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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Children are like Trees

February 20, 2020

A few years ago, I was volunteering at a small Tibetan residential school in Himachal. Here I met Kalden and Choden, both from the same section of class 8. Kalden, a little stout fellow was always dressed shabbily, with at least two buttons of his shirt broken and shoes full of dust. He was from Sikkim and had come to this boarding school in Himachal to study. He did not do well in the “regular classroom” studies and used to barely pass his subjects. Choden was a tall, fair girl. She loved dressing up and adored film stars and other celebrities. Kalden had become a close friend of mine. I did not know what it was that attracted me to him, until one day, I read something written about him by Choden. The school followed the CBSE curriculum but also had a Buddhist monk as a teacher who would teach children some of the traditional subjects from the monasteries. During one of his classes, he had asked the children to answer a few questions, one of them being – Who is the person that inspires you? Who do you want to be like? That night when we both went out for tea, he read out a few answers to me, one of them was written by Choden. Here is a broken translation (from Tibetan) of the same –

I admire Kalden. He is so simple and down to earth. I have never seen him fight with other kids. He always manages to find a little corner and busies himself with reading or writing about something. He never talks bad about anyone and is always smiling. He does not do well in the exams and is considered by almost all the teachers as dull and lazy. Yet he spends a lot of time reading other books from library. He never tries to gain attention. After seeing him, I have realized that it is not the outer appearance that is so important. We should be beautiful from inside. I really respect the way Kalden is.

After listening to her answer, I was so overwhelmed, now realizing why I liked Kalden so much and how unknowingly I had made a certain impression of the girl (based on the outer appearance), which was so wrong.

I remember a small conversation I had with Kalden once –

“What is it that you want to do when you grow up? What’s your passion?”
I don’t know. It’s been long. I just want to go home and stay with my parents.”
“Yes, they stay in Sikkim right?”
“Yes, a small village in Sikkim.”
“Nice. But I was asking what you want to do when you grow up? Say, something special for the world?”
“World, I do not know. But I do want to take care of my parents. They have done a lot for me. I want to keep them happy.”

I didn’t know what to say after that. I was used to hearing doctor, police or army officer and pilot as an answer and never thought that this was a possible answer, a beautiful one too. I smiled and thanked him inwardly for teaching me something so invaluable.

It was in the same school, a couple of days later when we were having dinner that a child opened my eyes to another possibility. The dining room was a beautiful place where we all sat down on mats and ate. Up on the walls were these beautiful paintings made by both children and teachers. There was a nice little painting of a waterfall. I asked this kid sitting near me if he knew who painted it. He pointed towards a kid from class 6. After dinner I went to this kid, Tenzin, and asked him if he had painted that picture. He said that it was not him but Tashi from class 8 who had painted it. I went to Tashi and asked him. He said that it was his painting and told me how he took two days to complete it. I started appreciating the art and his skills. I told him how this kid I had asked did not know and thought Tenzin from class 6 had painted it. Tashi then told me that he probably got confused as the painting beside the waterfall one was made by Tenzin. This other painting, which I had assumed was the work of some teacher, was a beautiful portrayal of a hill and trees on it. I was wonderstruck. After I had asked Tenzin and he pointed to me that it was Tashi’s painting, we did talk for some time. Not once during the conversation, did he get the urge to tell me that it was he who had painted the beautiful painting next to the waterfall one. How was that possible? It was in 2003 that I had cleared the entrance to IITs. Ever since I have grabbed opportunities to share with anyone and everyone the same, seeking appreciation every moment. How someone could be free of that urge continues to intrigue me even today.

It’s been many years and now I spend my time with children at a community learning centre in Hyderabad called ‘A Little Grove’. It is a small space where both parents and children come and spend time together learning various things from each other. I have often had people who visit the learning centre asking me what inspires me to spend my time in this space with children. I would generally answer how I feel there is a need for diverse learning spaces to exist, including spaces where children are given an opportunity to participate in constructing their learning environment instead of being mere consumers of knowledge segments that we adults/experts have decided for them. Somewhere deep within however, I can see that it is not so much about what we can give to these children, but the simple lessons we can learn by just observing them. Over the years, children of varied ages have showed me how easy it is to live a simple life, how to be happy and peaceful for no apparent reason, how to easily forgive someone and not carry the grudge within for hours and days. They have showed me something that I barely have a memory of, how to feel truly happy in others’ happiness. And how it is our nature to be compassionate and caring.

About four years ago, a young boy came to our centre. He was a misfit in the conventional school setup. He had the habit of repeating what others were saying. I did not know how to work with him. He would sit in the class and start repeating things, mumbling to himself. It was only a week or two later when I was sitting and struggling to teach him math that two children came to me and told me that I should work with him in art instead. They brought some of the work he had done. There were beautiful sketches of the temples, monuments he had visited. He was able to remember the intricate details and tried putting them on paper. It was these children who understood him and helped me understand him a little. Ever since I have seen that a lot of time its children more than the adults who are able to connect to and understand other children of different age groups more easily and thereby help each other face the little difficulties of life.

When I was young, I wanted to become a monk, go to a forest and sit under the trees and learn the truth about life. Life though had other plans for me and I ended up working with children in a city. Sometimes I feel that maybe it did not turn out to be very different from what I had planned. There are moments when I think of myself as a simple monk seeking peace and these children are the trees that are helping me understand little by little.

The author spends his time working with children and adults at a small community learning space called A Little Grove (www.alittlegrove.in). He loves music, making things with hands and is currently exploring the art of wood whittling. He can be reached at 27amitd@gmail.com.

Refugees

February 4, 2020


They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)
– Brian Bilston

Love

April 18, 2017
tags: ,

A beautiful poem on Love by Hafiz

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once
Trusted.

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
Hands.

That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about
Is giving Love!

No Single Thing Abides

February 13, 2017

No Single Thing Abides – by Lucretius (c. 99-55 B.C.) – translated by W.H. Mallock

I

No single thing abides; but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings–the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.

II

Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

III

Thou soo, oh earth–thine empires, lands, and seas–
Least, with thy stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these thou too
Shalt go. Thou art going, hour by hour, like these.

IV

Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze
Go off; those moonéd sands forsake their place;
And where they are, shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.

V

Lo, how the terraced towers, and monstrous round
Of league-long ramparts rise from out the ground,
With gardens in the clouds. Then all is gone,
And Babylon is a memory and a mound.

VI

Observe this dew-drenched rose of Tyrian grain–
A rose today. But you will ask in vain
Tomorrow what it is; and yesterday
It was the dust, the sunshine and the rain.

VII

This bowl of milk, the pitch on yonder jar,
Are strange and far-bound travelers come from far
This is a snow-flake that was once a flame–
The flame was once the fragment of a star.

VIII

Round, angular, soft, brittle, dry, cold, warm,
Things are their qualities: things are their form–
And these in combination, even as bees,
Not singly but combined, make up the swarm:

IX

And when the qualities like bees on wing,
Having a moment clustered, cease to cling,
As the thing dies without its qualities,
So die the qualities without the thing.

X

Where is the coolness when no cool winds blow?
Where is the music when the lute lies low?
Are not the redness and the red rose one,
And the snow’s whiteness one thing with the snow?

XI

Even so, now mark me, here we reach the goal
Of Science, and in little have the whole–
Even as the redness and the rose are one,
So with the body one thing is the soul.

XII

For, as our limbs and organs all unite
to make our sum of suffering and delight,
And without eyes and ears and touch and tongue,
Were no such things as taste and sound and sight.

XIII

So without these we all in vain shall try
To find the things that gives them unity–
The thing to which each whispers, “Thou art thou”–
The soul which answers each, “And I am I.”

XIV

What! shall the dateless worlds in dust be blown
Back to the unremembered and unknown,
And this frail Thou–this flame of yesterday–
Burn on, forlorn, immortal, and alone?

XV

Did Nature, in the nurseries of the night
Tend it for this–Nature whose heedless might,
Casts, like some shipwrecked sailor, the poor babe,
Naked and bleating on the shores of light?

XVI

What is it there? A cry is all it is.
It knows not if its limbs be yours or his.
Less than that cry the babe was yesterday.
The man tomorrow shall be less than this.

XVII

Tissue by tissue to a soul he grows,
As leaf by leaf the rose becomes the rose.
Tissue from tissue rots; and, as the Sun
Goes from the bubbles when they burst, he goes.

XVIII

Ah, mark those pearls of Sunrise! Fast and free
Upon the waves they are dancing. Souls shall be
Things that outlast their bodies, when each spark
Outlasts its wave, each wave outlasts the sea.

XIX

The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,
Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,
Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.
It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.

XX

They go beyond recapture and recall,
Lost in the all-indissoluble All:–
Gone like the rainbow from the fountain’s foam,
Gone like the spindrift shuddering down the squall.

XXI

Flakes of the water, on the waters cease!
Soul of the body, melt and sleep like these.
Atoms to atoms–weariness to rest–
Ashes to ashes–hopes and fears to peace!

XXII

Oh Science, lift aloud thy voice that stills
The pulse of fear, and through the conscience thrills–
Thrills through the conscience the news of peace–
How beautiful thy feet are on the hills!

Two tiny stories – On poverty and On a Messiah

February 10, 2016

How poor we are?

One day a father and his rich family took his son to a trip to the country with the firm purpose to show him how poor people can be. They spent a day and a night in the farm of a very poor family. When they got back from their trip the father asked his son, “How was the trip?”

“Very good Dad!”

“Did you see how poor people can be?” the father asked.

“Yeah!”

“And what did you learn?”

The son answered, “I saw that we have a dog at home, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of the garden, they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lamps in the garden, they have the stars. Our patio reaches to the front yard, they have a whole horizon.” When the little boy was finishing, his father was speechless.

His son added, “Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are!”

Author Unknown

——————————————————————————————————————————————————-

A Messiah

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great river. The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way. Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks at the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’ The other creatures laughed and said, ‘Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you shall die quicker than boredom!’

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, ‘See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!’. And the one carried in the current said, ‘I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.’

But they cried the more, ‘Saviour!’ all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

Richard Bach, from “Illusions”

Goodbye, Mrs Boa

February 9, 2016

boa-sr

The poem, ‘Goodbye, Mrs Boa’  was written by Nazrul Haque, a poet from Guwahati.

Boa Sr, an 85-year-old woman was the last member of the Bo tribe, one of the ten tribes that comprise the Great Andamanese People . She was the last speaker of Bo language for at least 30 years. The old woman was very lonely in the last few years of her life as she was the only surviving member of one of the oldest human cultures on earth which lived in the Andaman Islands for as long as sixty-five thousand years. She had no one to converse with as she was the lone speaker of Bo. Her death may go unnoticed but it is a bleak reminder to all of us. She died on 26th January 2010.

Goodbye, Mrs. Boa!
We shall miss you.
The last of a tribe,
a lost language,
and those memories
You carried,
for the last 65,000 years.
Alone.

Aren’t you happy, Mrs. Boa?
In death you are reborn.
Just after crossing the bridge,
You shall meet them all.
Won’t you laugh again?
Will you joke about us-
In ‘Bo’?

Goodbye, Mrs. Boa!
Soon
We shall depart too,
Just like you,
Lost and lonely.
Civilization is a great burden.
So is being human!

Happiness is like a Butterfly

February 2, 2016

On Happiness by none other than Henry David Thoreau 🙂

(taken from Zen pencils)

Beggar who sold cocoons

December 4, 2015

Along a dusty road in India there sat a beggar who sold cocoons. A young boy watched him day after day, and the beggar finally beckoned to him. “Do you know what beauty lies within this chrysalis? I will give you one so you might see for yourself. But you must be careful not to handle the cocoon until the butterfly comes out.”

The boy was enchanted with the gift and hurried home to await the butterfly. He laid the cocoon on the floor and became aware of a curious thing. The butterfly was beating its fragile wings against the hard wall of the chrysalis until it appeared it would surely perish, before it could break the unyielding prison.

Wanting only to help, the boy swiftly pried the cocoon open. Out flopped a wet, brown, ugly thing which quickly died. When the beggar discovered what had happened, he explained to the boy “In order for the butterfly’s wings to grow strong enough to support him, it is necessary that he beat them against the walls of his cocoon. Only by this struggle can his wings become beautiful and durable. When you denied him that struggle, you took away from him his only chance of survival.”

The Last Letter

November 13, 2015

He suffered for 10 years before deciding to give up his life in November 2014. A year before that he wrote this letter.

Tomas Young with his wife Claudia Cuellar

Tomas Young with his wife Claudia Cuellar

Tomas Young, a wounded Iraq War veteran and outspoken critic of war, passed away at the age of 34 on November 10th, 2014, just before Veterans Day, which is also known internationally as Armistice Day. This is the letter he penned to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2013, a year before he died.

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

Tanika and the Muavo tree

October 26, 2015

by Grace Llewellyn, How to quit school and get a real life and education

picking applesON A SOFT green planet, a smiling baby was born in an orchard resplendent with every kind of fruit in the universe. The baby’s parents called her Tanika, and Tanika spent her days roaming the warm wet ground on hands and knees. Spotting a clump of gulberries off in the distance, she’d crawl after it and crush the sweet fruit in her mouth, red juice staining her brown chin and neck. A muavo would fall fatly from the high crown of the muavo tree, and she’d savor its golden tang. Each day revealed new wonders—bushapples, creamy labanas, the nutty crunch of the brown shrombart. The orchard’s fruit sparkled in the dew and sun like thousands of living moist jewels against the green fragrance of cushioning leaves.

As her eyes grew stronger Tanika lifted her gaze. The opulent branches above her hung heavy with fruits she’d never dreamed of, globular and glistening. Tanika’s mother and father wandered the orchard too, sometimes, and she watched them reach out easily and take a shining cluster here, a single green satinplum there. She’d watch them eat and imagine being tall enough to roam and reach so freely as they. Sometimes one of them would bend down and give Tanika one of those fruits from up there in the moving leaves. Fresh from the branches, it intoxicated her, and her desire to know and taste all the fruits of the orchard so consumed her that she began to long for the day she could reach that far.

Her longing strengthened her appetite, and the fruit strengthened her legs, and one day Tanika crawled to the base of a mysterious bush at the edge of the stream that watered the orchard. She leaned carefully forward and braced her arms as she positioned her feet. Unsteadily she rose and groped for the shrub’s pale fruit. Tugging knocked her off balance and she sat down hard in an overripe muavo, but she barely noticed the fruit squishing under her thighs: in her hands she grasped a fruit thin-skinned and silver, fresh and new. She pressed it to her nose and face before she let her teeth puncture it.

No sooner had she tossed the smooth pit into the stream, than she heard a rustling behind her. A jolly bespectacled face grinned down at her.

“Well, well, well! You’re a mighty lucky little girl! I’ve come to teach you to get the fruit down from the tall trees!”

Tanika’s happiness unfurled like a sail. She could hardly believe her good luck. Not only had she just picked and eaten her first bush fruit, but here was a man she didn’t even know offering to show her how to reach the prism of treats high above her head. Tanika was so overcome with joy that she immediately rose to her feet again, and plucked another of the small moonish fruits.

The jolly stranger slapped the fruit from Tanika’s wrist. Stunned, she fell again and watched her prize roll into the stream. “Oh dear,” said the man, “You’ve already picked up some bad habits. That may make things difficult.” The slapping hand now took Tanika’s and pulled her up. Holding on this way, Tanika stumbled along behind the stranger.

She wanted to ask questions, like, “Why didn’t you just show me how to pick those berries hanging above the bush where I was?” But she kept her mouth shut. If she was going off to pick the high fruit, she guessed it didn’t matter where, or that she’d sacrificed her one beautiful moonfruit. Maybe they were going to a special tree melting with juicing fruits, branches bent almost to the ground, low enough for her outstretched fingers. Yes! That must be it. Excitement renewed, she moved her legs faster. The stranger grinned and squeezed her hand.

Soon Tanika saw the biggest, greyest thing she’d ever laid eyes on. In quiet fascination she tripped along as they stepped off the spongy humus of the orchard floor onto a smooth sidewalk. “Here we are!” beamed the guide. They entered the building, full of odd smells and noises. They passed through a pair of heavy black doors, and the man pushed Tanika into a loud, complicated room full of talking children and several adults. She looked at the children, some sitting on the floor, some crawling about or walking. All of them had trays or plates in front of them heaping with odd mushy lumps of various colors. Also, some of the children were busy coloring simple pictures of fruits, and some wore pins and tags on their shirts displaying little plastic pears and mistbulbs. Baffled, Tanika tried to figure out what the children were doing in such a dark, fruitless place, what the lumpy stuff was, and above all, why her guide had stopped here on their way to the bountiful tree.

But before she had time to think, two things happened. First, one of the kids took something metal and used it to scoop a lump of dull pinkish stuff into his mouth. Tanika opened her mouth in panic to warn the kid. Maybe there was something wrong with him; he was much bigger than she was, old enough to know better. But just as she began to yell, a new hand, slick, pulled her up again. “OK, Tanika,” said the cheery woman that went with the hand, “This is the cafeteria. We’re looking forward to helping you grow, and we’re certain we can help you learn to pick tree fruit, as long as you do your part.”

Tanika felt confused. She didn’t see what this place could have to do with picking gulberries, and at the moment she was particularly hungry for more of that shining moonfruit. But she had no time to think. The slick-hand woman put Tanika on a cold chair at a table. “Here,” she said, and nudged a box of crayons and a black outline of a plum at her. “Today you will color this, and it will help you get ready for eating tomorrow.” Tanika started to feel foolish. She’d never guessed that learning to pick fruit would be so complicated. She colored the plum with all the colors in the box, trying in vain to make it round and enticing like the fruits of the orchard.

The rest of the day passed in a daze. Tanika was made to color more of the pictures, and to her disgust most of the children ate the formless mush on the plates in front of them. Some of the fat and greasy children asked for more and stuffed themselves. Whenever this happened, the adults ran in and put gold stars all over the kid’s arms and face. Many things happened—children fought, napped, sat quietly fidgeting with the stuff. Finally, the jolly man took Tanika’s hand and led her out of the dark building. As her bare feet met the orchard grass, she caught the scent of ripe labana. She asked the stranger if he would get one for her, but he merely laughed.

Tanika was far too confused to put any of her questions into words. By the time they arrived at the tree where Tanika slept with her parents, the evening light had turned the leaves to bronze, and she was exhausted. Too tired to look for fruit, she fell asleep and dreamed fitfully.

In the morning her mind was clear. She still wanted to reach the high fruit, but she did not want to go back to the noisy smelly dark cafeteria. She could already reach the bushfruit; maybe in time she’d grasp the high fruit too.

But when the spectacled person arrived, he told her that she’d never reach the trees without many years in the cafeteria. He explained it—”You can’t reach them now, can you?” and “Your parents can reach them. That’s because they went to the cafeteria. I can reach them, because I went to the cafeteria.” Tanika had no time to think this through, because he’d pulled her to her feet again and they were off. She hadn’t had time to find breakfast, and her stomach rumbled painfully.

Tanika went in the room and sat down politely. “Please,” she asked one of the adults, “Can you help me pick tree fruits today? That’s why I’m here, and also today I didn’t have time for breakfast.”

The tall lady laughed. “Well, well, well! Aren’t we cute! Tree fruit! Before you’re ready for tree fruit, you have to prepare!” She disappeared behind a curtain and returned carrying a tray with a scoop of greenish stuff. Tanika jerked back. She looked around wildly for an escape route. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a boy watching with soft dark quiet eyes. The lady grabbed her hand.

“Don’t be afraid, Tanika,” she laughed. “How will you ever work up to eating tree fruit if you can’t handle plate fruit?” She put the tray on the table, and took the metal thing, spooning up a piece of the stuff and holding it in front of the small girl. Tanika pushed the spoon away violently. Then she put her head down on the table and cried.

The lady’s voice changed. “So you’re going to be a tough one, Tanika? Just remember, you’re only hurting yourself when you refuse to eat. If you want to succeed, you’d better do as we ask.” She walked away.

When Tanika stopped crying, her stomach was desperately empty. She sat up and looked at the tray. She was afraid of the stuff. She bent down to smell it and caught a faint, stale whiff of limbergreen berry. The smell, even distorted, was a familiar friend. She picked up the spoon and ate her first bite of cafeteria food. Tanika was relieved. Although the goop was slimy, far too sweet, and mostly tasteless, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. And it did seem to be made from limbergreen berries. She ate it all, and felt a little better. The lady came back. “Very good,” she smiled. She stuck a green star on the back of Tanika’s hand. “We’ll do some more exercises and then later on you can try something new to eat.”

Hours later, Tanika had been the apple in “Velcro the Stem on the Apple,” and had drawn a muavo tree and listened to an older student explain what fruits contained vitamins P, Q, and Z. Apparently she had done all these things right, because the lady came back and put more green and gold stars on her hands and cheeks. Some of the children looked at her angrily, though, so perhaps she’d done something wrong.

At this point a man rang a little bell. Immediately all the children sat down at the tables and folded their hands neatly. A girl grabbed Tanika’s hand and shoved her onto a chair. Then six children walked into the room carrying stacks of trays. They put one in front of each child, and Tanika saw that each tray contained five purple and blue wafers. “Yum!” said the girl next to Tanika, “Violetberry cakes!” Tanika jumped. She’d seen her parents eat violetberries, and also seen the accompanying ecstasy on their faces. She easily pictured the graceful coniferous trees on which they grew.

She picked up a wafer. It was warm, but not with the gentle warmth of the sun. She put it in her mouth. Dry, sandy… she chewed obediently but sadly. This was it? Disappointment sank her stomach and she put the cake down, mentally crossing violetberries off her wishlist forever.

In the end Tanika was made to eat the violetberry cake—all five hunks of it— before the spectacled man would lead her out the door. Her stomach throbbed all the way home. That night she crawled into her mother’s arms and sobbed. Her mother rocked her, then whispered something to Tanika’s father. He disappeared, and returned a minute later with an armload of tiny, glowing violetberries.

“It’s time,” said her mother sweetly, “For your first fresh violetberries.”

Her father dangled them teasingly above her lips, but Tanika only cried harder. The berries’ fragrance, though delicate and sweet, clashed with her distended heavy stomach. She was far too full, and it was violetberries’ fault. Both parents teased and offered, but they finally gave up. Her mother laid Tanika down to rest alone, and the two adults stood whispering while the moon rose, worry in their voices.

At the cafeteria the next day the adults met Tanika with an unpleasant stare. “You’re making things difficult for yourself,” scolded the woman with slick hands, “Your parents have reported that your attitude at home is not meeting standards for girls your age. You need to eat much more thoroughly.” A girl brought a plate crowded with dried out, wrinkly little fruits. Tanika ate them, tough and tasteless. Her stomach hurt again. After they dissected a preserved bushapple, she ate another tray full of canned gulberry. Then she went back home and slept.

Days passed, and months. Tanika ate obediently and earned lots of stars. There was a picture of a bright green tree painted on one of the walls, and when the whole roomful of children ate their food quickly, the adults had them play a game. They taped three or four cut-out paper fruits to the tree, and then the kids were made to take turns jumping or reaching to try to take them. Whoever reached a fruit got to keep it, and also was called a winner and plastered with dozens of gold stars.

One day when the spectacled man walked her home he told her the cafeteria would be closed for two days for cleaning. He handed her a little white carton and said, “Be sure to eat all of this while I’m gone, and I’ll pick you up in two days.”

As he waddled away, a strange inspiration seized Tanika’s brain. She touched her swollen belly and flung the carton away. Out of it tumbled cakes, red mush, hard little biscuits smelling flatly of labanas.

When she woke the next morning her stomach rumbled and she got up to look for breakfast. Leaving the clearing, she accidentally kicked a biscuit. Out of habit, she picked it up and almost put it in her mouth, then caught herself and aimed instead for a bush full of gulberries. Furtively she snatched a handful and crushed them to her lips. Sweet and wild, they made her want to sing.

Tanika’s father saw her then, and called excitedly to her mother. Both of them ran to their child and squeezed her. “Look what you’ve learned at the cafeteria!” cried her mother. “My baby is growing up!”

“Be sure to eat all your homefood,” said her father, “So you won’t be behind when you go back.” Then his tone of voice changed. “What’s that?” he said. He sprinted off and grabbed up the white carton. Tanika watched in horror as he searched the orchard floor. A few minutes later he returned with everything— biscuits, cake, mush.

Tanika ate it all.

The cafeteria opened again and Tanika went back. Every day she ate faster, and gradually stopped resisting, even in her own mind. One day she reached the highest paper fruit on the painted tree. All the adults patted her head and she could barely see her brown skin under all the gold stars. She started walking to the cafeteria every day by herself. The adults started giving her food for the evenings, and usually she’d eat it like they said. One day, walking home, she flung her hands to the sky and they touched, accidentally, a muavo hanging down from its branch. Tanika jumped back. “I can pick it,” she said slowly, “It worked.” She thought for a minute. The cooks had said it would happen, someday, if she ate what they gave her and jumped as high as she could during the tree game.

Tanika gracefully severed the muavo from its stem, examined it, and tossed it neatly into a shadow.

She wasn’t hungry.

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