 5pm and we rolled up at 5:20pm. Perhaps seeing the sanctuary wasn’t meant to be, but meeting our new favorite chili vendor was. I just wanted to wander into one of the galleries that still looked open, but the chili vendor stopped us. He persuaded us to take a pistachio, “put it in your left molar”, and then chew it with a pistachio shell full of whatever magnificent chili mix he happened to have ready for us. Each trial was followed by a list of possible dishes that could made with the chili: Red was for baked chicken, spaghetti, guacamole. Green was for fish, salsa, etc, etc.

I might just be evolving into a softy for a driven entrepreneur, but within 10 minutes he had sold us not one but two bags of chili. If we actually had a kitchen still in which to use them, I probably would have bought many more bags. Heading back to car, I had the thought — if you can’t walk away with a bag of holy, healing dirt, two bags of chili might just be the perfect substitute.