Saturday, November 19, 2011

Recollection Shelf #1: The India Angel

     I'm going to start a series about my Recollection Shelf.  This is an area on my bookshelf where I keep random mementoes of my travels.  It helps keep me tied to who I’ve been and what I’ve done, and I still need that.  Each item has a story behind it, and no story is without significance if told the right way!  So when nothing else is going on here in Germany (like this week, study study study!) I’ll tell the story of one of these items.  This week:  The India Angel 
My Recollection Shelf

         For a long time I believed that exhaustion, stress, frustration, or panic were all “mind over matter” problems, that I could always talk myself out of them and stay in control.  After two months in a rural orphanage in India, I’d stopped believing that… or at least I had to realize that when my mind had reached its limits, it couldn’t overcome even the smallest thing.  It was time to leave.

       Why this experience was so intense and impossible for me to bear any longer is very difficult to explain, and it would take much longer than the story I intend to tell here, the simple and stunning events of my last night which somehow reached into my shell-shocked soul and became a memory that will stay with me all my life. 
      There was an old man who lived at the orphanage.  No one seemed to know where he came from, or why he was here.  After a couple weeks I asked about him, and Vinod, the director, told me “He just came one day, and he stayed.”  “What’s his name?” I asked.  Vinod looked surprised.  “Everyone just calls him old man,” he answered, and that was that.       Old Man couldn’t speak much, and when he did it was in the coarse, too loud voice of the nearly senile.  He seemed to have assigned himself the job of sweeping the dusty grounds every day, and afterwards he would sit on a log outside the main building and occasionally yell and the children or me.  It took several weeks before I realized that one or two of the words he was yelling were English (at least in origin), but there was no question of trying to communicate… not only because of language problems, but more because I was already overwhelmed by the barrage of communication failures on every level and I’d started rejecting any extra effort that seemed futile from the start.  So, for two months, I ignored him, like everyone else, and I focused all my energy on keeping myself sane amidst the flood of frustrations, noise, alienation, loneliness, and anger.
    On my last night I was sitting outside my hut with a few other volunteers, talking about the situation in which we found ourselves.  I was sad to leave the children who were sweet (despite the fact that they’d nearly driven me insane), and I was disturbed by the way the experience was ending.  Still, not much was in my mind but getting away and getting some peace.  So when Old Man shuffled across the yard towards where we sat, I nearly started smiling and nodding him away even before the inarticulate screeches began.  He stopped in front of me, looked into my eyes, and said loudly, gravelly, but shockingly clearly: “My….name….is….Mallappa Kamati.”  I was take so off guard that I immediately stood up and shook his hand, as if we’d just met and not spend the last two months “together.” But he wasn’t done.  “This..” he waved his hand unsteadily toward the schoolhouse I’d been building that stood shrouded in the dark,  “Thank….you.    I…. am….. protestant …..Christian.”  My eyes must have widened to their limit at this.  It was inconceivable!  I’d not met a single protestant in a year!  But there’s no way he could have known what this meant to me.  I exclaimed “You are?!  I am protestant Christian!”  He looked up at me again, smiled, and slowly reached out his frail arm to shake my hand again.  Those were the only three sentences he said, and looking back I can’t imagine how anyone could have packed more meaning into so few words, meaning that touched me deeply.  I suddenly had a thought, and motioned to him to wait there while I went into my hut.         
     I don’t know what put it into my head, but it’s a testament to the many tangled emotions I was dealing with.  I suddenly thought of my cross, which used to be nearly a part of me (I wore it every day for over 10 years), which I’d stopped wearing several months before.  I’m not entirely sure why… it was a combination of things: in Japan realizing that it meant almost nothing at all (or meant something completely different than I intended), while travelling in poor countries for the first time I realized I still had more questions than answers, and meeting people from so many different places I realized I was being held to represent idea or assumptions that were no part of the reason why I wore it.  But mostly, I felt that something in me was changing, and putting away this symbol of my identity left me feeling like  a blank-slate with no bias between me and the new world I had jumped into.  I still carried the cross with me for many months of travel, and I think I assumed I’d be ready to put it back on at some point. 
     But I knew this was an opportunity to do something better, and maybe, in some small way, make up for all my personal failures which were all suddenly embodied by one lonely old man whom I’d deliberately dismissed.  I came out of the hut with the necklace in my hand, and I carefully put it over his head and laid the cross on his chest.  He held it in his hand and looked at it, then looked up at me and smiled, not widely but deeply.  He nodded several times, slowly turned around, and shuffled away into the dark.  I never saw him again. 
     There’s always someone watching in India.  No small part of my daily stress was from the complete lack of privacy, from locking my door only to find a line of eyes peering intently at me through the whicker weave, to fleeing to the hills for some solitude only to attract the attention of half the village children who then sit down nearby to get in a good long stare at the foreigner.  So until this moment I didn’t even realize that several of the orphanage children had been sitting nearby watching us for quite some time, and one especially had taken careful note of the exchange between Mr. Kamati and me.  “You wait,” he told me, and ran off. 
     This was Depu, one of my unabashedly favorites at the orphanage.  You could immediately tell from his eyes that he was bright and sharp, and you could tell from a few days with him that somewhere in his dog-eat-dog environment he’d picked up an instinct of decency and empathy for others.  He wasn’t perfect, far from it, but he was the only one I felt I could “count on.”  
     Depu came running back, and taking my hand he pressed into it a small, shiny, beautiful angel strung on a piece of string.  He closed my hand around it and said very matter-of-factly, “You Christian, me Hindu.”  “Depu, where did you get this?!”  “Girl in Goa,” he smiled back.  That made sense; a few weeks earlier we’d all made a trip to the nearby state of Goa, the only Christian state in India, and we’d stayed with a friend of Vinod who had two daughters, one of them Depu’s age.  I’m sure she liked him, and maybe he liked her.  This angel had been a parting gift from her that he’d keep in the weeks since, probably the only possession he could call his own besides his clothes.  But I didn’t think of all that at the time, I only felt the weight and power of the gift, that it was from the heart.  And even if I’d realized at the time what this angel might have meant to him I still would have accepted it; after all, Depu’s gift was prompted by seeing that a possession can be made more valuable by giving it away than by keeping it close.  We all have the power to imbue objects with great significance, and in no way more than giving it away in an act of love and selflessness.  Somehow Depu understood that, and I never would have denied him the poetry of that moment.
     I left the next morning, walking over the fields as the last sunrise lit up the orphanage behind me.  If nothing else came of those two months, one thing definitely changed:  I went from carrying a cross in my backpack, to wearing an angel around my neck.  This angel immediately symbolized more things than I can list here.  But more than anything else it symbolizes my snatched-from-the-flames hope, the hope that even faced with all the divisions of culture, language, religion, stress, anger, and the limitations of our humanity that none of us escape, that even through all that people can still reach out and touch another human being… almost like an angel.      


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Making Dream(er)s Work

“Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.”  -Winston Churchill 

     I’ve been thinking about work lately.  No, not a in the sense of a job, and not in the sense of “function,” but about general old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone, roll-up-your-sleeves work.  I know this isn’t a crowd-pleasing subject, but it’s a recurring theme for me, usually popping up again whenever I have to do something I don’t want to do.  See, the problem is I’m a dreamer.  And what is a dreamer but someone who wants to be somewhere else, or be doing something else, or thinking something else… what were we talking about?  Ah right, work.  Well, suddenly my life is full of it.  That sounds whiny and childish, and just let me say that it IS, because the point is I’ve gotten lazy in the last few years. My travels have not been all fun and games, and much of it has been difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s been rare that I’ve absolutely had to do something I absolutely don’t feel like doing.  And it shows.  Sure I still can (and do) spend 14 hours on weekend days in the deserted library, but would you like to know how much of that time is spent staring out the window, or dozing on the table, or clicking “refresh” on facebook?.... No, I don’t want to know either.
     The above quote from Churchill has been firmly stuck in my head ever since I read it six months ago, knowing that I was coming up on a period in life when my determination and aspirations would be truly put to the test.  “Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.” It’s a different perspective than what you usually hear in our instant-success, skilless-stardom, inalienable-right-to-the-spotlight generation.  I guess I’d actually accepted the message that “dreams” or “full potential” are things that would HAPPEN to me, sooner or later, or if I’m lucky enough, or if that’s my destiny, and I’d always been led to believe that it is my destiny, by sports commercials, or by the manifest-destiny version of my religion, or the unconditional assertion of my parents that I could do whatever I want to do… I don’t think they realized that already Spiderman, Michel Jordan, and Bono had decided that what I wanted to do was take over the world one fan at a time……  now what was I talking about?
     It’s hard to find anyone talking about hard work anymore… at least, anyone we can take seriously.  Most of them are too old, or too old-fashioned, or look too much like an English bulldog (I wonder which category this blog post will get me thrown into?….).  In fact this IS a faint-hearted new world, where hard work is NOT necessary for the most glorious success on offer.  There are other ways, and why not hope for that?  The plan to do our best has changed to the hope of being given-a-shot, to a chance of being “discovered,” to waiting for our god-given 15 minutes to arrive.  And I’m ranting because this is about me, because I bought it, I believed Walt Disney when he said "If you can dream it, you can do it."  I believed R Kelly when he sang “If I just believe it, there's nothing to it! I believe I can fly!”  I believed Obama when he chanted “Yes We CAN” full-stop.  The strange thing is that all of these people (some more than others) WORKED, and worked HARD, to get where they got.  But no one wants to hear about that, it’s such a downer. 
     It’s the word “continuous” that makes this quote so Churchillian, so ballsy.  That’s what really hooked me.  I keep waiting for it to end, you know, to finally reach my potential and be DONE with all this stress and effort and WORK.   Listening to Rusty Berkus who said: “There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential,” I’ve been waiting for someone to acknowledge me and spark my potential; it’s like magic that adults can believe in, too.  I’ve been counting on my intelligence to get me to the top, while I watch some sit-coms and wait to “arrive.”  After all, why should I exhaust myself when so many people get their dreams dropped in their laps?  Why should I read 100s of dull pages a week, study foreign languages, develop my writing, or exercise my body, when one lottery ticket, one TV camera, one viral youtube video could make all that irrelevant?
     I guess the important difference is the 21st century’s division between “success” and the “potential” Churchill was talking about.  Potential is about what we CAN achieve, not what luck we stumble upon.  I honestly think that if I can fulfill my potential on a day-to-day basis, then I won’t care if anyone else knows about it.  I think so, at least.  It’s up for internal debate…  But in any case that unlocking of potential will now require luck (which can give me what I want but not in the way I want it), not intelligence or strength (which gives me potential but no substance), and not dreams (which gives me ideas but no reality)…. It will require effort.  Continuous effort, because as soon as I stop, as soon as I’m distracted for a moment, my potential sprints ahead of me and leaves me clicking on facebook and watching leaves fall off the trees.  Endless work.
    So that’s the way of it, that's how dreams come true.  I would like to believe that Disney, Kelly, and Obama aren’t sugar-coating reality, but truth is rarely so comfortable or easy to live with.  Churchill speaks with the cold, hard, sharp ring of truth: there is no rest for those who want to live fully, no easy way for those who aren’t satisfied with dreams alone, there is no finish line but the final one.  So if that’s possible, if I’m even capable of that anymore, only one question remains: is it worth it?  I’ve put a lot of thought into that…. and I have no idea.  I think the only way to be sure is to ask Churchill himself.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is I Where?

In A Nutshell:
The purpose of this post is simple, to knock this blog out of its seven-month coma, to explain my past absence, to establish the present, and chart the future. Explanation of absence: Tanzania, Kenya, Turkey, France, Germany, France, South Korea, France, Germany. As for the present: I’m one month into an MA program in Modern Global History at Jacob’s University in Bremen, Germany. As for the future, I plan to post something (SOMETHING, I say) here once a week. That’s the nuts and bolts! If you’re honestly interested in all the confused personal details (especially about the last seven months) then read on!

I'm Back!
     A few months ago a student in Korea asked me “Please to tell, is I where?” I immediately recognized that this is exactly the question I’ve been trying to ask myself for months, but hadn’t been able to find the words. I’m still trying to find the answer.
Since my last post:
2 Foot Injuries.
5 homes established and abandoned in 4 countries.
5 times reunited and separated from Celine.
7 different planes.
29 different beds.
250+ official/bureaucratic emails.
28,000 miles (more than the circumference of the equator).
     In what seems like the blink of an eye I’ve gone from sitting crippled and alone in vast African wildernesses, to settling into luxury a Korean bullet-train, picnicking under the Eiffel Tower, eating squirming tentacles under faux-bamboo, days and days of jet-lag, languages like a soup in my head, intimate candle-lit dinner with the woman I love. I’d be a fool to try to summarize it… so here it goes.

1.  Out Of Africa:
    The last thing I had to do in Africa was my Pilgrimage to Ol-Doinyo Lengai, The Mountain of God. Everything was perfect, terrifying, and thrilling, except for my choice of shoes. Two days into the trek, miles from even the smallest drivable-track, I had baseball-sized blisters and was barely able to stand. I had to be rescued by a friend from the city, and I was eventually driven out crippled, dehydrated, helplessly enchanted with the wildness I’d walked into with my own two feet, and completely humiliated that my feet got me just far enough to leave me stranded.     
     By the time I could walk again it was time to fly out and close my time in Africa… and in some ways to close the time of world-travel I’d planned out five years previously. About Africa, a couple months later I wrote my academic mentor Jaime O’Neill this:
“The most I can say about Africa is that it's a REAL place, with all the power and thrill and  horror that entails. For the first time in all my travels I stepped onto completely unrestricted places, places where I could do anything that I had the strength to do, and anything could be done to me if I didn't have the strength to stop it. If nothing else, there's a forceful blow of truth in places like that, and you realize how much is artificial... and how grateful one can be for some artifice! Even in the worst moments I loved my time there. I think the only thing I really require out of life is to FEEL alive, and Africa is the kind of place where you cannot escape the bracing grip of life, until you're dead. And I mean that in the completely non-morbid pragmatic way of the Africans themselves.”
     I miss it, in many ways, and The Mountain of God still lies in the distant dark behind my eyes.

2. Reunion
     From Nairobi I flew to Istanbul to meet Celine, after seven months apart. It was a powerful moment, but the strangest this was how normal it felt. Even in that exotic city straddling Asia and Europe and separate from both, as soon as she was by my side, I felt at home, at peace. Celine completes me in a way I didn’t know was possible, and every time we part I feel like she’s taken a bigger and bigger piece of me away with her.     
     After Istanbul we flew to France, where we got to stay together for two months (the longest time we’ve been in the same country during our 15 month relationship), and I met her family, food, and culture. During this time I spent 5-8 hours a day hunting for and applying to summer jobs in Korea, America, UK, Germany, Thailand, and Japan, sorting through nearly 300 English-taught MA programs in Germany, and gathering in the scraps of paper that prove my life from all corners of the world. I rarely went a day without communicating with three continents, but I rarely went outside. Other than that, it was all about getting to know Celine. During this time I wrote my Grandma: 
      “Every day I'm stunned anew by some new evidence of how well we fit. Of course I knew about all the big things before we got together, and all the essential things checked out perfectly... I never counted on her pacing when she talks on the phone, or blowing her nose very loudly, or disliking deep water, or being fascinated by swords, or being messy... LIKE ME! :-) She's so easy to be with, so laid-back and rational about what is and isn't a big deal, so ready to talk about anything.”
     In April my parent arrived in France for a visit, and we spent a whirl-wind three weeks in Paris and all over “Celine’s France,” covering the main sites in her current state Alsace and her home-state Lorraine. Then it was time for my whirl-wind tour of German Universities, hitchhiking and couchsurfing through 9 cities in two weeks. I met amazing strangers and wonderful old friends, and I got excited about studying in Germany.
I returned to Celine just in time to catch a flight to South Korea, where I’d landed a job that fit my needs perfectly…

3. Asia Redux: South Korea
     I’m going to burn for this (Koreans nurture an intense dislike of the Japanese), but the conclusion that stuck in my head is “South Korea is exactly like Japan… only less so.” It’s smaller, less intense, less foreign, less mono-lingual (easier to find an English speaker in Korea any day), less socially-exclusive, less expensive. I greatly enjoyed my time there, for one simple reason: the Korean people. My students all warmly welcomed me as a friend almost from day-one, and I’ve never spent such a short time in a place and been so sad to leave.
     Besides the visit of two close Czech friends and Celine during my final month (I think I used every word I know (doesn’t take long) in Czech, French, Japanese, and Korean in a week!), I traveled very little, explored very little, studied very little. This was the closed I’ve ever come to a “working holiday,” and I needed the down-time. The inactivity (along with surviving on spaghetti and sandwiches) allowed me to save nearly $3000 in a summer, which was essential for the next stage of the plan.

4. À Nouveau en France
   I flew back to spend another session of jet-lag and double reverse-culture shock (white people everywhere!!! Speaking French!!!!!) with Celine in her new home near Mulhouse. During this time I again spent hours daily on the computer, this time looking for a flat in Bremen. Between her work and mine we discovered a mutual dormant love of retro computer games, a shared talent for breaking glass objects, and shocking signs that she might succeed in teaching me to cook! All too soon it was again time to put a national boundary between us.

5. Hallo Deutschland!
    I didn’t mention that while in Korea the acceptance letters came in, and with much hemming and hawing I chose Modern Global History at Jacobs University for a variety reasons. I’ve now been in Bremen for exactly a month, and already immersed in another life. I’m comfortable and engaged here, not to mention over-my-head busy, and I rarely have time to reflect back or look very far ahead. When I do look back, it’s strangely unsettling to try decide where I’m actually coming from, and when I look forward it makes me as panicky as excited. The Challenge is not over, not by a long shot.
     For a long time I’ve been aware that life is about priorities, and somehow that’s always gotten me through. But I’ve known for many months now that I would have to face too many Number One Priorities during this chapter of life:

-Priority Number One: School. It is a master’s program, and it is serious. The program could be more intense, but I’ve been out of school for years and the readings and presentations already keep me in the library more than out of it. If I don’t make this my Number One Priority I’ll fall behind immediately.
-Priority Number One: Learn French. Celine speaks perfect English, but I’m never going to feel fully comfortable about our life together until I can actually speak with her parents and not feel like a baby when I’m in her country. I’m taking a French class and trying
(often failing) to spend an hour a day on it. If I don’t make this my Top Priority I’ll fail in the most important element of my future.
-Priority Number One: Part-Time Job. If I don’t find a job soon then all these other plans might not matter. Savings from Korea got me here and give me a buffer for a few months, but I always knew this was something of a leap of faith. I counted on getting a job on campus but didn’t realize that my program starts a month later than all other students at Jacobs… Not speaking a word of German makes other opportunities frighteningly limited. I’m applying to language schools and international bars. No luck so far and this is Priority Numero Uno.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Study German. I can survive without speaking German here, but I hate the thought of spending two years here and not learning a good bit of the language. I can’t make myself give up entirely (nor find time to really start).
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Writing. The only career goal I really get excited about is writing. And however much it’s obvious to you that 6 months without practice leaves its mark, you can be sure it’s more obvious to me. I’m determined to post something here every week.
-Should-Be Priority Number One: Website. More and more people (many of them friends of friends) have asked me for advice about living abroad. I realized that the main ways most young Americas do it is by studying abroad, teaching English, being a missionary, volunteering, or long-term travel. I’ve done all of those in several countries. In fact, living abroad is the only thing I feel legitimately knowledgeable about. I’ve gotten the idea to create a website called “How To Go Abroad.” It would take a great deal of work, but it could be awesome. When? I’ve no idea.
-A Close-Second Priority (aka: Never Going To Happen): Exercise. I haven’t exercised for months, and I feel myself getting weaker. Must… move…. my….lazy…..
-A Close-Third Priority (aka shouldn’t give it time but will anyway): Socialization. My classmates and flat-mates are awesome people and I want to spent time with them. And let’s face it, I need a social life.

     There’s not enough time in the day to do half of this, even if I was absolutely efficient, which I’m not. The problem is deciding what to give up when all of it is either essential, or extremely important. Something tells me the next two years in Bremen will fly by.

6. La Vie Internationale, Mezinárodního života, Des Internationalen Lebens, 국제 생활,  Uluslararası Yaşam, 国際的な生活, Maisha Ya Kimataifa....

     It’s never far from my mind that I’m living a life that is far beyond my own wildest dreams, with all the awe and struggle that comes with it. On one hand, everything has gone off without a hitch. Months of research and work produced a workable compromise between reality and the ideal, and then hammered out the details. I did spend the summer working in South Korea, I was accepted to MA programs in German. It has all worked out exactly as I wanted. So why does that make me nervous?...

     On the other hand, I often feel that things have spun completely out of control, and I seriously wonder how long I can keep my grip. In the last five years I’ve lived in eight countries, and I’ve gone from spending a full year there (USA, CZ, Japan), to six months in the next three (South East Asia, India, Tanzania), to three months at a time (France, South Korea). My mind has started doing funny things to me, taking strange things for granted (often wrongly), and getting stuck on things that should be normal. “Listen to that chanting loud-speaker…Is it time for Muslim evening prayer already?”… “No, Caleb, you’re in Korea, and that’s the loud-speaker on the vegetable delivery cart.” “Not again! Those kids are giggling at me just because I’m a foreigner.” “No, wait, you’re in Germany and everyone is white here. They don’t know you’re a foreigner.” “Did I just start speaking Japanese to the Korean shop-owner, Germany to the father of my French girlfriend, and Czech to my Serbian classmate?” “Yes, yes you did.” At this point I’ve stopped wondering whether I’m experiencing jet lag, culture shock, reverse culture shock, inverted culture fatigue, or maybe just fatigue… they’re all crushed up against each other and lying in a snarled heap, as are the mountains of paperwork I’ve had to do for each step.
     But this is a confusion that has been slowly bubbling up for many months, and the need for a bit more stability has led me on a topsy-turvy ride to the here and now: looking forward to two years in the same place, happy to be on the same continent as my girlfriend. It’s still a foreign country, and I’m still 100s of miles from the person I want to be with, but the Merry-Go-Round comes to a stop very very slowly, and I’ll take it with gratitude, since I was getting pretty dizzy. As I slowly make my way around the plastic Unicorns and Zebras and carefully step off this ride, will I finally stumble out of the Circus, or be sick on my shoes, or get pushed onto a real roller-coaster? Your guess is as good as mine.