My husband Kelly and I just spent the weekend at a lovely retreat facility in the redwoods, not far south of San Francisco. We were at Bonfire Heights, a fascinating, delightful, disturbing, and utterly worthwhile conference. Speakers and workshops covered a very wide range of topics, and I found it refreshing to get my brain into some new grooves.
The first presentation was a celebration of nerds, put on by Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, a woman whose parents came here from India with her when she was a child. She’s a nerd despite being quite stylish, and she was interested when Kelly and I told her that we weren’t called nerds in high school in the late 1950s. We were “brains.” She thought that sounded pretty good so we had to explain that it had the same mixed bag of connotations as nerds and geeks! Now we are nerds gone gray.
You can find links to the various speakers’ names, bios, and websites at the Bonfire Heights website.
The first of several speakers who had me close to tears was Mark Kabban, who also comes from an immigrant family, his from Lebanon. They settled in San Diego, which I learned has an extremely large immigrant population. Mark’s own story was fascinating but what he is doing now is what moved me so deeply. He is working with immigrant children and teens in the San Diego area–many of them survivors of war as he is–creating soccer teams of both boys and girls. He’s found that play is an important element in the kids’ adjustments to their new lives. From soccer he found himself helping the kids with education and doing what he could to help them go to college. Himself a young father, his passion for helping kids shone through his presentation. I found myself thinking about those kids as I woke up the next morning. The non-profit he founded in 2009 is called Youth And Leaders Living Actively, or YALLA.
One reason that there were several fascinating talks by young immigrants is that Darius Seddiqui, who put on the conference last year and this, has an immigrant Afghani father. One of Darius’ cousins came to this country from Afghanistan when she was 10. Unlike many immigrant stories, hers wasn’t so happy at first. She came from an idyllic childhood in a prosperous area of Afghanistan, where she had spent happy hours playing with many cousins in her grandparents’ orchards. But eventually war found its way to even that region, and her parents made the hard decision to leave. They ended up in the US, where Fariba learned English, didn’t fit in with other students, and received encouragement from her teachers to write.
Fariba Nawa is now an award-winning journalist. I was again near tears as she told of the years she worked as a journalist in Afghanistan, her book Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan , and how she and the husband she had met there decided to leave when she was pregnant with her first child.
The other speakers I want to mention are Americans. I happened to sit near T at dinner the first night. I had seen her topic on the Burning Heights website, and had thought I would give it a pass, but when I saw how alive and joyous she was, I knew I had to hear her talk. She was a victim of human trafficking, and was bought and sold for sex from the age of ten. She almost died many times, and she got virtually no love, so it’s a tribute to the human spirit (hers in particular!) that she survived to tell her tale. Today she works with children who have undergone similar ordeals. She was the youngest speaker, at 23, but one of the most inspiring. Kelly said to me after her talk, “That’s what Burning Heights is all about.”
I could go on and on about each speaker. So many of them touched me in some way. The theme of the conference was “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” but I’m not sure how ordinary these folks are.
Diane Latiker is an African-American from Chicago, where she raised eight children and then found herself nurturing dozens and then hundreds and by now probably thousands of kids who were in gangs or otherwise getting a poor start in life. Her organization is called Kids Off the Block. She, Like T and Mark and others there, have received media recognition for their outstanding contributions to our world
Taryn Davis is a widow. A young widow. Her husband died in Iraq, while in our military, when she was just 21, a few years ago. She sunk into depression but then decided to do something to help other widows, and she formed a non-profit called the American Widows Project. Two other young women were with her at the conference, also military widows. Regardless of anyone’s political views about wars, her work is very important.
Kate Daniels of http://www.thewip.net/ has an incredibly fascinating site!
Sustainability: The Topic Closest to My Heart
The last morning was on sustainability. My husband Kelly and permaculturist Jenny Pell each spoke at some length, and then there was a panel with them and our old friend Judy Goldhaft of Planet Drum and with Susan Cann who spoke about a film called Unacceptable Levels about the levels of toxic chemicals in our world. (The link is to the site about the film: it’s not on the Bonfire Heights site.) I was sorry not to hear more from Judy in particular, but there had been a scheduling change that shortened the sustainability panel.
Actually, Jenny’s talk was the one that give me the most ideas for actionable items in my own life. As Kelly and I drove north to stay with family in San Francisco, we talked about planting more bee-pollinating plants in our garden, inviting young kids in our neighborhood to come visit our chickens, and other ideas. Kelly is currently the chairman of the board of the Crestone Baca Village, a kind of time bank for enhancing community, and many of the ideas that Jenny discussed would be great community projects!
I for one am coming away from this weekend inspired to make my own life even more about the big picture. A bumper sticker I saw in California’s Central Valley as we drove toward Burning Heights sums up my feeling: “God Bless Our World. No Exceptions.” So many of the people I met this weekend are working on the No Exceptions part, and finding deep purpose and joy in what they are doing.
Bonfire Heights will next take place Nov 1-3, 2013.