Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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.

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