Monday, June 25, 2012

New worlds, Old worlds


I am accustomed to walking a tightrope, straddling many worlds while carefully balancing myself from falling into one. I travel to India during winter breaks and incessantly recreate those experiences in my armchair on rainy spring days. I suffer through academic conferences during the fall and spend time at the library brushing up on such knowledge when at school. I wake up late on Sundays to plan a gourmet breakfast using garlic scapes from the farm share. For although I belong to all these worlds, I never feel at home at any.

Every Monday I drive over to Thurston Woods for the summer field school. I feel enchanted to be spending hours with my students - a dedicated, focused and self-directed lot.  Last week I followed two students as they went about their tasks. Beth and Monica have magical powers – they talk to everyone and everyone talks to them. Beth is diligent but she is reserved; Monica can chat anyone up for an interview session. Stephanie, also part of this group, stayed back at the Agape Center to work on previous interviews.  We drove to 34th street in search of an interview and a story. We found one.

This street is a sleepy and curious world made of near identical, box-like, gingerbread houses sitting silently across from each other. The front yards are neat and quiet. The only things that moved in that street were our bodies and the sharp shadows we cast on the sidewalk. It was 94 degrees, humid and still. The sun was high above our head and the stillness stifled us. The person the students were supposed to interview was not home. No one seemed to be home. The picture windows were tightly shut. We walked around a bit wondering what to do. The silence was total like a thick blanket over us – not even the mechanical sounds of the garden sprinklers punctuated this muted atmosphere. We crossed streets with dead bird names – wren, bobolink and oriole. We had entered a silent, sleepy world of a fairy tale. Could this silence speak?

The street was not always like that. Long before a new school was built (we are still dating these buildings and writing accurate histories – this is just a story) Saint Albert’s church stood at the end of this block. The street continued as a footpath across the fields behind the church. Newly married couples lived on this block. They were moving from their smaller residences to accommodate a growing family. Their children ran across the front yards, to the churchyard. Occasionally their parents took a short cut across the path to reach Florist Avenue on the northern boundary. The nearby tavern was jammed with people and occasionally one heard the residents honk their car as they impatiently waited for their family to get ready. They backed out of their back garages carefully avoiding the bicycles littering the driveway.

The coming of a big bad wolf into the neighborhood changed the neighborhood forever.

Today, the Thurston Woods School campus looms large like the big bad wolf ominously watching us from its hunting perch at the end of the block. But the school is merely big and bulky and very visible – it just looks scary and out of scale. The real bad wolves were the changing economy, toxic politics, corporate greed and spiraling social events that transformed our world in the last decades of the twentieth century. It was our loss of innocence topped with our growing social apathy.

We walked up to the campus searching for an entrance. It took us a while, but after circling the large block we found an open door. The school has gone through multiple additions that took up most of the end block. The short path that cut across the property and continued 34th Street is now gone. 34th Street dead-ends at Wren – a dead memory of a street that was alive and thriving once upon a time.  

Worlds appear and disappear and the built environment remains mute testimony to that transforming reality.

We came back to the Agape Center, to our temporary new world. Seventeen of us have set up this transient world in a small conference room. Everyday we meet new people, new ideas, old histories and poignant pasts. Each of these experiences remakes our own worlds and our selves. Life has never been steady and predictable at the field school. Nor should it be. Not feeling at home gives birth to learning and compassion, introspection and action. It is in such moments of disconcertment that I have discovered the intense joy of learning and growing. Walking a tightrope across many worlds – past and present - is what I cherish about my life.