Saturday, July 2, 2011

Living up to a dream

Halfway through? Seriously? This week was our Mid-Year meeting for Fulbright, which means I have been here about ½ the total time I am going to be here. We had to provide reports about what we have been doing since arrival, both work related and not. Mine was a bit rambling. Why? Because my life has been a bit rambling. The good news is that I have sent in one chapter, I am getting responses to my survey, and I have begun another chapter. I think everything might just be coming together . . . finally. So, that meant another vacation, this time to Napier on the East Coast of the North Island. But more about that later.

There were several highlights of the Fulbright event. First, as always, was seeing my fellow American Fulbrighters and the staff at Fulbright New Zealand. I cannot express in words the gratitude I feel for everyone in that office. They are all wonderful and supportive. And my fellow Fulbrighters are a ton of fun and some of the most interesting people I have ever met. I feel amazingly honoured to among their company.

This trip was also an opportunity to meet the Kiwi Fulbrighters, most of whom head to the States in August and September. It was so great to hear about their future projects and share some tidbits about the United States (the important things, such as Trader Joe’s and craigslist). And I am super excited that one of them will be in Tucson and three are going to be in Los Angeles. I am looking forward to being able to share Tucson and the west with some Kiwi mates!

Before we share the States with them, however, a few of us went to check out Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King, the Extended Version at Peter Jackson’s theatre, a very American in New Zealand sort of experience. I prepared by watching the first two films during the last week, and I have to say, there is a vast difference between the big screen and a Macbook screen. Other than the movie being four hours long, and going 2 hours beyond my bedtime, it was quite amazing. All three movies premiered in that theatre, and what was extra special was seeing places I recognize now. This country is truly magnificent.

And I cannot forget the Fulbright Awards Ceremony / Alumni Banquet. We received lovely certificates, and we were able to see the people who have won the amazing diversity of awards administered by Fulbright New Zealand. I think there is something for everyone, so if you want to come down under, check out the website. I bet you find something for which you are eligible. 

While these events were all incredible highlights, I think the biggest surprise highlight for me was learning more about Senator Fulbright. I knew a wee bit about him prior to coming (thanks, Wikipedia), but I knew very little about him other than his influence in setting up the Fulbright program. In short, he was a man from Arkansas who went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship that changed his life. Upon returning to the United States, someone told him he should run for office, and he served from 1943 until 1974 (some in the House and then in the Senate). He saw the end of WWII and the bomb and realized that the best way to avoid WWIII was to send people to be citizen diplomats and ambassadors.

I have mentioned this before, but learning more about him has me thinking about his ideals again. He was a Southern Democrat who was forever distraught by his failure to take on his party with respect to civil rights but who stuck to his principles against his friend President Johnson and helped bring about the truth of the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton spoke of him as a mentor.

The film on Senator Fulbright led me to evaluate whether I am fulfilling his mission. Is it a problem that I have not learned to live comfortably with someone else? Is it a problem that I chose to travel to Napier alone instead of with my fellow Fulbrighters for the weekend? Is going to a Hare Krishna yoga studio something he expected? Is teaching yoga something more akin to his vision? Is sitting in a New Zealand hostel for an hour talking to a German woman and a Swiss woman about international affairs what he wanted us to do in his name? What about another hostel talking to a woman who worked in the family court system as a counsellor and is now retired?

And then my work. Does it match? Does it matter that I have met lawyers and judges in Wellington? Have I failed him by not reaching out in Dunedin? What happens if the New Zealand Minister of Justice says that lawyers for children should not exist in custody cases anymore because they are too expensive? What if I go back to the States and no one cares about this work? Senator Fulbright was a lawyer, but I do not get the impression that he practiced very long, or at all. My work may never make a difference to anyone.  Should I be working harder on my thesis? Should I be working harder on my new blog for family law professionals?

At its simplest, a Fulbright scholarship is some money to help someone fulfill a degree (at least the kind I received). At its most complex, however, it means fulfilling Senator Fulbright’s vision. It means living up to an ideal of saving the world through diplomacy instead of war. The first time I lived in France, the United States invaded Iraq. The second time, we reelected President Bush. Since I have been here, we have assassinated Osama Bin Laden. War still happens. Can going to see movies at Peter Jackson’s theatre and going to free yoga classes that focus on community building change that?

I want to say yes. I want to believe, as Senator Fulbright did, that we can make this difference, that as more people leave their safety nets, the world becomes a safer place, even if it means we find that we have some limits that we just cannot overcome . . . at least not yet. I want to believe that it matters to his vision as much that I am in New Zealand as that my friend is in Kenya on her award. I want to believe that by learning to represent children, I can help ensure that they live in a world full of opportunities and without the fear of bombs.

In short, I want to be a Fulbright scholar in all senses of the world. I have five more months here. Only time will tell what happens. In the meantime, Napier is beautiful! 

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

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