Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Of Airplants and Exiles

Editor's note: This is a classes update/required journal for Matt. It feels like a working draft of something, so take from it what you will. You can find more Mexican travelogues - with photos - by scrolling further down...or by waiting a few days!

Then Yahweh formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And Yahweh planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he formed. - Genesis 2:7-8


Yesterday in our Biblical studies class we were reading the story of Jeremiah when suddenly Padre Jose Luis asked us, one by one, if we ever felt the urge to flee our own society, like Jeremiah, and like so many other Old Testament characters did at some point in their lives. I hate being put on the spot like this. Two classmates shared their thoughts before I did, the two classmates with the most international experience, and spoke of "fleeing" to Africa and Asia, respectively, where each had spent at least a year of their lives. Neither seems interested in living in the United States again. Then it was my turn.

I think it was my mood that made me answer the way I did. It must have been, because really, I love to travel, from an early age I was an "airline brat" (kid of airline employee parents) and traveled all over the place, and these days Chris and I take crazy-packed road trips for vacations every year, I mean, I love to travel, I really love to travel.

But I do so hate this weekly trip to Cuernavaca. I have to pack my backpack the night before, the same bag every time but I always pack too much stuff, too many books usually because I´m deathly afraid of getting bored. I say goodbye to Chris, and it´s only for two days but it always feels like two weeks. We rush around after class on Thursday morning, make sandwiches to go and then hail a taxi - I hate taxis - to get to the bus station. The bus ride sits in traffic for awhile before it heads out of the city, up and around these winding mountain roads that always, always, always make me carsick. When we get there we have class almost immediately, Bible class, that I can barely make sense out of because I like structure and our professor, though no Dr. Klein, is quite brilliant in his own right but uses anything but a clear structure and I´m always afraid that he´s going to look at my confused face and call on me to say something that may or may not be what he´s looking for. Then we head to homestays with host families which is always so incredibly painfully awkward. My espanol stinks and we´ve exhausted the conversations I can actually have at my current level, so we watch TV together, usually "Malcolm in the Middle" (surprisingly hilarious) and "Drake y Josh" (a middle-school-aimed Disney show). Then it´s meal time, more awkwardness. During any free time - usually Saturday morning - we explore Cuernavaca, which is a fine place all in all, but I always end up wishing I could be exploring it with Chris instead of biding my time until we can go back to D.F. Plus, why are we in Cuernavaca, anyway? It´s like you´re going to school in Chicago but you keep going to Valparaiso to do anything interesting. It´s insane. Twenty million people in Mexico City and we can´t find any of them worth visiting? To add insult to injury, half the people we meet make disparaging remarks about Mexico City, it´s so crowded, there´s so much pollution, blah blah blah. Mexico City can be a miserable place (some Mexican writers call it “post-apocalyptic”) but I already hate it when people speak ill of the city because hello there are people, human beings, living there, that’s what a city is, a big ol’ concentration of human beings…

So anyway by Thursday afternoon I´m usually doing my best to suppress my resentment toward Cuernavaca and the foul mood it generates within me. Maybe that´s why I answered the way I did when Padre Jose Luis asked me if I ever felt the urge to flee my society.

I said No. I´m an introvert and I love the mountains of Appalachia and the wide open plains of Nebraska and I said No! It can´t really be true, but it´s what I said: No, I´ve never felt the urge to flee society. I want to flee into it. As for at least fleeing my own society, well, I told Padre Jose Luis that when Chris told me we were going to Mexico for a year my immediate reaction was that I didn´t want to go. I wanted to stay on the little piece of land that I had come to call home and go deeper there, in that place. The United States is my home, my land, my people. My temptation was not to leave, I said, my temptation was to stay.

And do you know what he said? "You have roots. That´s good." Yes, I said, and now I feel uprooted. And he nodded, and moved on. I have roots. And now I am uprooted. For all the wondrous joys here that uprootedeness has been my dominant feeling in Mexico.

What am I to make of such a thing?

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Yahweh on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. -Jeremiah 29:7


Last week in Cuernavaca we went on a field trip to a local waterfall, where there were several community ecology projects. In the midst of this one of my classmates pointed out a funny-looking plant hanging out on the branch of a tree. "Look," she said, "it´s an air plant." I had never seen anything like it before.

Air plants, also known as epiphytes, do not root themselves in soil, but live off the moisture in the air around them. They just kind of spread out their long green leaf-roots, and soak up whatever the air, the wind, the ruah sends their way.

This one was attached to a tree, but according to Wikipedia, epiphytes are not parasitic. Rather, the tree is what the air plant uses to maintain a steadiness in its world. In other words, the great tree, with its own roots deeply in the ground and its own leaves high in the air, is what sustains the air plant´s ability to soak up as much wind-blown nutrition as it can.

As the hours pass I think about whether I could be an air plant, my roots in the air, searching out the ruah that circles the globe.

And then, suddenly, I think of my dad, who left his West Virginia home at the age of 18 to find work in the closest city. He never moved back. I think of my grandpa, who one day many years ago sold his Iowa farm, packed up everything he owned, piled his family into a car and headed west to California in the hope of finding a better life. And then I think that if either one of them had failed to uproot themselves, my mom and dad would never have met in San Francisco, and I would not be writing this right now because I would not exist. I, the uprooted one, am the product of uprootedness. Being an air plant, then, is not so novel: My family is made up of them. And I begin to see myself, and my life, clearly, as if for the first time.

I suppose I have taken that metaphor as far as I can. My dad still speaks of West Virginia as "home" – it is still his native soil. And my grandpa and grandma moved back to Iowa some twenty years ago, after they retired. We are land-based creatures, made out of of land and placed in it; the first creation story still rings true. The world spins, and I spin with it, and maybe someday I will spin right back to the place I once came from.

For now, though, I, like Jeremiah, live in the city where Yahweh has sent me. I seek its welfare, and I pray on its behalf, for in its welfare I will find my welfare.

1 comment:

From Michigan with Love said...

Sometimes I wonder if you think too much...heck you do I know that! But love you still the same my uprooted brother!