"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fading Memories of Underdevelopment


When I started my blog series Doing Good and Living Well, posts about the great 40-year ride I had through Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, I figured that I would write for years.  If I counted the days, each one always remarkable by some character, event, experience, I would have thousands of stories, anecdotes, and memories; and yet, after having written no more than 25 posts in this category, I find myself groping for ideas.  Was it because I had chosen the most eccentric characters, the most harrowing or beautiful experiences and the rest by comparison were more mundane? Was it because so much of life in those days was, for lack of a better term, experiential – it was a total, enveloping experience which I didn’t disaggregate then and cannot do now?  India, I have written, was a visual, intellectual, and sensory kaleidoscope.  It was unique, and never after have I been in such a place.  Or was it that I was looking for some meaning and tried to expand each experience into something broader?

Perhaps that last is the best explanation.  The fragments of memory I have – like sitting in the barsati in the early morning practicing my sitar, hearing the screech of the parrots as they left their rooks on the walls of Humayan’s tomb; or feeling the first cool spot in Delhi in late September, a sign that the brutal heat of the summer was losing its hold; or sitting in the small courtyard of the local Wolof sheik’s hut in a remote village in Thies, talking of family planning while he held court surrounded by his five wives; or eating spicy tripe soup in Bucharest, or admiring the still vibrant exterior frescoes on the monasteries in Suceava – are just fragments, pieces of a pastiche with no particular coherent core, theme, or center.

The most compelling reason, however, is because my life has shifted gears and geographical focus.  Except for a short trip to Nicaragua for a marriage, I have not travelled for over three years, and I have not worked in health or development since June of last year when I retired.  Unlike some people who retire and have trouble letting loose the reins of the career they had, often pushing on even harder than before, happy to die in their traces, fulfilling professional commitments, hoping to strike new ground despite the youthful energy and enthusiasm around them, I left my work with nary a glance back.  It was not that I was tired or unhappy, frustrated or angry.  It was just time for a change.  I had no particular plans, but I knew that there was a new world waiting, and I couldn’t wait to explore it.

I cannot deny that my cultural curiosity, expressed in international travel, did not play a part in my decade-long exploration of the South.  The South is, in many ways, a very foreign country to a Connecticut Yankee; and of course at one time it was another country.  I am fascinated by everything here, curious about community and family ties so important in the South.  I am attuned to racial balance or imbalance, eager to know about the transformation of the Old South to the New.  After all, the North had but one trajectory as it evolved quickly from trade and agriculture to industry, just like Europe.  The South had two – antebellum, and post-Civil War. 

So my intellectual and personal compass keeps pointing south, and in the past year I have spent time in Apalachicola, FL, a small port town on the Gulf Panhandle, insulated from the development to the east and west – again, a cultural curiosity because of its tenacity to retain the artisan oyster industry and succeeding, and its hold against the hotels and condominiums filling the Gulf Coast.  I have travelled up the Atlantic Coast through Georgia and South Carolina, stopping in small towns to sample their variation of Southern life, cuisine, and culture.  I am now in Columbus, Mississippi, and will be for six weeks.  I am here to help prepare for the Tennessee Williams birth Centennial, a two week affair in early September with a performance of Night of the Iguana, academic roundtables, visits to historical sites, etc.  I am also here to live in a small Southern town – my favorite in Mississippi - for an extended period of time.  What would it be like to live here?  How much would my distinctly Northern, urban, international character and experience leave me an outsider? Or would age, experience, cultural openness learned from all my travels, and the very pleasant and welcoming nature of Columbus be an easy elision?

At the same time, my geographical focus has other compass points.  I am getting to know San Francisco and Northern California.  I spent the first two months of my retirement in San Francisco while my daughter was in Europe.  I visit my son in Boston regularly, and my mother in my home town in Connecticut.  I have plans to visit friends in Colorado and Seattle.

Most importantly, my perspective is now national.  I am more interested in Mississippi than I am in Angola or Senegal.  The particular excitement I had in my earlier days – the excitement of new places, languages, challenges, friends, adventures – is not of so high value.  Of course age is a factor.  Travelling to these places has become more and more difficult, and the rewards fewer.  Cost-benefit analysis indicated “Stop travelling”.   India still holds an allure – how could it not, since it was the most seminal and important experience of my life – and so does Romania; but they are all of secondary importance to my life here.

Another element for the fading of my international memories has been my renewed interest for theatre; and that interest grows every day, and now takes up most of my life.  In the early days after retirement I re-read all of Faulkner, was overwhelmed by his writing, insights, and intelligence which made me put aside all other fiction.  I plan to visit Oxford Mississippi this trip or next year and enroll in a course on Faulkner.  I then moved to Shakespeare, and was once again overwhelmed by the same qualities – insight, elegance of language, poetry, and vast intellect and intelligence.  I have read nearly all the plays, and after my Tennessee Williams sojourn, I plan to return to Shakespeare.

These literary interests are supra-national.  Theatre is a world unto itself, a magnificent, boundless world which, now, is even more exciting and challenging and promising than any travel I have ever done.

I have no idea where these current interests will lead me.  I want to continue my readings in Southern history, particularly in Reconstruction and the economics of slavery.  I want to dig far deeper into Faulkner and Williams; but then again, one year ago I had no idea that I would be doing what I am doing now, so who knows?

In any case, I feel renewed, a new sense of purpose and interest – one more moderate, perhaps than the wild ramblings in foreign lands, but maybe even more fulfilling; or better, maybe what I need at this late point in my life.

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