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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.

Did you know that while the Chesapeake Bay is cleaner now than it was a few decades ago, it still suffers from dead zones, sea grass depletion, and low oxygen levels that harm fish and other wildlife? Oysters are perhaps the most obvious example — oyster levels in the Bay are only 2% of what they were 200 years ago.

For more information on research being done in the Bay, check out the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island.

Calvert Cliffs State Park

Being a place that the state of Maryland describes as “one of the most unusual natural curiosities in the state”, and first mapped by John Smith, of Jamestown fame, in 1612, the Calvert Cliffs were a necessary stop on my way down from Canada to Richmond.

It was a 2 mile walk through woods and swamp to get to the sandy beach at the bottom of the cliffs. Before I embarked, unprepared in my Mexican, handmade leather sandals (note to self: keep a pair of Chocos in the back of the car from now on!), I of course had to put the hike into NY terms for me: about as far as a walk from our old apartment in Astoria to the Brazilian grocery on Northern Boulevard. Totally doable!

Arriving on the crowded beach, we learned that the cliffs are famous not so much for their beauty, as for the prolific abundance of fossils held in their white clay.  I only found a herd of domesticated and soaking wet black labs, but there were quite a few serious fossil searchers on the beach and most appeared to be making interesting discoveries. The 7-year-old crammed onto the 5 foot wide beach next to us, informed us that sharks’ teeth are the most common find.