30 June, 2014

Taking an Interest

Sweet hat, Pericles.
Image from Wikimedia Commons,
uploaded by Jastrow.
My post today was inspired by an image macro my mentor posted on social media. I'm not sure of the provenance of the macro itself, and I hesitate to share it here without source citation, but the quote is attributed to Pericles (possibly erroneously), and his intellectual property happily now belongs to all of us:
Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.
I have been saying this, or something very like it, to my students for some time now. When I do, it's almost always in response to an apathetic response to an article they didn't want to read, or a discussion they don't want to have, because they "don't like politics."

Here's my confession: I don't like politics either.

I get it, politics sucks. It does. It's often confusing, it's frequently infuriating, and once you've got a handle on it, it changes. I'm not unsympathetic to a lack of interest in politics. But I'm not all that interested in math, myself, and I had to learn that too.

I came to a realization a while ago when one of my students excused not knowing who her representatives were by saying she "wasn't interested in politics," that neither am I, really. I don't enjoy reading political blogs, I'm not a fan of politicians in the way I'm a fan of footballers or rock stars. In a perfect world, I would never think about government budgets or fiscal policy or war or oppression or any of those things. None of this is a hobby for me. It's about survival.

When we don't "do politics" because it's boring, we can end up worse than bored. We can end up paying taxes for things we are fundamentally opposed to, and not paying taxes for things our communities need. We can end up giving up our rights to protect our safety, even when our safety isn't really in question. We can end up supporting the increased wealth of a very few, while the masses starve.

In short, we end up oppressed.

I'm not trying to tell anyone where their best interests lie, and I get that we might not agree on that. I understand that in asking people to get more involved with the political system, I am potentially asking people to work against my own best interests. But I feel like that's better than apathy. I feel like spirited debate between informed people of good will with differing worldviews is so much better than letting a few powerful people run roughshod over all of us.

I'm also not asking anyone to be interested in politics. I realize that we naturally take an interest in some things, and not in others. I'm just asking that we stop pretending that we have the luxury of not taking an interest in certain things even if we don't necessarily find them interesting.


24 May, 2014

In Spite of Fear

"Travel far enough, you meet yourself." - David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas 

There was a time in my life when I was not the person I am now. A time when I stayed in my little apartment for weeks on end, afraid to go out in case of Catastrophe. Once I finally sought treatment, my therapist asked me, "what are you scared will happen?" I had no clear answer. Something terrible. Something from which there would be no recovery. The word for this behavior is agoraphobia, and I had it. It had me. All part of the joys of living on the OCD spectrum.

It didn't hit me how bad it had gotten, as is often the case, until after it was getting better. One day, after months of therapy, I woke up and decided to drive to the public library. And so I did. I checked out some books, although I don't now remember which ones, on the logic that this way, I'd have to repeat this arduous journey. When I got home, I called my mother. To brag. About going to the library.

"...and I didn't get lost, or anything!" I was so proud. Even more sobering, my mom was proud too. Hearing her voice on the phone that afternoon -- "Good for you, honey! We love you so much!" -- I wondered how I'd gotten to this point, how a strong-willed and plucky girl had so quickly become a frightened young woman for whom a ten-minute drive, there and back again, was cause for celebration.

I still wonder. And that's the hell of mental illness; I have no answer. I don't know why some brains, mine among them, seem to misfire sometimes, to take in the input from the world around us and spit out an unhelpful response. I only know that it happens, and that it happened (and sometimes still happens) to me.

A few years ago, I drove to Colorado, alone, to visit friends. When I got back, my mother said she couldn't believe I'd done it, that she remembered the young woman who was too fearful to leave her apartment, who turned in on herself and shut out the uncertainty her brain wouldn't allow her to process. "You're so much better," she said, and I could hear the pride again in her voice. I'm better, I thought, tasting the thought in my brain, letting it roll around like a good whisky. It was the first time I could concretely say I'd beaten my illness in a meaningful way.

In the last three weeks, I've done things that I could never have contemplated fifteen years ago. For many people, I'm sure this trip looks like no big deal. So you traveled, I can hear them saying, people do that. And they're right, these hypothetical people in my head. People do do that. Sane people. Healthy people. Fearless people.

Certainly I'm not always sane and healthy. And fearless? Ha! I'm demonstrably not, in point of fact, fearless. Fear is in no short supply around here, thanks to a mental illness that's deviled me for nearly half my life. And maybe "fearless" isn't the point. Maybe we're all afraid, most of the time, and maybe what's important isn't that we feel no fear, but that we acknowledge the fear and refuse to let it decide for us.

When I was asked to go on this trip, I said yes without hesitation, knowing that saying no because of fear would represent a return to that long-ago apartment that I was once too afraid to leave. When I went to the airport three weeks ago, I went knowing that I was afraid. Sitting here today, trying to put it into perspective in the scant hour before I leave for the airport, I'm afraid. My crazy OCD brain is yammering away with what if and you can't and danger danger danger.

The thing about mental illness is, you don't Get Better so much as you become more adept at managing it, more aware of the times when it seeks to sabotage your life in a million different ways. The OCD is still there, and probably it always will be. I've just gotten better at telling it to sit down and shut up. (Note: I want to make it clear that I didn't do it alone. I had and still rely on support, treatment, and love; if you have a mental illness, and you don't have those things, please reach out. To anyone. To me, if you choose.)

So sure, I'm better, but I'm not fearless. Still I have done this, and I will do this, because I am not my diagnosis, and I am never going back to that apartment. Remembering that has allowed me to have one of the best travel experience of my life, to see a place I never imagined I'd see, to meet people who have taught me, and touched me with their openness and joy in life. A life lived free of fear sounds great, but maybe a life lived in spite of it is just as good.

21 May, 2014

A Two-Side Country

"Paraguay is a two-side country," my student said, to open his group's presentation on popular texts as cultural artifacts. Earlier in the week, we watched A Christmas Story, and I had lectured on the various ways that film functioned as an artifact of Midwestern US culture, the culture in which I was raised. For their group presentation, they were to discuss a popular text that illustrated their culture(s) in the same way.

My ears perked up. I wrote down "two-side country" in my notebook.

"There is a side that we want to show, and a side we do not," continued the group's spokesman, a young man who sits near the back and likes to surf on his tablet while I lecture. "Today we want to show you the both sides."

They began by showing me this: 

"This is Mercado 4," said the next young man in the group, whose turn it was to speak. 

"Mercado 4 here in town?" I interrupted him, even though I generally allow presentations free reign to go where students want to take them, because I knew this place, had stood there myself.

"Sí...I mean, yes."

"I've been there." My students' eyes got big, just for a second, but he recovered. 

"Not alone," he said, not a question.

"No, just me," I said, and he gave me the kind of look I imagine skydivers get a lot, that look that says "you're clearly insane, but I'll give you credit for chutzpah." 

"Did you get mugged?" I shook my head. "That was lucky," he said. 

I nodded, chastened, and the presentation went on. The group used 7 Cajas to illustrate some pretty hard truths about this country : corruption, crime, and the crippling poverty that leads people to do terrible things. I nodded as they spoke, and thought about the woman with a hunched back bigger than her head who I bought some cough drops from for less than fifty cents American, the dirty, naked, lost-looking children who sometimes wander the Plaza where I like to read during siesta time, the man who followed my parents and I for half a block pleading incoherently for alms, the only words I understood for sure being "please," and "rich American." 

Next, my students showed me this:

"We want to show you what is good here, so you will see both," said the final speaker of the group. The least fluent in English, he read from a prepared script. "We are working to be a cultural place, to improve the standing of women, and to make the poverty less for every person. We value art, and music, and beauty. The harp is our instrument, and we love to hear it because it is beautiful and it makes us proud of our home."

I thought about the openness of the people here, the beauty of the architecture, and the way even a simple meal here seems to nourish your body and soul. I thought about the harpist who played in my hotel restaurant one night at dinner, how he seemed to be performing a magic trick and making music all at once, and how pleased he was when my parents bought a CD from him. I could see why, in spite of so many terrible realities, a person could be proud to be from here.

"So you see," said the first speaker, "we are a two-side country." 

14 May, 2014


My students were the first ones to tell me espera, although not in so many words. The first day of class, I was ready to get started at 2 pm on the dot. If I'm honest, I was ready by 1:30, and fidgeted impatiently in the classroom for half an hour. That's how I am. It's how I'm wired. From early memory, I hear the words "If you're early, you're on time; if you're on time, you're late; if you're late, you're left." So much of the etiquette of my upbringing has been about being punctual. About how it's respectful to be on time, and disrespectful to be late. That first day in the classroom, I had to question it.

"Let's get started," I said, at 2:03, in my not-fucking-around teacher voice, the one designed to cut through whispers and giggles and make sleepy students wince. "But Miss," they replied, like people making a clear and obvious argument, "Not everyone is here."

Back home, I probably would have shot back, "Well that's unfortunate for them; we've got things to do." I didn't, though, because even on the first day, I was seeing that things work differently here. This isn't disrespect, this is Asunción telling me espera.

So I did. I do. We start class when we start class, and that's OK.

The entire cycle of life here tells me espera. The evening meal doesn't happen here until well after my stomach has begun demanding it. But Asunción says espera, and I do. At first it was about being polite; I didn't want to ask the restaurant to readjust its schedule, to ask the whole damn country to readjust its schedule for one insignificant and spoiled white lady whose stomach is on Missouri time. Instead, I sat in my room, checking the clock and struggling to ignore my rumbling belly.

Five or so days in, my stomach gave up, got with the program, and stopped whining, and I realized that the time I had between work and dinner was a blessing, a chance to unwind and watch the city do the same from my balcony.

So I wait. Yo espero. And as it turns out, I don't starve.

It's now, and I'm here.
Tonight, I strolled down the street to a restaurant that everyone I know who's been here recommends. I took my time. I looked at the lace and wood carvings being sold by the vendors in the plaza. I got to the restaurant, and a smiling woman brought me an empanada and a giant salad, and I ate it slowly, enjoying every bite, watching futbol with the old man sitting next to me. I was in no hurry. I had no place to be, no timetable to keep. It was bliss. And the empanada was delicious.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped and looked at the Monumento a los Heroes. I'd walked past it a dozen times, but I'd never seen it after dark, all lit up. I stood on the corner and watched while the lights faded from red to purple to blue and back again.

A little old couple strolled past holding hands, and kids played on the stairs, and I felt like I was part of it. And Asunción stopped telling me espera, and instead it told me ¿Qué ves? Ahora.