Think free, be free

There isn’t much graffiti in our town, which is rather nice, but the graffiti we do have is nothing like the gang signs and symbols I’m used to seeing in the States. Instead, the graffiti tends to be done by the local anarchists — all five of them, if even that many. I find them incredibly endearing, if only because very rarely do they get the anarchist symbol right.

The park I walk past to go into town has a wall where the anarchists usually draw their messages. This week had the best messages by far: on one wall, ‘Think free, be free. We have nothing to lose but our chains’ and on the other, ‘Blank walls? Silent generation!’ It warmed my Odonian heart with pride and I wanted to find these cute little anarchists and pat them on the head, saying, ‘Well done!’ I kicked myself each morning for forgetting to recharge my camera and bring it with me. Last night I remembered after going to bed, so I got up and plugged in the battery to charge overnight. I dutifully remembered my camera this morning.

…and walked to the park to find workmen washing off the graffiti. They saw me walking toward them, clutching my camera with a crestfallen expression. ‘Hello,’ they said.

‘Hi,’ I answered. Then, because I am a madwoman, I asked, ‘Could I take a picture, before you wash it off?’

The two workmen exchanged glances then looked back at me, utterly bemused. ‘What’s left of it, anyway,’ I added hastily.

‘Sure, what’s left of it,’ said one.

‘Is this for your scrapbook of achievements?’ asked the other, while I was snapping these pictures.

‘What? Oh, no no, I just find it really funny!’

Again, complete and utter bemusement on their part. I thanked them for letting me take pictures and hurried away.

I managed to get to the graffiti on the post office before the workmen did, and so you can see the paint there more clearly. The red was painted first, and then the next day someone had added the message in black:

I particularly like how they attempted to combine the two symbols with this one. They’re clever, but they don’t know what the symbols are supposed to look like.

This message on the old health centre has been up for ages, ever since the health centre was moved to the new hospital two years ago. I really like this one because it’s timely, relevant, and fits in its context.

So you see, another reason I’m fond of these painted messages is because they actually have something to say.

Unaccustomed earth

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”

The above is the epigraph to Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of two short-story collections written by her. (The first is Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is, of course, brilliant. There is a nice review at the American Literary Review Blog about it.) Some of you may be familiar with The Namesake, her novel that was made into a film. Each of her stories is a microcosm that offers a glimpse into the lives of those who move from one side of the world to another, from one world to a different one, different in language, colors, culture, and of their children. Most of the stories deal with Indians who move to England or to the U.S., but they also tell of the pilgrimages back to India and the tension of being caught between two worlds.

As I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, and reading about Interpreter of Maladies at the ALR blog, I noticed that in all the stories and discussion of the stories, the people who move are called immigrants. Which, yes they are. But as I thought about my own experience, and of the international community I know here in Scotland and in England, I have not heard any of us call ourselves immigrants. I tend to refer to myself as an ex-pat, and to us at large “internationals”, or to be more specific, “international students”. The definitions of the two words are as such:

immigrant, noun.
1. A person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

ex-pat, expatriate, noun.
1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.

As you can see, by technical definition they are very similar. I still find it curious that it is usually the “Other” that is referred to as an immigrant, and not oneself, but when I consider again the international community I know of, the key issue that separates the two terms is the idea of permanence. There are several of us who are entertaining thoughts of staying here, of putting roots in this foreign soil, but there is no sense of solidity to these plans, of being set in stone.  “A stranger am I, and a wanderer, searching for the edge of the world.”

And so I make this post on the 4th of July. This was not planned, but it is fitting. I consider myself an ex-pat because it is easier to love my country from a distance — I love its founding, the promise that it held, that it still holds to some extent today. But sometime over the past two hundred years, the eyes of the people turned inward; the American pioneering spirit became individualistic to the point of selfishness, and I, who had seen the outside world, first through books and imagination and then with my own two eyes, could no longer bear to be caged.

My American readers, I hope you have a good 4th of July. I also hope that you remember to read the Declaration of Independence. This is a day to enjoy with family and friends, with cook-outs and fireworks and games, but it is also a day to remember the spirit and the words that first created the United States of America.

And on a completely unrelated note, for the curious: 6066, but I haven’t yet written today.

Useful, indeed

UPDATE: Apparently Gerard has been given the opportunity to fight for his position in the comic. See it here. I’m glad, even if the comic still represents condescending attitudes toward humanities students. No, the possibility for social commentary has not escaped me. I am, perhaps, more upset at the overall treatment of Gerard. A casual look at the PHD forums and other blogs that mention Gerard from PHD will show that his treatment has touched a raw nerve for humanities students.


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Gerard was introduced in August 2007. He’s only been in four comics of PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper), this latest one being the last, apparently. It took some digging to find them but reading over them I’m a bit upset with PHD. Most of the time I still get their jokes because of being a DATA alum and because I have several friends who are engineers and scientists. For a while their one bone to the humanities was in Tajel’s character, an anthropologist, who I also enjoyed because of my anthropology minor. When they added Gerard, a medievalist!, I was even happier. Then they didn’t do anything with him. If anything, the few comics he’s been in have shown that the writers of PHD don’t have much respect toward literature grad students.

Gerard’s comics: Humanities (8/31/2007); Humanities vs. Social Sciences (9/3/2007); Post Avant-Garde Limericks (1/18/2008); Budget Cuts (5/8/2009).

Granted, perhaps these are supposed to be funny. Every literature student I know has encountered “What are you going to do with that?” more than once. I’ve even been demanded “Why?“, also on more than one occasion. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us have inferiority complexes of some degree. Obviously I have the tendency to get defensive. Surely Jorge Cham could have thought of something else that was, perhaps, actually funny for the people for whom he apparently had made the character.*

What am I going to do as a medievalist? I’m going to study and learn where we came from, to better understand where we are now, and where we are going. I’m going to learn how people are the same throughout history, and how we are different, how our worldviews change, and what changes them. I’m learning how to learn so that I can do this my entire life. I’m going to research and write so I can share what I learn. I’m going to write and teach so that I can help shape the generation that follows me to be sensitive to all people, tolerant of cultures, to think critically and approach the world with curiosity. Above, all, I’m going to enjoy myself, because this is what I love to do. People who study literature and history stand in the proud tradition of continuing and shaping civilisation as we know it. Without medieval Irish monasteries, we wouldn’t have copies of manuscripts that were destroyed during Viking attacks. Without Arabic commentators, we wouldn’t have known about Aristotle. What would the world be like without Shakespeare? Milton? Goethe? Dickens? Hawthorne? Hemingway? Eliot? Pound? I could go on and on. A world without literature is a world that does not know itself. A major that is useful, indeed!

Continue reading

Hope?

Tonight I had an unexpected opportunity: I got to hear Greg Mortenson speak at Trinity University. He is the founder of the Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea. He builds schools for girls in Pakistan. A friend gave me a copy earlier this summer and I was excited to read it because I had been eyeing it in the bookstore for months. Last week, my mom and I heard that he would be in town. Of course I was going to risk missing Obama’s speech (I would record it) in order to go hear Greg Mortenson.

Mortenson is just as personable and inspiring in person as he is in print. This is a man who grew up in extraordinary–or at least, not your typical American–circumstances, is down-to-earth, and works towards the betterment of our world because, well, it doesn’t occur to him not to. This is a man who had brunch with Pervez Musharraf three days before he resigned as president! I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of this book. Read it. Let it inspire you, compel you.

A couple quotes:
“If you fight terrorism, that’s based on fear. But if you promote peace, that’s based in hope.” (In regards to the subtitle to his book. The hardcover said “One man fighting terrorism… one school at a time. The new softcover says, “One man promoting peace…”)

“The real enemy is ignorance, and it is ignorance that breeds hatred.”

We made it home in time so I could still hear Obama’s speech. It’s been interesting watching the DNC in the family room, with my dad in the other room, because he is a staunch Republican. “He’s going to promise the world,” my dad said tonight. “And McCain will next week,” I quipped back. We’ve had mild verbal sparring like this all summer, mainly because I won’t stand for anyone to be spoken badly of, whether I agree with them or not. At least my father stayed in the other room, and didn’t get up to go upstairs.

Tonight Obama spoke about change and what it would look like. I listened. I thought. President Wilson urged Congress to ratify the 19th amendment, and he was a Democrat. President F.D. Roosevelt picked up the pieces of a broken America with the New Deal, and he was a Democrat. The Civil Rights movement was fought during a Democratic presidency, and it succeeded. That same presidency was that of an Irish Catholic. It would seem that Democrats are not afraid of change. When I look at Barack Obama, when I hear the arguments against him, they are mostly from older people, working from a world-view foreign to those of us born in a post-Cold War, post-segregation world. Perhaps it is a good thing for a young candidate to become president. He would better represent the upcoming leaders and workers of this nation, people like me who when she saw him running for president didn’t notice the color of his skin until someone else pointed it out to her. Who saw a person.

In 1962, President Kennedy said, “The Irish were not wanted here. Now an Irish Catholic is President of the United States. There is no question about it, in the next forty years a Negro can achieve the same position.”

We’re six years late, but we’ve made it. There is no question about it: it’s possible. And we should be willing to consider change, and not fear it. In the past, such risks of change brought us independence, universal suffrage, civil rights. We should not fear to hope.

Tonight I also heard Obama say, “We recognize ourselves in each other.” It reminded me of why I read and study and hope to create literature. Literature often brings us face to face with the Other and the unknown; it compels us to see in their face a reflection similar to ours: two eyes, a nose, and a head full of fears and dreams, and a heart aching to be known.

Idealism?

I’m a little behind on the DNC because I’ve had to record it, and just got around to catching up last night. I must admit that I am impressed by Michelle Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric. I’m a moderate, an independent, and I’m going to give next week’s RNC just as much attention as I’m giving the DNC, because I believe that it is valuable to hear both sides. However, the words from Michelle’s speech that resounded in my sensibility were these:

And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.

All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do—that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be.

These sound like words lifted from my own journal. They’ve got my attention, and I’m listening.

Future-minded

I think I’m ready for it to be next March. By then, I should be well-adjusted to Scotland. Mainly, I don’t want a transitional four-month-long summer. Ugh. Let’s skip limbo, shall we?

For lack of other things to say, a few pages pulled from my journal. From August 2007 [Kali’s comment points out that I need to add the disclaimer I had decided not to put after all: The first statement is a prompt that I made up for myself to journal from, it is by no means what I actually believe, as indicated through my criticism of it through the rest of the entry.]:

So long as we have diversity, we will never have peace. There is only one way to have peace and that is for everyone to be the same. To agree, always, and to never see anything differently. There are a number of ways to achieve this… to have such an oppressive government, such as in 1984, that it crushes all opposition… to have such a liberal government, à la Brave New World, that the populous is too distracted to revolt… humanity has to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, studies of the humanities and liberal arts must cease, knowledge for the sake of knowledge must be stamped out – in essence, the defining qualities of the human race, curiosity, intellect, thought, diversity, individuality, must be erased. Widespread peace – meaning the absence of war, pain, and suffering – would come at the cost of what makes humanity human. Culture would end. Faith. Story-telling. Imagination.

By requiring everyone to be the same, and by removing pain, the human race would be stunted toward failure. Life is not worthwhile without love, without something to live for, and both of these things are tied up with heartache. To be denied the imagination, history, love, and pain, is to be denied humanity. The end result would be a world populated with one more race of animals incapable of imaginative independent thought.

This leads to some startling conclusions. As one who abhors the hate and horror of war, of the death and waste it causes, how do I reconcile this with my belief that pain defines life? Are casualties of war, though unfortunate, the necessary sacrifices for the survival of the human race, not merely the DNA code that defines us, but of a race that retains its self, its humanity?

Are peace efforts in vain, or even wrongful? Should I, as a self-proclaimed Christian, really hope for the day (or a day) that all people would bow and confess the name of Christ as Lord? Wouldn’t that make us all the same? I find the diversity of faiths a beautiful thing. The prospective loss of quiet Buddhist meditation, colorful Hindu festivals, the steadfastness of Islam, saddens me.

Is there any way at all to have widespread peace and maintain our diversity?

If we all become hermits, but then that ceases to be “life” also, for humanity is also defined by its community. Interaction between human beings, love, friendship, working relationships – even hate? Discord? Enemies? – are essential to life, for a human cannot reach its fullest potential in a vacuum. The few ascetics who do choose such a life do so for the sake of spiritual enlightenment, or as intercessors for their community, but not so that they themselves can be fully human. Community, then, in addition to diversity and imagination, define the human race. So is it possible to have all three of these things and have widespread, or even “world,” peace?

“Only by divine intervention,” I want to say. That again raises the question of religion, and reminds me of something Gandhi said:

“I came to the conclusion long ago […] that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu […] But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”

So, where does that leave us?

If I had a magic wand…

I created this blog in part to have a venue for some off-line things that I’ve written. From July 2007:

As much as the stability of a suburban, middle-class life is tempting, there is something deeper in me that stirs for fantasy. For a quest, for glory, and grandeur. For a struggle between good versus evil, where the sides are clear. This is the part of me that identifies with Éowyn, with Lír, who wants an Order of the Phoenix that she can join to fight against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. This is the part of me that “fears a cage, a life behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” To stand beneath trees and actually hear the whisperings I fancy I hear. To see things. To know things. To do things. To feel the weight of responsibility that comes with power. To have an end for which to use that power.

The enemies today are political and corporate leaders, acting out human rights abuses and what have you, and the only way to fight them is on their political playing field. I have no heart for politicking. I have already tried. I would rather a sword, or a staff, or my voice with which to inspire others, and have my own grit and worth determine success, not the system.

I have to hope for the potential of mankind, in our ability to love and work toward the best of things. Yet every day I encounter utter selfishness in the people at work and just in normal people—well, they just don’t care. Maybe they’re jaded. Maybe they weren’t raised and instilled with the belief that we should be considerate and kind to all people simply because they are people, too. Fellow human beings. And not to be nice just because someone is making us or for our own self-interest. I care so much about having a purpose or doing something great—not for my own sake, my own glory, but just to do something for the greater good. But my hope that there are others like me is dashed every day.

What creature is man? So like an angel, so like a god, but so like a devil and beast as well. That we have such capabilities and potential for goodness and kindness, but how many of us choose selfishness and apathy instead. I see the rampant disease of apathy and it causes me to despair to the point that I become apathetic, also.

I firmly believe that the best heroes—Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Lír and Molly Grue, Ender and Valentine—did not ask to be heroes. It happened. The circumstances were set and they had to make a choice. They could only make the best choice from what they knew at the time. That is all I can hope to do, too. If what I do helps to steer the world in the right direction, ever so imperceptibly, well, that is all I can hope for, isn’t it? And I will ever have an unrequited love for the glory found in fantasy novels.