Thursday, July 19, 2018

Home, travel, and the end of the world

When you work in international development, you inevitably have to move a lot, and that’s where we’re at right now, moving from our longtime home in Central America to a new post.  En route we are spending a few weeks in our house in Colombia, and another few in Chicago.  It all has me thinking about what exactly home is, how we conceive of it. 

Understandably, in our small town in Colombia, where we have a house that I spent years rehabbing and where we return every Christmas, I feel very at home.  I have a similar sensation when we’re in Chicago.  These places are where my past is, with memories on every corner, but they are also where I project my future.  So in that sense it’s understandable that they feel like home to me.  The ironic thing is that I don’t have much of a present in these places, except for a few dreamlike weeks of vacation every year.  Most of my time is spent in my “real”, “normal” life away from either of these places.  My work takes me to exotic places to live for a few years at a time.  I enjoy and come to care very much about these places, but they’re not home.  Better said, they are home while I am there, with my family and our routines and a rented house that we come to feel as our own.  But somehow those 45 or more weeks a year that I spend in my “normal”, workaday life, feel less real than the scant time I spend in Chicago or Colombia.  I think usually people define what we consider to be normal or real life by where we live and work, day to day.  But in my case, my day to day and work life feel less real than my lands of dreams, Chicago and Colombia.  It’s like certain indigenous groups I’ve read about that consider dreams to be the realest world.

I’ve further confirmed this difference in how I conceive of different places on a number of occasions.  When my mom died, we spent a few weeks at her house in Chicago.  I thought it would feel weird and empty without her there, but in fact it still felt like home.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t miss my mom, but the house and the city I grew up in didn’t feel alien without her.  Even when my wife and kids left a few days before I did, I still felt real and at home in my mom’s house, in a way I don’t elsewhere.  In fact, it felt like she was still there, imbuing everything with her spirit.
In contrast, I have spent the last few days in my Central American house, but alone, without my family.  The furniture was still there, but neither were the people nor the personal objects that make a home for me.  In this sense I really identified with Luther Vandross’s quip that a house is not a home if it’s empty.

Leaving my kids and my wife in Colombia reminded me of how my mom would start missing people before they had even left.  In the weeks prior to leaving them, I had a few short trips, and now I’m going to be apart from them for a few more weeks.  I’ve spent our time together feeling a sort of muted pit in my stomach, knowing that soon I’d have to leave and be without them for a while.  I think death is like that, the gloomy knowledge, even as you’re still alive and enjoying your loved ones, that you’ve got this imminent trip you’re going to have to take without them.  It’s like the time alone with your mom or your wife when they drive you to catch an early-AM flight.  It’s a few last moments with your loved ones while the rest of the world sleeps.

All these reflections coincide with what can seem to be a pretty apocalyptic time in US politics.  The imposition of indefinitedetention for children as an “improvement” on separating them from their parents, followed by Supreme Court decisions dismantling unions, validating voter discrimination, and institutionalizing both discrimination against Muslim travelers and gay consumers.  And I don’t just mean apocalyptic in a bad way.  For as much as these new political milestones seem to me to be major steps on the path to weakening democracy by and for the people, I imagine there is a huge swath of the American population that regards this as a sort of Rapture, the culmination of decades of ultra-conservative dreams and practical organizing.  From the Right’s embrace of the culture wars in the 1970s, to passage of ever-more-regressive tax laws and dismantling of market regulations in the 1980s and 90s, to consolidating the Evangelical vote in the 90s and 2000s, to winning local races in a big way in the 2000s and 2010s and enabling State legislatures to redraw US Congressional districts, to the radicalization of the Supreme Court by Republican-held Senates, to the opening of elections to corporate campaign finance, and finally to the election of a far-Right president with two chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court on his side.  It’s really a legacy of decades of impressive organizing work and a fair number of lucky breaks for the Right.

In any case, these weeks alone, apart from my family, and the ugly turn in US politics, have had me feeling down.  This feeling reminds me of a series of conversations a few years ago between my wife and my mother.  When we had been living in the US for a few months, my wife commented to my mother that she often felt unsafe in the US given the climate of anti-Latino sentiment and rising fascism.  My mother was surprised and didn’t really understand what she was talking about.  But a few months later, as candidate Trump’s campaign became more explicitly ethnonationalistic, and after a few high-profile hate crimes, my mom told my wife, “Oh my God, when I think that my grandchildren are Latino, I really worry about if someone’s going to try to do something bad to them!”  Reflection on the reality around her had led my mother to understand something she hadn’t really considered before as directly affecting her.  That’s how I feel these days—the increasingly narrow definition of who deserves to fully partake in the rights and prosperity of the nation has started to brush up against my reality and my loved ones.  As an economically-secure white male citizen I’m still going to be okay personally in a lot of respects, whatever damage is done by new laws and new Supreme Court decisions.  But it is becoming clear to me that we are in very trying times.

I have read a number of essays over the years, especially from black authors, to the effect that all the things that so shock and offend the general public are not news to the black community.  To feel like you are being marginalized, to have to fight back against discriminatory laws, to be the unheeded voice of reason before a majority you can never win against—these have all been defining features of black American life, in different times and places, under Republican or Democratic presidents.  This is not to say that the present juncture is no big deal—to the contrary, it gives me strength to know that, even when I feel that the world has gone mad and I am futilely insisting on what is right and decent, others have been in that same situation and worse situations, and have persevered and even sometimes prevailed.  Surely many people at many times in history have felt despair and felt that the world was indeed ending.  Imagine being a European Jew in the early days of the Holocaust, or a progressive peasant during the worst years of dirty wars and disappearances in Latin America, or a scapegoated professor in the throes of the Cultural Revolution.  Any of these people would be right to feel that the world was ending—it was, for them.  But fast-forward a few decades, and the world is still here, things have somehow persisted and progressed.  (The book The Three Body Problem does a great job of exploring this theme as it follows a professor that has lived through apocalyptic times in China and is now still alive and somehow going about things like a normal person).

Of course lest I get too optimistic about how the world continues, I can’t forget my wife’s quip, “But for the person who’s been separated from their children, their world has ended.  Can you imagine if they took away our kids?  That would be it.  That would be the end.”

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