Where Are You From?

"Trying To Blend In" 8 x 10 framed, $300

“Trying To Blend In” 8 x 10 framed, $300

My collegiate study abroad was the summer of 1969 at the University of Graz, Austria. There I met two women – mother and daughter – and when I asked them that time-worn, tedious question “Where are you from?” they looked confused. I believe they were originally from Bulgaria, but due to politics and undisclosed personal matters, they were officially stateless, traveling around Europe on United Nations passports.

“How marvelous!” I thought at the time. “How liberating to not be tethered to one country and one identity, to be free to move about the world unburdened by someone else’s prejudices about your origins!” I didn’t discuss this with the mother and daughter, though now I fervently wish I had.

I’ve developed some new perspective on this question of stateless persons over the years and especially during the past year as I’ve watched political turmoil and violence turning people loose in the world with nowhere to go, nowhere to belong, nowhere to call home. We call them refugees or, more politely, migrants.

The world appears to be increasingly full of such people, the effluent of conflict and economic catastrophe. Just yesterday I read an article about Nepal, where children born of a Nepali mother and a foreign father cannot claim Nepali citizenship except through a difficult and highly uncertain political process. Without their official citizenship certificates these people “cannot vote, open a bank account, sit for many official examinations, register the birth of a child, buy or sell property, get a passport, or even obtain a mobile SIM card.” They are effectively stateless persons.

Instead of loosening the restrictions of social and political participation, we appear to be getting more and more chary about according citizenship and belonging to our fellow human beings. My youthful infatuation with the notion of global citizenship, one planetary society, was naïve. Although we may be annoyed when people ask the question, we all want to be from somewhere that loves us.

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.

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Thresholds

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Today I am thinking about thresholds – but not physical doorways, gateways, borders, or frontiers. No, I am thinking of thresholds we use to mark the passage of time. Last night I watched a stunning sunset on Playa Tamarindo, and this morning I rose early and made my way to the playa in the dark in order to watch the full moon set over the same waters, just as the sun was beginning to peek above the eastern horizon. It was an unforgettable spectacle.

Ursula Le Guin writes, “A frontier has two sides. It is an interface, a threshold, a liminal site, with all the danger and promise of liminality.” I find the thresholds between day and night, between the presence and absence of the moon, equally infused with danger and promise. And yet in this case the promise lies in the confidence that this is a cycle that will repeat itself. After night, day will come again. The moon, too, will reappear in the eastern sky. And as it wanes into a mere sliver, I know that it will grow again to the bright disk of light I saw in the sky this morning. The tides that made the beach so broad, will soon make it a mere narrow strip.

What we remark most, what we find most enchanting, are the markers, the thresholds we impose on time – sunrise, sunset; the full moon and new moon. In fact, the sun holds its place while our planet slowly, regularly, turns on its slightly off-kilter axis. Likewise, the moon circles our little planet on its regular path, unconcerned with which portions of the globe currently enjoy its soft, reflected light.

It’s all a matter of perception.

Reporting From Tamarindo

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Reporting from Tamarindo BLOG 02/02 Eating my beautiful breakfast this morning (papaya, pineapple, watermelon, rice-and-beans, plantain, camote pudding) looking out at the beautiful Pacific Ocean… I found myself craving solitude. The breakfast was great, the view was amazing – but the hotel cafe was huge and crowded with noisy guests, ready to head off in a hundred different directions in pursuit of whatever they felt worthy of their time and effort. “I could go back to my room,” I thought. My room is at the very back corner of the hotel, where huge mango trees conceal more than a few howler monkeys. I hear them, but I’ve only seen one. I also saw a really big iguana! But no… I wasn’t looking for isolation. Just solitude. Just a place where I could feel happy to be alone. Well… I found my place. It’s called Cafe Tico and it has outdoor seating under a guanacaste tree. It has iced soy lattes. And it’s right in front of a bookstore, which will open in 15 minutes.

Arrived in Costa Rica!

 

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I love being in places that resist being tamed – places with mountains, sea coasts, jungles. Costa Rica has all of these things. It also has hotels, like the one I spent the night in, where a space has been appropriated and domesticated for human use. I hear the call of wild birds as well as the crow of a rooster, from somewhere in one of the simple shacks that line the chain link fence behind our hotel. And there is a noticia on the back of our door about what to do in case of earthquake. I am looking forward to standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in a few hours’ time!

Obliterated

LennonWALL

Artists sometimes do odd things.

One of my favorite sites on my visit to Prague in winter of 2003 was the John Lennon Wall, where countless fans and tourists had posted layer after layer of tributes and expressions of devotion. It was beautiful and inspiring.

Today I read the news that a group of art students had taken it upon themselves to white out the entire wall! This was supposed to represent the beginning of a new era in honor of the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” and the inscription “Wall Is Over” was intended to be “an allusion to the subtitle of Lennon’s song ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.” However, the act of overpainting the wall inevitably evoked as well the Communist era in Czechoslovakia; during the 1980s, the Lennon wall was repeatedly painted over by Communist authorities in Prague.

The very notion of “starting over” is misguided. We always work with what already exists, for better or worse. All these art students have succeeded in doing is in imposing their own idea of a massive blank canvas over hundreds and thousands of other ideas and messages, layered into a public space that was allowed to belong to everyone. The students acted in an authoritarian way that I find flies in the face of the legacy of the Velvet Revolution they sought to honor.

(Read the article from HyperAllergic here.)

Navigating the French Countryside

Over the past 3 days, I have spent a lot of time driving my little black rental car through the southern French countryside.  It is beautiful country.  And we are not talking delicate beauty here!  No, this is a strong, robust beauty that has held up well to the abuse of human occupation over 300 millennia.  Even our attempts to construct a modern road system keep running up against things like massive rivers and towering rock faces that stretch for hundreds of yards.

That, in any event, is my explanation for why me and my petite voiture kept going in circles.  I was lost several times, and I mostly just enjoyed the view.  But today when I was searching for the little auberge I had booked for my night’s rest, I did not enjoy it so much.

My adventure has fostered a deeper respect for our ancient forbears who managed to navigate this countryside without maps or GPS.  But then… they would have seen, heard, felt, and smelled things that I totally missed as I whizzed through in my closed compartment with wheels.

Between Earth and Sky

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Watching a group of European Buddhists perform traditional Tibetan dance this past weekend, I was particularly taken with the bearing of one of the men as he danced.  Tibetan dance is very different from most classical forms of western dance.  I had a few lessons some time back and found it challenging but intriguing.

What struck me about this one dancer last weekend was the way he was fully grounded and yet buoyant in his bearing.  Tibetan dance incorporates heavy footfalls and slow turns on one foot followed by light, even placement of the next foot.  And yet the head and shoulders must be lifted.  It is a tough combination.

I think I might try Tibetan dancing again someday…

Where is my French?!

As soon as I crossed the frontier from Spain into France yesterday, I started trying to get my brain wrapped around all the signs and conversations in French.  I took 3 years of French at university, for heaven’s sake!  Where had all of that gone?

Buried.  Covered in the dust and debris of disuse.

I had been having so much fun in Spanish!  I could carry on casual conversations and eavesdrop in cafes.  I was even beginning to throw in the local expression “Vale!”  It translates roughly as “okay… yeah… sure… got it!”  I was looking for opportunities to use the question form (“Vale?”) or the doubled form (“Vale, vale!”).

And now I am in France struggling to excavate a language I once thought I would be pretty good at.  When I hear the words, I get it.  But when I try to speak…  I am just hoping this will get a little better during my few days here.