Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"It is Written"

To preface this analytical section, I must say that I am a proponent of the belief that “everything happens for a reason”. Unbeknownst to me at the time of my choosing this story –there were really no more stories left on the sign up sheet—this story would be meant for me, or I for it (still debating this question). Without going into serious detail (which I will leave for my presentation of this story), it will suffice to say that personal experience and spelling the word ‘b-o-r-d-e-r-e-d’ in scrabble the other night have connected my to this story more than I had initially believed it would. I would argue that while this story is about physical borders, the metaphor of borders, and how they function in our homelands and lives, “Borders” is about making connections and conclusions about what it means to be “in between” homelands. Through the narrator and his family, as well as through the experiences with the border patrol, we are exposed to the difficulties, stereotypes, choices etc. that accompany (Native American/Indians, in this case) people whenever they travel within or between homelands.

When I first read this, I was confused about the encounters between the narrator and his mother with the border patrol –it was not that I didn’t know what was happening, but rather that the encounter simply ‘didn’t make sense to me’ in that kind of mind-puzzling way. The first encounter with the old border patrol guard, for example, confused me for quite some time; I found myself saying “didn’t he just ask them what their citizenship was the first time…and he’s asking them again?” Then, I figured that it must just be border ‘protocol’, and that the guard was simply doing his job by asking the family to “declare their citizenship” (139). But, after some (hopefully) careful reading, I noted that one of the guards asked if the family was from the “Canadian side or American side” (138). While initially this question made sense to me, upon further thought it struck me: “Aren’t Native Americans native to America?” What I mean is that, ‘doesn’t that mean that they do not, technically, have a ‘side’? My thought process was rewarded by the mother, who said that they came from “Blackfoot side” (every time she was asked, she gave the same answer: “Blackfoot”). Maybe it was pride; after all, even the narrator suggests that “it would have been easier if my mother had just said ‘Canadian’ and been done with it, but I could see she wasn’t going to do that” (137).

Even the woman who said she empathized with the family – “I can understand how you feel about having to tell us your citizenship” (138)—threw me for a loop; did she really understand or what she just saying that to coax the ‘Canadian or American’ answer from the mother? What also got me quite upset, even flummoxed, was that when the narrator told the woman (Stella) that they were “Blackfoot and Canadian”, she said that “that didn’t count because I was a minor…and that if [my] mother didn’t declare her citizenship, we would have to go back to where we came from”. Two issues: one, I think that anyone, especially a child, who says where they come from should be respected; and two, “where we came from” as an expression seems unfair simply because, I still believe(d), that Native Americans were native to this whole continent.

I still have trouble distinguishing myself with the use of hyphenation: am I ‘American’, ‘Asian-American’, ‘Filipino-American’, or even your ‘”typical” American’ male”? I think that in the mother’s answer of the question “what side are you on” with an answer that isn’t really a ‘side’, shows simultaneous pride and respect: pride in her culture and respect of her tradition.

According to a 1990 Census, “there are 32,234 Blackfoot Indians comprising 1.7 percent of the current Indian population” . While it is a small number compared to the 11 million ‘overseas Filipinos’ alone who live outside the Philippines, I can still understand natural inclination of the mother to say that she is “Blackfoot”, and not ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’. If the American continent is her home country, then of course she would need a more distinguishing identifier – that, to me, seems mere common sense. We make borders every day in our lives, whether we notice them or not: from the places we choose to live to the people we choose to spend time with, and even the foods we decide to try (or not try), we create imaginary borders and borderlines. We seem to restrict ourselves from freedom by seemingly pigeonholing ourselves within our own homelands; Americans, I believe, are notorious in choosing ‘fads’ and ‘trends’ that exclude even the closest of friends and family. I do believe, however, that there still is a question, similar to that which the border guard asked: we do need to pick a side. However, rather than choosing ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’, maybe King wants us to decide whether we should keep up our borders (imaginary and real), or embrace those cultures which make us different, as well as unite us in our humanity.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Faith in the Divinity Within

Strange coincidence, April 14 2009 marks 10 years since the baby girl I gave up for adoption was born. When I look back at my life in those 10 years, I see times of desperation, of despair, of depression, of hate (acutal hatred), of change, of rejuvenation, of joy, of peace, of love. I don't remember a time of hopelessness; in my moments of despair I gave in to sorrow but only briefly. I always carried within me the faith that I would pull through, that things would get better and that I would define what that meant and make it happen. I don't remember feeling unbalanced like Gilbert felt, or lost - isolated, confused, overwhelmed, yes, but not lost to myself. Maybe I'm lucky in that respect, but I think I'm just a strong person: the difference between fate and free will. What I mean when I say that I defined what "things getting better meant" and that I made it happen is this... I didn't just hope for things to "get better". I always had a clear idea in my mind of what I wanted to change, what I wanted to happen, and where I wanted to be in life. I also knew that it was up to me to make those things happen, and those times when I did hesitate were because I was unsure of how to proceed, not because I was unsure of where I wanted to go or unsure if I could make it. And I believe(d) that, along the way, fate's interventions would be manageable - or at least not devastating. And that is my definition of faith: I have been very lucky in the fate department that my faith has always yet been proven true, but I believe fate favors the optimistic and the prepared.
I see parallels in this, my faith, with Gilbert's story. Her analogy at the end of the book, about the acorn and the oak tree of herself, is so beautiful and so true (in every sense of the word true). I can identify with that: in my moments of difficulty, I have always pictured myself in the future, the place and time and circumstance that I want to make happen, that I was working towards. That future me always made me smile and kept me going, I never doubted it. I've been back in college for 7 years now, and the day dream I have never gotten tired of was picturing myself walking across the stage at graduation. The daydream changed from walking across with my 4 year old son, to now walking with my 9 year old son and the baby, or by myself. The audience members cheering for me has changed, expanded, gotten louder.
I also identify with the moments of solitude she wrestles with in the book. I have always embraced solitude and silence, I am comfortable being alone with myself and my thoughts. but there are some things that are hard to face, for example giving my daughter up for adoption. Some people say "Only God can judge me", but I disagree, Only I can judge me. And I do, but I will never, no matter what the conviction, hand down a life sentence. I have faith in myself that nothing I can/will do is that unforgiveable; it's a matter of allowing that judgement, living with it, coming to terms with your decisions/mistakes, and then forgiving yourself. It's a process and a journey, just like everything else in life.
On a side note Devin, my baby boy, is also 6 months old today. So the story she tells about the baby girl's 6 month old ceremony with Ketut was also very touching to me. I can def. understand the the Balian belief behind this ritual. There's some kind of saying that a new baby still smells like God, the idea being that they have just come from Heaven and they are still very much heavenly. New babies are indifferent, removed from life, their eyes don't focus, they don't often respond to people or stimulus around them. For a baby with hiccups, scaring them to get rid of the hiccups is not an option - babies just don't get scared like that. But around 6 months is when they begin to smile, laugh, coo, watch, listen, and all this new attention and activity is directed at you, at the people and the things going on around them. So I can definitely understand the joy of feeling like your baby is finally joining you in life, in humanity. And for my children, I don't wish for a protected life of constant happiness. Bad things, hard times, sorrow, and pain are necessary to creating character and making us better people, and that's where Fate comes in. What I want for my children, what I want to teach them, is to have faith in themselves, in their Free Will and to put their actions (the living of their life, if you will) behind that faith.

Homelands- Past, Present, and Future

As I am sitting here watching the tube, trying to think of how to start this blog, the commentator said an incredibly interesting thing that ties into our class very well. I am watching the tribute to the shooting at Columbine High School that happened in 1999. First off, it is crazy to think that ten years have passed since that tragedy. It is amazing how time flies when you are busy with other things. The person that is getting interviewed wrote a book about how he escaped from the school, how he was shot three different times, and how he went on to restart his life after being paralyzed and suffering major brain injuries. Another person being interviewed was an old NFL quarterback who helped the former Columbine student recover, go through rehab, and finally write his book to share the experiences. As they were getting interviewed, the commentator posed a question to the quarterback. The way he phrased the question perked my ear. He said that, 'Everyone has close ties back to their homelands. They tend to define themselves by where they grew up. People are always partial to their hometown teams and we see this on Sportscenter all the time when people pick their hometown teams instead of playing by the numbers and picking who they really should pick.' This question went on to touch on the subject of how this quarterback went back to his hometown and donated some money and did as much as he could to help Columbine High School get over the tragedy.

But by hearing this comment on ESPN of all the channels that I could be watching, especially as I am trying to write a blog on homelands, made me start thinking. How exactly do we define our homelands? We have seen in our readings, especially with Salman Rushdie, that our homelands are oftentimes imaginary. That we have ideas of what our homelands were and we hold on to those perfect ideas and use them to define our homelands. But then we also have heard throughout our class discussions that alot of people define their homelands not by anything physical, but by the connections they have made with other people- namely their families. Their homelands can be constantly changing, but as long as they have that one constant of their family, the person feels at home. Then we have read some books like Potiki where the homeland is a tangible piece of land. The people have physical things that make their homeland, and even though they manage to rebuild their lives after those physical aspects are destroyed- it is certainly centered around physical things defining their homelands.

But looking at all of these different aspects that define one's homeland- there is a constant thread. That thread is a reliance on the past to define who we are today. The people in Potiki are steeped in tradition and are constantly looking into the past to define what they do in the present to respond to otuside forces. People in class have made their imaginary homelands in the connections that they have with their families, but those connections are based on Rushdie's idea of just snapshots of the past that we piece together to create an ideal. Even if we have a physical homeland that we can think of, when we think of that homeland it is always something in the past that we are thinking about. We define our present lives by what has already happened. Does that mean that we are not completely here in the present? I think to a certain degree, yes- it means that we are not fully present in the present. If we are constantly thinking about how we are defined, and what our connections are to other people- then we are stuck in the past.

In Eat, Pray, Love there is a great example of this. When Liz is describing all the different professions and jobs that Richard from Texas has had, she is stuck in the past. She is defining a person by what they have done, not who they are at the current moment. He was an oilman; he was a big-rig driver; he was a junkie; he was a hippie farmer- but she fails to say what he is NOW. True she does explain what he does later, but that is not how she defines him. It is all of the old actions that Richard has done that define who he is at that moment. It is all of the life experiences, all the different things that he has done, and all the places that he has lived that make him what he is today. I feel like many people in our class are exactly like that. They are defined by their past- and the present is so interwoven in that past that it is almost impossible to extricate the two. Now that has some interesting repercussions on our views of the future. I know that a lot of people in this class are trying to figure out what they will be doing after they graduate. They are struggling with the transitions and how they will make it on their own. I believe that a bunch of the anguish that people are feeling for this looking into the future is because they are so used to being defined by their past. They are afraid of the change, the uncertainty, the transition. But that is because up to this point, they have defined themselves only by things that have happened in the past. Now they must look to the future and instead of just intertwining the past with the present, they must use those two and also have some sort of vision of their future and how they WANT to define themselves. Not how they are currently defined, even though that will play an important role in their self-definition later on in life. It is scary because of the amount of leeway that there is in this process and the looking to the future when we are all used to just looking to the past.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Living Now

Four years ago, I was an incoming freshman at Loyola College. I was sad to leave my home, my family, my friends, and everything that I had established in my small town in New Jersey. At that time, I thought I could always return home, that I could return to everything that was comfortable and understood, just the way I had left it. By my sophomore year, Loyola had become my second home, but I still found myself laughing when I would mistakenly say that I had to go back home [to Loyola]. My family didn’t find it as funny—they seemed nostalgic, or maybe even hurt by the fact that I could possibly call another place home. By the end of sophomore year and throughout junior year, I considered Loyola more of a home than I could have imagined. “Home” for me had become an interchangeable term for both places: when leaving Loyola, I was going home, and when returning to Loyola, I was also going home. This year, I my definition of home has been broadened as I consider the times I have traveled beyond the fenced-in neighborhood of Loyola. The city of Baltimore has truly become my home.

Now that I am a senior, I am faced with a mix of emotion as I think about leaving. I find myself already missing things, although they are still right in front of me. Although it may seem insane or overly emotional, as I drive through Baltimore or walk on the quad, sometimes I say goodbye to the architecture, to the characteristic weather, to the place that has become my home. I’m going to miss my friends and all of the relationships I have made during my college years. I’m surprised to say that I’m even going to miss the late nights of homework and daunting deadlines. I’m even going to miss the bush in my backyard that I have watched lose its leaves, re-bud, and flower [haha, how pathetic is that?].

Saying goodbye is difficult. However, I am reassured that although I will be leaving the physical place of Loyola, I am leaving with a wealth of knowledge and skills, long-lasting friendships, and priceless memories. I’ve learned that home is a constantly changing place, and each place has shaped who I am, and will shape who I am continually. I think that as human beings we are extremely adaptable, but uncomfortable with change.

Gilbert recalls her Guru saying that “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it” (268). I have tried to consciously shape who I am today and who I aspire to become, in search of happiness. I am going to take these identities with me, what I’ve learned, and the happiness I’ve experienced at each physical place. I love Loyola. I love Baltimore. I love my home in New Jersey. I love these places, these homes, because I love who I am and who I have become during my stay. I have discovered what makes me feel most at ease, most alive, most aware, most happy, and most at home. My vocation is reading, writing, sharing stories, and creating art.

This semester I discovered the power an author possesses to connect his or her reader with their aspect of homeland through art and literature. Despite cultural, ethnic, linguistic, social, and political differences that may be present between homelands, I have recognized parts of humanity and myself through the stories of each author. These authors have granted their international audiences access to their international senses of home. I think I love the English language because it is increasingly universal, along with art. Art—be it music, writing, painting, etc—is a way to express ourselves, our ideas, and our philosophies in a universally human way. I will bring who I have become with me in my next endeavor: living abroad in Thailand, teaching young students, sharing what I have learned in my homelands with those across the globe.

I will be doing more than teaching in Thailand. I will be learning in Thailand. I will further develop my identity as the physical place shapes the way I view the world. Thailand will be my home, and when I leave, I will bring Thailand with me to my next home. I will share my own experiences of homeland and travel with those I have known and those I will meet along the way.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

wrap uppp

I have found the service-learning component of my work this semester to be very rewarding. There were several instances where I was able to make a connection to the works we have read, and this greatly enhanced the impact of the content for me. If I had the chance to choose over again whether or not to participate in service-learning, I would do it without a doubt.
Something that often crosses my mind in regard to my experiences in the classroom is the fact that I will have only spent a limited amount of time with the kids; I will not know them after the semester ends, yet I have come to know them now in their first grade year. Thinking about this class in relation to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, I wonder what some of these kids I have come to know will choose for themselves in their own lives. Will they go the conventional, expected route, or will they seek something different? Will they do both? I feel as though this experience at St. Mary’s has been a glimpse into the developing lives of a first grade class.
Gilbert talks about the individual’s inherent possession of the divine and everything within. And if this is true, and if everyone of us are left alone with ourselves all the time, what will we choose for our own lives? We have talked a lot about the adolescence’s participation in the process of making his or her home in the world, of becoming in adult. As we have seen, there are no clear thresholds. Gilbert’s journey reflects this process, and she is in her early thirties. Liz ultimately finds an inner peace that was present within her all along. This results in her realization that everything around her reflects this inner peace once it has been recognized from within. She dared to search for the answers to her questions. There was emptiness within her life, and rather than ignoring her feelings, she pursued them. She was a self-proclaimed spiritual seeker.
If all the answers are inside of us waiting to be unlocked, what then is the role of education and schooling? Observing and participating in the classroom has reminded me that it is about realizing this. The young first graders at St. Mary’s are cultivating an intellectual lifestyle that will lead them to want to pursue the answers to their questions. When they too look for something to believe in, they will seek out whatever may be right for them. Once you get to know the kids individually, this becomes apparent; they have unique personalities even for their young age, or maybe particularly because of their young age. “People follow different paths, straight or crooked, according to their temperament, depending on which they consider best, or most appropriate-and all reach You, just as rivers enter the ocean” (206). While God may be the answer for some, it is not for others. You to me may also mean yourself. I think this quote works in this use as well, and still follows Gilbert’s point. While I do not believe Gilbert is claiming that everyone ought to run off and travel the world for their entire lives without any permanent “real” life to tie you down, her points may expose a more important side of life. So whether Isaiah becomes a lawyer, Jade a teacher, or Mariah a doctor, it doesn’t matter because they will end up doing whatever is right for them. If they are able to find an inner peace as the one Gilbert finds, they will be lucky. Everyone’s path will be different, this is certain, but it is also important to recognize the possibility to maintain both a conventional as well as individual path, an antevasin-like existence.
Throughout the semester, we have dealt with loss, immersion, survival, continuity, globalization, strength, culture, internal and external forces, labels, humor, the past and the present, and much more. Each novel offered a unique commentary on very real issues we must deal with or not deal with. Regardless, they are present. The opportunity to do service-learning has only aided in the digestion and contemplation of such topics, topics we are always grappling with.

Off the Grid

The Balinese society, according to Gilbert, revolves around structure and connection with “the grid.” Gilbert offers their philosophy as “If you don’t know where you are or whose clan you belong to, then how can you possibly find balance?” (228). She notes that this puts her in a very strange place in the Balinese view, because she travels the world and has no permanent home to which she plans to return. Furthermore, she has “stepped outside the containing network of marriage and family, [making her]—for Balinese purposes—something like a ghost” (227-228). Gilbert seems to realize, as she spends time in this culture, the value of having roots in one homeland. Her friend Ketut rarely even leaves his compound, but she admires his wisdom and contentment.
As I read about the value that the Balinese put on “the grid” of physical proximity and home, my mind wandered to the people I serve at the Franciscan Center. Many of them have no consistent place to sleep. In the past they have had homes, but poor health, unemployment and underemployment, addictions, mental illness, and material poverty have led to their displacement. These individuals live a life unfathomable by Balinese standards. The staff asked Gilbert where she was going and where she had been every time she passed through the hotel. “I can almost imaging that they keep tiny maps in the desk drawer of all their loved ones, with markings indicating where everyone is at every given moment, just to make sure the entire beehive is accounted for at all times,” she says (234). I wonder what the guests at the Franciscan Center would tell me if I asked them where they had come from or where they planned to go. I wonder whether many of them would even have an answer that I could plot on a map. Life on the streets of Baltimore city can feel tedious and aimless, as many of them have told me. One can easily spend most of a day traveling to the meal program, and the rest of the day searching for a decent place to sleep. Without a job, there are unaccounted-for hours of killing time that defy the Balinese system of purposeful movements within the social grid. This winter I participated in Baltimore City’s Homeless Census, which aims to count this elusive population so that the government can track them every few years. The project involves volunteers registering people staying at shelters all over the city and then combing the streets all night long, searching alleys for individuals who have no other refuge from the cold. We plotted the locations of the people we found on photocopied street maps with small dots, each marking a human life. Like concerned Balinese friends, we sought to locate each individual within grid. The Homeless Census is necessary, however, because thousands of Baltimore residents go unmarked from day to day. Many have no mailing address, no driver’s license, no birth certificate (my first week at the Franciscan Center, I found in the corner of a stairwell a full shoebox labeled “Unclaimed Birth Certificates”), making them much like the ghost the Gilbert was in the eyes of the Balinese. These individuals live among us, but they exist outside of our social, political, and economic grid.
The single theme that has surprised me most from both from my service-learning experience and our readings for this course is the inherent connectedness of people to homelands. I tend to think of people as individuals who have their own experiences and destinies, but this course has presented me with a series of testaments to the connection that exists between individuals and their homelands, both spiritual and physical. We have seen numerous characters try to leave their homelands, only to find that they are a necessary part of them; others have struggled to keep their rootedness culturally or geographically. People are not merely individuals, but richly connected beings who thrive in their particular natural environments. This phenomenon gives me a key to having compassion for the guests at the Franciscan Center. Many of them look deeply weary or sad, and others have emotional and mental illnesses that cloud their spirits. Living outside of the social grid, marginalized from the homelands of physical shelter, family, and spiritual nourishment, these individuals experience trauma much deeper that mere physical hunger or exposure. Mukherjee, Rushdie, Gilbert, Wendt, Achebe, and others suggest that the human need for homeland runs deep, and that the disturbance of these homelands can wreck havoc on the individual.


So even though this blog is about the second half of the book, I can't help but try to think about what Gilbert accomplished. 'One woman's search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia", this is the subtitle for the book. Since we started the book, last week it has bothered be to no end that Gilbert had te nerve to put 'everything' in that little subtitle (even though her editors may have shoved it in there after the fact) still it is quite the claim that the purpose of her trip, especally in retrospect was a search for everything. Now, because of the nature of this book, and how introspective Gilbert was in her own thought I feel as though I have free liscence to be as wildly abstarct as I desire in how to apply the general theme of a 'homeland' to her writing.

It would proably be easier to explain my state of mind first, while reading the story so that when it is applied to the text it will make more sense. I got home on Wednesday night, at about midnight. My mother trudged downstairs to greet me and then crawled back into bed leaving me to talk with my sister. My sister is really my cousin, but she lived with me while I was growing up until she was eighteen and moved back with her mother so we are as close as siblings get; plus she looks and acts more like me than anybody in my family, or perrhaps I look and act like her either way. This is the first time I have seen her in my house in four years, and the next morning was the first time she, my brother and I have all been together at home since I was twelve or thirteem I can't remember.

Saturday my brother came in to wake me up, quite rudely actually as I was a bit underthe weather both from a cold and from my friday night escapade but it was the wildest thing to feel like I was young again. My whole family was back inthe house, my grandmother, my father, mother, brother, and sister and I all together, and I don't think I have ever felt so nostalgic in my life as when I walked downstairs to breakfast (lunch by this point).

I did the rounds, visited my friends, called who needed to be called so i wouldn't be burned at the stake for coming home and 'ignoring' somebody and te more I thought about it the more I realized that this place, this house, these people ALL of it had changed with time. My memories didn't match up anymore. My sister is 27 now, my brother is 23, we aren't kids anymore. Our house needs a face lift in most areas and has gotten one in others. The carpets I laid on are gone, or old. None of the couches I slept on when I stayed home from school sick are there. Yet it still feels like home.

I have come to the conclusion, from my experience home that I need to draw a very very vague distinction between feeling comfort and being at home. When I am at home, it reminds me of a time when I had a real home, when I lived in a real home, when my family was all home. It is quite possible, and more likely than not probable that home for me is more of a time and a place than either one separated. I know I had balance then, and I suppose for some time I will find out if I need to go back, or if I can reinstate that balance somewhere else. Comfort, comfort is feeling balanced or content for a time. I'm not saying one cannot be at home anywhere, I am just saying that especially after what Gilbert had to go thorugh to achieve balance that 1) it is not easy to come by and 2)when you really find it, you can in fact carry that feeling of home with you (ideally anyway)

About Liz, "I was the administrator of my own rescue" Continuing in the complete abstraction of the idea of a home, I think Liz's idea of balance , her spiritual journey, and her journeyto discover a connection tih God all bring her inside herself. Maybe balance, maybe complete self control, awareness, and fulfillment are the qualities of home, and finding those qualities in ones self is teh way to be able to carry a hhome with you. Feeiling at home, and being at home are certainly different things and I think Gilbert's idea of balance is the way in which someone can feel at home no matter where they are. This is significant to me, personally because I do tihnk that a homeland, in all thjat we have read and I have experienced to some degree is an ieal that lives in the past.