Fall

I’ve noticed that as I grow older, as I continue to push myself to embark on challenging journeys like living in Colombia, my mind instinctively works to not let things bother me so much. For example, in the past when I’d lose something—an unfortunate pattern of mine—I would fall to pieces; feel painstakingly ashamed and disappointed in myself. Now, when I lose things, I still feel disappointed, but I calmly think, “What’s done is done.” Getting overly upset doesn’t change the situation. This reaction is helpful, in a sense, but sometimes I feel that this instinctual composure has become too much of a reflex; that tuning in to my feelings is like trying to kick in a door that stands directly before a brick wall.

I can’t remember ever having been particularly good at goodbyes. What makes someone “good at” goodbyes is probably fairly subjective, but to me it involves understanding what a given situation means, what realities are implied. Even if you’re the type who sobs at the airport, blubbering all over your boarding pass, this is still a form of an appropriate response. It means you get it.

It has been two years since I’ve seen the leaves turn in autumn. The red and gold leaves dazzle and distract from the coming cold, but they can only hold on to their branches for so long. Family trees know seasons, too. Still, knowing that these facts of nature exist and experiencing them are two different beasts. Death, like winter, is evitable, but since leaving the states I have been able to keep my distance from both of them.

I’ve known for about a year of my grandfather’s declining health, from being diagnosed with lung cancer to the chemo to the pneumonia, but it never really sank in. Though his condition was getting worse, his memory remained intact; he continued to tell stories and even to this day, at 88, he continues to send texts—in my case, an e-mail— from his smartphone every Friday night to wish his children, in-laws and grandchildren a “Shabbat Shalom.”  Two months earlier when I had visited the US, he was using a cane but, in general, doing fine. Since then, I’ve received messages from my parents that his condition has been worsening, which, from afar, seemed both abstract and unreal. A few weeks ago my parents told me through the Skype call on my computer that he was being returned to his home from the hospital to be “made comfortable,” and that he was preparing to “check out.” I was given the choice to fly back in the next week or so or to come in for his funeral. I told them I’d find a way to get off work for a few days and my dad (very generously) bought me a ticket to fly in on the 9th. Between the time my dad got me a ticket and my arriving to O’Hare airport, I still hadn’t done much processing of the situation. Being given the opportunity to say goodbye to someone before they die is an incredible blessing but also confusing, especially for someone who isn’t very good at registering the weight of parting in the moment that it takes place.

Part of the incentive to move abroad was to separate myself from distractions and focus on what I want to do with my life. I felt like in the year since graduating from the university I hadn’t accomplished as much as I had hoped and that drastic measures had to be taken to not get stuck. Honestly, in many ways the move can be boiled down to a selfish act as means of pursuing more selfish endeavors. I am essentially responsible to no one. Still, prompted by no one/nothing but my “Jewish Guilt,” I often experience recurrent feelings of remorse, tell myself that if I must make my family and friends miss me that I should, at least, be making something of myself; making the distance worth it. This past June when I last said goodbye to my grandmother, the wife of the aforementioned grandfather, she began to cry into a tissue retrieved from the sleeve of her periwinkle sweater, “Why do you have to be so far away? When am I going to see you again?” Granted, in these days she could cry even if the butcher called—her words, not mine—but, realistically, her response made sense. At my grandparents’ age, time is not infinite. For the past few months, my family has been taking frequent shifts to care for or visit them. Not only do I feel as if I am missing out on spending time with them but that I am skirting a responsibility to care for two people who have done nothing but show kindness and give unconditional love for their family their entire lives. I wanted to move forward while everything back home stayed exactly as it was, like a Netflix account I could deactivate and reactivate at any given time, finding my preferences saved and waiting for me.

Last week, when my mom and I pulled into my grandparents’ driveway, I sat in the passenger seat for a moment, buckled in, looking up through the windshield at the amber leaves dangling like young legs from the seat of a swing; the former inertia of up up and away nearing complete stillness. I didn’t know what to expect inside.

My grandparents bought this special bed that is divided into two parts, each side with the ability to incline and decline by remote control. Papa Art, as he is referred to, is permanently in this bed now. A long, plastic, oxygen tube winds under his nose. Every hour, for a short period of time, he uses an oxygen mask to provide additional support. My mom and I went to visit him every day and each time the house seemed to be a revolving door of visitors. Some days he would talk a little and some days barely at all. Coming from a man who always had a response or a story for everything, this silence, this shortness of breath, was more difficult to witness than even the mask. Not wanting to tire him, I mostly just chatted about everything I could think of and took naps next to him.

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At one moment I asked him if he thought he had any “unfinished business;” anything he wish he had done different. (Clearly, my experience with death has been educated by the movie, Casper.) He responded no, that he lived a good life, surrounded by family. By all intents and purposes, he did everything right: he loved his job, he married a woman who makes him happy, he traveled the world, went to glamorous parties, has a beautiful family who he has treated like treasure, gave back to the community, and brought laughter to friends and strangers alike. A few weeks ago he had my mom go into his phone and tell all of his contacts how grateful he was to have them as friends.  Up until the last moments, he has been doing everything right.

When it was finally time to say goodbye, I hugged Papa Art and told him I loved him. We each made the I Love You sign language hand gesture and touched our pointer finger and pinky finger to that of the other person— our special handshake. He said he loved me and he wished me a safe trip. I looked at him for the last time, studying his face, trying to stamp the image of it into my memory the best I could… And then that was it.

On the car ride away from their house, it rained so hard that I knew even if I were to stay, the leaves on the trees would all be gone soon. When we arrived back to my parent’s house, a place of so many memories of adolescent vulnerability, I finally cried. And I remembered why I had put up that wall in the first place.

I’m still trying to figure out the implications of living where I do. What does it mean to live far away from the people I love? What does it mean to not live in a climate with seasons? What constitutes “growth?” Without springtime, it’s easy to forget that in order to begin anew, everything, in its own way, must let go.

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Selfies and Long-Distance Existentialism

In this day and age, our relationships are remarkably hinged on the internet. Particularly for me, living abroad, my ability to stay connected to my friends and family depends on it. This is how I know where my friends and acquaintances are living, what they’re doing or if any major events have occurred in their lives. Also, the connection that the majority of my non-Colombian Facebook friends have to me depends on it. By moving to Bogotá and wanting to continue having relationships with people back in the states, I have inadvertently divided myself into two: the me, in the flesh, in Colombia and the me that remains visible only in the realm of technology; in that which I share and allow on the internet, in that which I consider acceptable representation of myself. If the latter is all that is seen of me by those abroad, am I, in essence, my profile? Without it, would I even exist to the people with whom I once shared a continent?

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A concept by Jeremy Bentham was put into effect in the influential design of the Pentonville Prison, built in London in 1842: the design was called the “Panopticon.” It involved a circular building with jail cells lining the interior, making their behavior visible to a guard who could monitor anyone and everyone within it. “Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment”1.Obviously, one person can’t possibly perform total surveillance upon all of the inmates at all times, but the fact that one never knew for sure when he or she would be watched would be, in theory, enough to keep them in line.

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According to this model, we can deduce the positive effects of being observed. However, when the eyes of those we care about do not see us—be the circumstances influenced by location or ambivalence—we have two choices: create our own auto-surveillance or, by all intents and purposes, disappear.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a person moves to a foreign country and he or she doesn’t have a Facebook, does this person still exist?

Everyone I know who has lived abroad has, at least for some period of time, struggled with the loneliness and isolation that comes with it. On various days without morning work, I have thought, “Why get out of bed? Why do anything at all? No one is watching. No one would know the difference.” And so, for lack of a Panopticon, we make our own. We make Facebook profiles and Instagram accounts and hope that someone is watching because the idea gives us purpose. But now I’m not talking about just ex-patriots, anymore: the same goes for a large percent of internet users wherever they are. Up until recently, photographs depicting our activities were enough to feel seen, but in recent years this has changed. In 2003, “Selfie” became Oxford Dictionary’s new word of the year2.

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Whereas in the era of Myspace the Selfie was considered a cry for attention from self-absorbed pre-teens and teenagers, now it has become an acceptable form of internet presence. So what changed? Here’s my theory:

(1.) Just as we would like to ignore that using pesticides, cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels are linked to global warming; we ignore the connection between the proliferation of technology and that of the Selfie. I’m not talking about the obvious connection—being that cell phones and social media enable the trend—but that more technology puts greater distance between human interaction, making us feel the need to fight for attention like never before. According to the Forbes article, The ‘Selfie’: Mental Disorder Or Insight To Getting Better Results?, “The cultural phenomenon of the ‘Selfie’ exposes a very basic human desire—to feel noticed, appreciated and recognized.”3 Of course we’re not feeling noticed: everyone is too busy staring at their phones or computers! As such, doesn’t it make sense that the increase of Selfies is reflective of a decrease in feeling valued? Consequently, it doesn’t matter if our feelings of isolation stem from actual distance or emotional distance. Either way, the trend made it acceptable to fill that gap with more 2D—rather than 3D—versions of ourselves.

(2.) Social media has been around long enough that people are finding new ways to be in control, and that means not waiting for pictures to be taken of us just to conclude that we don’t like the way we look in them, anyway. Today at a coffee shop, I saw two guys sitting at a table, one taking pictures of the other. The subject of the photo insisted over and over again that his friend take another shot, changing positions and even tables to get the light just how he wanted. He wasn’t taking the photo himself, which is what actually constitutes a Selfie, but in the same way, he had his friend take shot after shot until he got exactly the outcome of himself that he desired. Control means filtering out vulnerability. This, dangerously, further feeds into the construction of a fake reality.

(3.) The Selfie is not only used to sculpt our internet personas, but to be presented to the world as a memo; as a reminder that we’re still here.

But who are we really trying to convince?

This yearning for validation can become as much of a prison as the Panopticon. Being concerned with how we are seen or whether or not we are seen can become so all-encompassing at times—especially when mediated by technology—that we have a hard time focusing on anything else. Have you ever Skyped with someone and gotten distracted from the image of the other person by the image of yourself? As a result of this multi-tasking, of dividing our attention between outward examination and introspection, we fail to delve beneath the surface of anything; not the people we are interacting with and certainly not ourselves.

The problem with technology and social media is that it tries to convince us that images provide truth; that if we want to express “truths” about ourselves to the world, this is the best way to convey them. In reality, an image can only possibly express a part of a whole. Therefore, we must ask: is it even possible to keep in touch with those who we cannot touch? Can we experience real connections when the interaction is mediated by an internet connection? If genuine exchange can only truly be achieved face-to-face, in an environment without mirrors and with vulnerability, then distance does not make the heart grow fonder: it makes it grow fuzzier. I realize now I was disillusioned to think that the internet would be enough to maintain the relationships I had back home. Yet, at the end of the day, there is a sense of satisfaction from comments on our Facebook wall, from “likes,” from being “followed.” As far as substitutes go, it’s not great, but when those we love are out of reach, a little blue thumb feels better than nothing at all.
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1http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who/panopticon

2http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/

3http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2014/04/29/the-selfie-mental-disorder-or-insight-to-getting-better-results/

A Brave New World

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors, administrators and Roman Catholic clergy arrived to Colombia looking to save the souls of the lost, native Indians while profiting off of their land and the rich resources within it. Precious metals and jewels were considered more valuable than the indigenous people who lived there. The ones who didn’t die out from European diseases like smallpox, fled to the mountains, were made into slaves or forced to be indoctrinated into the Catholic faith by missionaries. In 1539, conquistadors, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Nikolaus Federmann, and Sebastián de Belalcázar divided up the newly discovered territory of what is now modern day Bogotá.

Before the Spaniard presence, none of these native groups had the ability to write. Today, there are hundreds of public and private universities in the country.

When people ask me what I do in Bogotá and I tell them that I teach English, they respond along the lines of Of course you do. After all, when young, white people want to find themselves, what’s better than to go to a third world country and teach other people to speak like they do so they can feel better about themselves? Like they’re making a difference bringing the ability to speak the MOST IMPORTANTlanguage? Like the English language, not unlike the Catholic faith, will provide them with a life that is undoubtedly better than the one they previously had?

Millions of people work and suffer so they may come to the United States and get their shot at the American dream, while mass amounts of people who were born there choose to leave. Moving out of one’s own country not to flee persecution or to live instead of struggle to survive is a luxury. I don’t deny that, nor do I deny the fact that I am another one of these stock characters who can afford to leave home to try to gain a better self-understanding by peering into the display cases of other cultures. The fact that I came here with money which I earned on my own is beside the point, because I gained that money by being born middle class, white, and with tools to succeed. In similar fashion as the Spaniards, I saw an opportunity to enrich my life by bringing knowledge to others, while also reaping financial benefits. I’m not forcing my language upon anyone and I speak Spanish too, which should be enough to overlook the fact that—in a way—the English language is colonizing the world. But I can’t. Trade and business between Colombia and other countries is making the language such an important tool that those who don’t reach for it are getting left behind. That’s where North Americans and Brits and Australians and other English speakers come in to help people in non-English speaking countries to get with the times.  What of this is a choice for them?

Maybe I am no different from a colonizer, quick to hop on a boat from privilege that others drown trying to swim to because what we have never quite seems like enough; because we try to understand ourselves, flag ourselves, but end up fucking ourselves and maybe someone else’s ground will feel softer between our toes. Still, I’d like to think that I can share my knowledge without declaring it superior; that I can teach people how to make different sounds with their tongue without taking the way it rolls (like the hands of their ancestors have done for generations with masa of corn meal). Maybe I am no different from the other gringos who write about corn meal like someone else’s roots will strengthen their own, who teach their mother language to others because they don’t understand how to do much else than to echo that which was handed to them and wait for other people to call them brave for doing it far from home. Maybe I will go back to the states and say, “When I lived in Colombia…” like I have lived, like that makes me different or wiser. Maybe I will have a spiritual revelation and make art about it and call it, “The Darjeeling Limited,” and people will comment on the rich colors like I haven’t just appropriated what someone else has lived and what I’ve been privileged enough or educated enough to give a semi-remotely unique spin to.

I’m not different.  I’m trying to figure things out like everyone else is. I’m teaching the structure of English like so many other foreigners have done in outside countries and will continue to do, losing ourselves in order to “find” ourselves. The best we can do is to try and learn where language ends and where another sort of communication begins, beyond claiming land or claiming to know anything at all. 

Cosas

When you live abroad, you connect with new cultures and types of people, but you also notice the distance between you and them. Particularly in a big city, surrounded by thousands or millions of people in their own universe, building relationships with objects is often easier and more feasible. You notice that your life is a compilation of things which have traveled with you from this pre-abroad existence to the things which you have acquired where you are now, and you begin to see the objects as not only what they are but as reminders of all that you are. For example, I treasure my double bed that I got here. I found the hard-as-a-rock double mattress and wooden bedframe at a tiny shop that looked like it could be on an episode of ‘Hoarders’ (the owner had to work with the neighbors to pull a dining room table and chairs from off of it to get the thing out). I bargained for it with tricks of the trade I learned from Colombian friends, rode back to my house in a pick-up truck with saints hanging from the rearview mirror like air fresheners, had help moving it to the second floor and assembled the bed frame on my own (a first, for me). Then, when I moved, I had the help of two friends move it out again, load it onto a van and up the three flights of stairs into my new apartment.

When I was little, I had a green, Girl Scout vest that adorned patches like medals of honor. Each one represents something that at the very least says, ‘I was here. I did something.’ As an adult, as a person who lives far from home, you don’t have patches or even old friends around to say, “Hey remember that time we…” I think many people don’t consider moving abroad because they are afraid of the loneliness and that fear is legitimate. There are days when I want to call a friend on my crappy foreign phone and can’t; days that I could spend in entirety in bed, because I don’t work and no one is going to notice the difference anyways and because I cherish my relationship with my double bed more than I want to see anyone in Bogotá. So I look to my things:  a bicycle with chipped paint, broken gears and a torn seat that rips up the crotch of every pair of tights that I own; an extra-large tube of toothpaste that I’ve squeezed and flattened beyond all reason because I remember standing in an aisle of Walgreens with my mom the day before I went to the airport; a mattress that’s hard-as-Plymouth-freakin’-Rock… and I love all of them. When you are in your own country and everything is easy you forget to love your things for the simple fact that they are yours.

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Then there are the other things which couldn’t fit into a suitcase if you tried, like full moons in the daytime or the flavor of a fresh apple or the way a dog’s tail flutters when its owner holds a ball in the air right before he or she decides to throw it. Thankfully, although customs and foods and living environments are all new, general aspects of humanity and laws of physics stay the same. You know that a cup of coffee will be hot when it is made, that the heat will eventually dissolve into the air like a balloon that is finally let go of, resigned to the sky. You know that that set of blue, paint-worn shutters on a side street in your neighborhood would feel coarse and honest if you were to touch it, that it is the same blue as the sidewalk chalk you used to use or the nail polish that you once stole or the retainer that you lost you don’t know where.

These things do not represent your “new” life or your “old” life, but just life. The loneliness sucks sometimes, it does, but having company around all the time makes you forget to appreciate the things.  Things rule. Things make you realize the capacity you have to appreciate the world for other reasons, like the way brick walls along the highway are covered with posters upon posters until there’s nothing left of the layers of timeworn paper but the way they curl around the new posters; like an old, fatherly hand on the shoulder of its successors; like nothing is quite ready to let go; like nothing ever really has to.

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