Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dead Alive

A classmate and I recently started a revolutionary book club, revolutionary in content not structure. Currently, we are reading Hitler. We meet every two weeks and digest bits of what we’ve read and inevitably end up translating Hitler’s meaning into contemporary contexts. Last week we got onto the topic of control after reading a rather succinct chapter on propaganda. Khanyile, my classmate, noted how at ease Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, was with controlling people by overt force: death, disappearance, detention. He then contrasted this to the covert wielding of power in the United States, “you are all already dead, alive but dead”. These eight words, while physically nonsensical, made complete sense. This is what I was trying to say when I wrote about the dead man, blood spilling from his head in the Durban intersection. This is what I meant when I talked about the vitality in discomfort. Khanyile reminded me you can be dead alive.  

Vitality is the word I use when people ask me why South Africa. Beyond the manageable higher education costs, the people of this country captured me. People address each other on the streets, engage in conversations about race, politics, and religion with strangers, consciously acknowledge the life within humanity. I saw a courage in South Africans, a courage that they wore seemingly unknowingly. I used to attribute this vitality to their youthful democracy. They were vibrantly alive because they knew what democracy and freedom meant to them, they knew what it was to live without it. This was shortsighted. South Africans were necessarily conscious before the coming of democracy, and harnessed this awareness to progress into freedom. They consciously contested before political institutions legalized it.  

I used to link vitality to a historic and political circumstance, but South Africans bear better news: vitality is within us, graspable, regardless of circumstance. Americans could be complacent and apathetic because the living generations were not personally engaged with the struggle of politics and freedom, but most important Americans choose to be complacent and apathetic, inherently meaning that we could choose otherwise. Our complacency and vitality is not solely dependent on historic circumstance. 

I get this little high after talking to strangers, even a hello, or better a compliment, just generally recognition. When walking to school I pass a guard house and unintentionally give the guard on duty a fright as I come around a corner of a construction fence, unexpected. Surprised and smiling he says, ‘Hi Mama’ and we both have a laugh. We share an unexpected moment, instantly and subconsciously assessing our intentions, we acknowledge our shared humanity. We don’t know each other, but we do. If either of us were dead a moment before, we are now sufficiently alive. We woke each other up. 

Maybe its the cloudy cold, the mechanization and digitization of previously face to face social interaction, and the comfort of routine, but I find myself smiling less with strangers back home. There is less eye contact. There is the observably deplored smalltalk. There is this unspoken and under-appreciated obligation to living, ‘another Monday’. Life in South Africa isn’t seamless or predictable because it is alive. ‘You never know’, an often used expression sums it up quite concisely. This unknowing is the birthplace of curiosity and daily engagement. The more we presume we have answers and the authority that precedes them, the more we run from our unstable humility, the more we concentrate on knowing the less alive we become. We will never know, and that is the beginning of living.

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On Going Home

Home: places and concepts that harbor the feelings of belonging, tie them down, and set them free.

Seattle is a freeway, a bend and a curve that give way to a skyline of little grey soldiers that solemnly grow as the airport diminishes. It is a stadium, two stadiums, spacers in the pavement, warehouses, reflective windows, talk radio and music. It is grey and yellow and short white lines that frame and direct man made movement through a maze of natural wonder, two lakes and two mountain ranges. Seattle is a hug or more from those who have been anticipating your return, eager to receive you. Seattle is a people, linked consciousness and contestation. Seattle is a feeling of descending on the known and knowable of an educated semi-predictable and more so sculpt-able living. It is a landscape of both age and renewal. Seattle is shifting in ways that are often unnoticeable by day but biyearly recognizable. Seattle is my home, regardless of the number of other pronouns steadily joining it in classificatory solidarity.

In June I came home to a full calendar of people and places. Seattle can be overwhelming. I flew in with plans of heading to breakfast in West Seattle, lunch in Greenwood, appetizers in Madison Park and dinner on Crown Hill, of breakfast in Edmonds, lunch in Sedro Wooley, afternoons in Fremont and dinner on Capitol Hill. Seattle can be a marathon, and home expands. June and July 2013 in Seattle became June to July of 2013 in Seattle and Quincy and Victoria B.C. and the Skagit River Valley. Four weeks and three days of Hosford style planning precision.

While Seattle may be a welcoming of natural and man made structures, it is mostly a collective of moveable parts, people. It is these people that I wish to tell you a bit more about, specifically: Don and Rudy.

Edmonds is an unassuming place. Walking into this home was a bit like opening a pail of paint to reveal a collection of berries, delightfully unexpected, fulfilling and exciting. He was wearing a camouflage hat that stood out against walls adorned with masks and canes, museum like collections. The small medallion of our eagle, just above his bill, never seemed more out of place and significant. His name is Don.

Sometimes when I think about my Mother, I imagine her carrying these big baskets full of people. Not because they need her to hold them up, but because she chooses to take them under her wings. To call her a people person would be an unfortunate understatement. In fact I have never met a person who is more unassuming, outspoken, genuine and welcoming in my life. Growing up with my Mother was growing up in a world of constant collaboration, strangers and stories. Whether we were on a subway in New York City or in line at the local 7-11 we were always talking and listening, listening and talking with strangers who quickly became otherwise. I have met a lot of people, thanks to my Mother. Don is one of those people.

In all honestly, I have a stereotype of diplomats, and furthermore Americans. For the most part I think we have a skewed intelligence. Clever in areas of linear and methodical planning but inept in the workings of our intuition and our hearts. In all honesty, I believe we are taught to accept this imbalance as efficiency. This stereotype has been both affirmed and contested by my continuous reality and more specifically people. Don is of the contesting variety. As we sat down on his couch he told me he had been to every African country. Any questions, comments and conversation I could have preplanned or expected flew out the window with the weight of 61 countries, continent observation and experience. Over two hours Don shattered all of my assumptions, of not only what it meant to be a diplomat or an American but what it meant to be a person in this world. His words documented a person who was necessarily linear, methodical, and intuitive. He is the interweaving of internationally gathered lessons and diversified knowledge. He is a man who transcends his invaluable possessions. We should all be so determined.

I saw Don twice when I was home for the month and three days of Seattle summer. Twice too little. If I could go to Don with open ears for the same amount of time I go to the internet with open eyes I would be a truly and immeasurably more educated 22 year old. In our two short visits Don reminded me of the instability of assumption, the value of education and the wealth in people.

Sometimes my Mother flies through this world like a gale force wind, unintentionally reminding people that they could blow away at any second or that they already have. Rudy was a temporary stranger with flickering eye contact and a soul worn unprotected on the outside of his skin. He was an islander, a Vietnam draft dodger living on Salt Spring. We met Rudy as we were parking the rental car. Mom just wanted to know if the spot we had chosen was a legitimate parking space. Without a yes or a no towards its legal legitimacy Rudy’s answer of assurance appeared unfounded of which he seemingly also found our request at certainty. Regardless, an hour later he became our tour guide. The day became an unscheduled but cohesive wandering. We visited a hand built and well loved convertible coffee shop, bookstore, movie-house, a roadside farm stall, a permaculture farm, a pond which doubled as Rudy’s bathtub, and a small organic winery.

Salt-spring Island is a collective of the wounded, individuals that seemingly fled from what they felt to be harmful in society, protectively introverted. The introversion met Mom’s extroversion and the two reached an understanding. What seemed like a man who was going to be quickly blown away with the force of question about parking became: a walking reminder of the simplicity of necessities, of generosity and curiosity, of the hurt and pain of the world that can mark a lifetime with undeniable insecurity and uncertainty, and most importantly of the value in human connection.

Recently in class our lecturer labeled herself as nomadic. I feel otherwise, less uprooted. For me home is a multiplicity but nonetheless existent. Home is a ground of place and people not magnetic but unfailingly facilitative.