Becoming a Citizen of the World
It has been a while since I basked in the sensations and imagery of Peru - so long in fact that I fear the memories are soon to fade away into vague impressions. That’s the trouble with all this traveling and being on the move, forever leaning into the next thing…. Yes, you can keep a journal to report the events, and yes, you can take hundreds of photographs to preserve visual memory, but the fact is that as you move through time, the experience of the past becomes eventually weaker in your consciousness. There is something I won’t lose track of and that’s how much I felt I belonged there during those two weeks - in Cusco, Machu Picchu, and cruising on the Amazon waters. It appears that I can be a visitor and simultaneously a member of the world I’m visiting. What does this feel like? No fear, staying the present moment, the pleasure of looking another person right in the face and feeling at ease, the expanding of the sensibilities…
In the last number of weeks I have been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to publicize my memoir and to create a persona that the reading public can identify with. This is tricky stuff. Why? Because I frequently see myself as a chameleon, moving in and out of direct experiences with diverse peoples and feeling the boundaries fade: the Vietnamese, the French, Italians, Burmese, the Indians, the East Africans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Peruvians. As I sifted through the final edition of the book in one last proofread, what I saw unfolding was I often began with an agenda in my mind, and then ultimately that vision disappeared into the cultural milieu I traveled through. I don’t believe I ever wished to maintain a solid identity as a privileged American burdened by insatiable hunger and need for learning, because when I was a young girl I lived amongst Americans abroad whom I found to be sadly lacking in character and good will, and I knew that I was not like them. These kids were from military and foreign service families and sadly they had zero interest in becoming a part of the country they lived in - in this case, Italy.
My memoir was built on the scaffolding of a series of narratives that described my journeys as a transparent character who arrived in, say, Vietnam, with a series of questions about how this country recovered from the catastrophic war, or when I went to Venice and planned to capture an essential human loneliness as I walked the damp alleys of the city in the middle of winter; in both these cases I felt myself becoming less defined as a physical entity called Mag, and morphing into a murky and transparent presence as I joined the new environment in search of understanding. I certainly felt aware of myself as American when I was in Vietnam, but at the same time I felt I melted into my various adventures there, as I did in Venice where I could actually observe myself from the outside traversing the city with my Canon hanging around my neck. The chaos of India made defining myself as American close to impossible as I remember. There were so many discrepancies in sensory experience, and as an older middle aged Buddhist-inclined woman, I sought to grasp the almost unfathomable story of India’s spiritual and social culture, losing track of the personality that was Mag. In Cambodia as I followed my guide through the Killing Fields amidst all the gentle, copper skinned peoples still mourning the holocaust, all I could think of was how the skulls and bones being displayed there were those of my brothers and sisters, that we humans all share the same skeletal form and live with the same aspirations, suffering similar losses….
Why do I now point the finger at the question of how it feels to be American traveling in foreign lands? Because in this country that I have finally come to love we are bombarded with racist ideas that say being American - especially WHITE American - is the only way that is acceptable and right. Across the country flames of resentment and fear have been fanned, and we find a growing part of our population wishing to chase out all the brown and black skinned beings who have been living productive lives here. Our world view has been shrinking dramatically as more and more people are holding onto the worst biases of the white race. Nationalism is glorified, as tanks and military parades are displayed on the television, and no one seems to care that the President of the United States rants incoherently and regularly against minorities who happen to be doing all the hard work in America. Of course, the insanely true thing - sort of in the same category as our evolution from the apes - is that the only human beings in the United States who can lay claim to true American-ness are the Native Americans, formerly (incorrectly?) called Indians. And if we take a good look at their history, we must then hang our heads in shame. This population with their reddish brown skin and deep connection to nature and the spirit world was subjected to continuing horrors (theft of land, disease, warfare, etc) by the European colonists who came here theoretically in search of religious and political freedoms. In truth, they felt entitled and they came here to conquer this vast land for all its riches.
As Jill Lepore’s eloquent book, These Truths, announces, our government was founded on some pretty lofty, eloquent, and practically unmanageable principles. There were all those righteous and elevated words: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “all men are created equal,” and “government by the people, of the people, and for the people…” When you read about these early times, you can’t help but feel a deep admiration for the idealists who, though many were slaveholders, seemed to desire to do good for their fellow human beings and to create a just society. What you see unfold as you follow the narrative is that the experiment in democratic ideals was fraught with trouble and caused great suffering. Man’s greed, for one, seems to be at the root of this, I think, that and his sense of entitlement and rightness, his pride and unwillingness to let go of individual power and to think communally… Our history has been filled with so many who couldn’t measure up to the high ideals, and then there were a handful who tried and almost succeeded: Lincoln, FDR, JFK, even Barack Obama …. These men held a vision that reached past nationalistic views, they saw this country as a player on the world stage, and they valued the contribution of the thousands upon thousands of immigrants, many with different colored skin, who helped build our institutions. I believe that they could see beyond our boundaries and value the richness of the cultures that America had in fact taken in.
Returning finally to the book that I spent so many years crafting and trying to shepherd into the world, I realize now that one of the most important messages it offers up is that we humans become richer (in spirit), more compassionate, and more intelligent if we engage our curiosity and investigate this complicated and beautiful world. I guess I’m making an argument that it was in traveling to all those far away places that I salvaged my sanity, became a truly interesting evolved person, and saw my own authenticity. In the end the reader discovers that my character is not simply that of an American but rather a citizen of the world. I really like thinking like that. Yes, I do.