11 December 2013

Pencil Pushers....

(Travel expands one's universe more than any other venture. My friend Steve Hochman wrote tonight's blog. It takes us to a lot of different spots, but the unifying theme is making an offering and the significance of what can seem like a small gesture is actually quite large — Melinda)

We were given two very useful tips before visiting Bali: Always carry a sash just a simple strip of cloth to tie around the waist, required for entering temples and other sacred grounds. And if you see a parade, get in it. The latter proved particularly invaluable in terms of experience. 
Almost daily we fell in behind a procession, colorfully dressed women carrying baskets on their heads, men banging on hand-held percussion instruments. One led us to a teeth-filing ceremony, a right of passage for young Balinese involving, well, teeth being filed to blunt (symbolically) the more animalistic instincts. Another took us to what we thought was a temple, but turned out to be a private residence, for the ritual body washing of a beloved patriarch and professor who had died in his 80s. We were there for something like six hours as the priest was detained at another event, but not once was our presence challenged and we were invited to share an elaborate buffet with the family and community members. And a third led us to the ultimate rite of passage, a cremation, another exercise in patience as the parade and ceremony were preceded by many hours of waiting.  
And everywhere there are offerings: The little, flat leaf baskets with a few flowers, perhaps a piece of candy, that seem to bloom each morning, placed in front of houses, perched on cash registers at shops, on dashboards of taxis, left for the gods and demons that (ideally) coexist in a balanced world; the brilliant-colored, elaborate assemblages of fruit and meat carried in the parades to the tooth-filing and anything else with the slightest ceremonial nature, sculptures of intricate design; and, ultimately, the body itself, washed lovingly, carried in procession and later placed in a tall pyre, adorned with many flowers. 
These are not cherished, not preserved. The baskets are tossed aside, trampled on the ground,  rooted at by dogs. The fruit and meat sunbursts are left to rot. The pyre and the body the body being the greatest offering torched and burned to ash.
Its not the thing that is the offering, it is explained. Its the making, the effort. In the latter, it is the life, not the body.
Some offerings, though, are the opposite. The effort is relatively simple, but the substance and impact lasting. On a trip to Burma (now Myanmar) in 2007, Los Angeles-based advertising and marketing specialist Retta Jitner was approached by a group of kids eager to practice their English. One girl shyly asked for a pencil. Jitner found a few pens in her bag and gave one to the girl. But the girl handed it back and ran off. Asking a boy why the pen wouldnt do, she was told, Because you need a pencil to go to school.Schools throughout Southeast Asia do not provide supplies for kids, leaving it to the often strapped parents. 
And with that, Pencils for Kids was born. Upon returning home, Jitner came up with the idea of a charity that would put together backpacks of school goods to distribute to needy kids. She settled on Myanmar, Thailand and Bali as the focus, in the latter working with the local Bali Childrens Project .
The costs are tiny by U.S. standards, the materials readily available. Pencils? We can buy dozens for less than the cost of a latte. School uniforms, also required for many students, come for just $10 or so. But for many families in that region, those figures would eat up much of a monthly income. Each backpack and its contents has a value of $50, more than a months wages for many families in these countries. In 2014, Jitner says, Pencils for Kids will assist more than 2000 kids.
An annual fundraising golf tournament in L.A. pays for some of this- the next to be March 14, 2014 is one for pros and duffers alike. But, of course, they take your good olbasic donations which is what were offering today.

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