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Minerva Week 25: Prison, City Hall, and Japan

March 30, 2015

This week, I helped host a trip to a prison-turned-park to make kites inside an exhibit designed by a Chinese artist forbidden to leave his country. We went to Alcatraz to visit Ai WeiWei’s @Large exhibit. My task was helping my fellow students create kites that represented freedom to them.

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I worked on my kite with Thy, whose vision of freedom was beautiful. “It is something that can never be touched or taken away by others. If you are free, if you decide you are free, then you can be in jail and still be free. It is something inside you.” We decided to draw a circle of hands around a burning sun, a ball of light always visible but never within reach.

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In an ironic twist, when we tried to fly the kites on Alcatraz we were given a severe reprimand, because we might have been disturbing the habitats of protected sea birds. The whole saga (almost being ticketed, having to quickly dissemble the kites) reminded me that exercising my own freedom can block other freedoms. Not everything is allowed, and often for these reasons. I felt so guilty. Talking with another student, though, I realized that I was responding more to authority that was forcefully exercised(i.e. the Park guard yelling at us) than anything else. We weren’t flying the kites for more than a few minutes, and I doubt we startled any birds. Freedom is fragile.

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That evening, we had a special 10:01 meal. A documentary film crew had been following us the whole day, and we treated them to a showcase of “the best hits” of 10:01s past. Beaver tails did not make the list, but empanadas, hummus, suya (spicy Nigerian chicken), Vietnamese pancakes, and knafeh (Middle Eastern sweet cheese fried dessert – WOW) did. I helped prepare and enjoy food from four continents.

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The next day, we headed to city hall. We were meeting with people from the city planning department, the housing and homelessness department, and the Mayor’s Office for Civic Innovation (MOCI), an office whose work I had read about admiringly. To put it plainly, I learned from and was inspired by, four passionate municipal employees. They were generous with their time and candid with their reflections on the opportunities and challenges that come with working for change within government. One story that illustrated the ‘promise’ of innovative and effective government is the parklets. San Francisco was the first city to work out rules around converting public parking spaces into public social spaces (like in the picture below). One of the people we talked to was actually the person who wrote all of the detailed and involved rules and procedures that need to be followed for a city to collaborate with a community/business to get one of these things going. Now, these rules and procedures have been adopted by cities on four continents.

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This weekend, for my self-mandated exploration time, I walked through the city until I reached Japan (or a reasonable facsimile of it!). I saw people dressed in fancy frilly dresses (meant to look like characters from manga (Japanese comics), I think). You can see a few in the picture below.

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I bought an almost-too-adorable-to-eat “happy face crepe,” filled with green tea ice cream and decorated to look like a woodland creature. I felt no guilt when I ate its head. Maybe it was my hunter-gatherer instincts rearing up. I thought about how simple it was to arrange the chocolate chips, marshmallows and cereal bits on the ice cream to make a face, and how disproportionately happy it made me to see that little cute animal made of ice cream.

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As I was walking, I stopped in parks and on benches to read. I devoured novels about cancer (The Fault in Our Stars) and North Korea (The Orphan Master’s Son). I spent my last night as a 22-year old (or am spending it as I type this!), thinking about what it means to be a free, healthy, loved person in this world. I think that part of the puzzle is paying attention, noticing the universe, finding beauty and meaning in the things around me, but there is much more to be figured out. May this next year of mine bring me further along the path to a meaningful life.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver, called “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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