Day 1: Up and Running

Traversing the globe over the past 24 hours has gotten me thinking a lot about my past travels, and in particular the last time I left the country for an extended period of time back in 2007.

My first job after graduating from art school was to assist Danish artist Nina Hole at the International Monumental Ceramic Sculpture Symposium in Veracruz, Mexico. She was building one of her famous fire sculptures and needed a wood fire technician, something I had helped her with on a past project. The timing all worked out so I packed my bags and went to Mexico for two months.

The conference organizer offered to let me stay in her guesthouse, which was a little one-room cabin in the rainforest, surrounded by coffee plants. I had electricity and running water, but an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing. It was far from glamorous.

My digs in Mexico.

My digs in Mexico.

What surprised me during my stay was how happy I was living simply and how connected I felt while surrounded by fruit trees and chickens roaming the yard. I made a promise to myself to eventually end up on a little farm, and to cultivate that feeling of connectedness in my life in the long term. About a year ago I made good on that promise when my husband and I moved to our current home, a little homestead complete with chickens. I don’t find that having access to abundant energy and opportunity are at odds with living simply and happily- but I’ll save that for another post…

Nina Hole's Fire Sculpture. Veracruz, Mexico 2007.

Nina Hole’s Fire Sculpture. Veracruz, Mexico 2007.

Okay- back to Mexico- one of my tasks during the Symposium was to pick up wood for firing Nina’s sculpture. It takes a lot of wood to fire a 16 foot tall ceramic tower to 2000°F over the course of five days. As I went to remote locations to collect wood,  I met many families living in similarly simple accommodations as their permanent residences, some with no electricity.

One experience really stuck with me- I went to pick up wood from a woman in her 70’s living in a tiny tin house with a dirt floor. Her only furniture was a cast iron wood stove used for heating and cooking and a formal hutch that held dishes, clothes and linens. She had no electricity, just hanging battery-powered lights made out of recycled Coke bottles. The woman greeted me warmly and immediately started making hand pressed tortillas on the wood stove. She insisted on feeding me before I left.

I have reflected on this experience many times and and am still so amazed that despite having few material possessions this woman felt she had more than enough to feed me a meal. That is a lesson I carry close to my heart. This along with countless other glimpses into other cultures has helped define my own values over time. Through traveling I’ve learned that you can appreciate kindness and tradition without idealizing poverty or scarcity.

The choices and opportunities I am currently navigating here in beautiful (and snowy!) Munich are possible because I have access to so many resources. Abundant electricity is one of those resources- which unfortunately can easily be taken for granted if you’ve never had to live without it. I wonder about the generous, kind old woman I met in Mexico who insisted on sharing a meal with me- and how different things may have been if she’d had access to electricity, and subsequent education and healthcare throughout her life. I wonder if she ever had other dreams for herself. I am grateful for the chance to follow mine.

Later this week I head to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). I am very interested to hear from the nuclear community here in Germany about their experiences since the phase out.