Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Location and Dislocation: Thoughts on Immersion and Pilgrimage
When selling a house, the realtors are right: it's all about location, location, location. On immersion trips, however, the pilgrims are right: it's all about dislocation.
Pilgrims pack up for a destination as yet unseen through a terrain thoroughly unknown. Pilgrims take maps, but, as historian of religion J.Z. Smith observed, map is not territory. Our guidebook for the Camino made no mention of what became our highlights: lunch at that golf course clubhouse that welcomed pilgrims, even though our packs were full of gear -- and theirs full of clubs; the perfect cafe con leche on a rainy day in Galicia; the mysterious geometry of the Knights Templar church in Rioja.
Nor are maps peopled. No map could have introduced us to Linda and Nancy, whom we ran into so often I finally said: "Seeing you makes me feel I'm on the right track." They located me.
I need location -- and so I relish the challenge of both pilgrimage and immersion. Both aim at an intentional dislocation, cutting all connection with the familiar.
I watch the students taking their parents around neighborhoods that two months ago were equally foreign to them. I watch their vigilance with their parents, as they point out landmarks and caution against curbs -- truly perilous with their ever-changing height. To the students the neighborhood has become familiar, even "theirs." They greet the locals; they walks the streets as if they belong here, at least for the time being.
It brings back memories of the Camino, except that the pilgrim never stays long enough to make a single place "home." Anything and everything familiar to me, I carried in my backpack. I grew familiar with dislocation, if that's possible. I knew how to make a place home, if only for a night or a coffee break. More important, I knew how to leave it the next morning -- and without looking back.
What's the impact of such dislocation? Surely it invites introspection. When everything is foreign, the individual psyche becomes "the still point of the turning world," (T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"). This prompts a dimension of introspection not possible in the midst of quotidian distractions.
Dislocation also forges connection, particularly with people who are similarly situated. Or un-situated. Students who might never have noticed one another on the Gonzaga or Boston College campus now depend on each other to navigate the newness.
Finally, this particular immersion in El Salvador opens a window into the experience of people who have experienced similar dislocation. From one of the community coordinators of the Romero scholars, Gris, we heard the story of a family during the civil war who fled its home in the middle of the night, because the military were coming. In an instant, they had to figure out what they could not bear to leave behind -- and could actually manage to carry and run with. For days they traveled moving only at night and sleeping every day in a different location. Years later, a little girl who fled with her doll returned to her village as an adult -- and tried to find that doll.
Dislocation became a way of life. Forcibly evicted from their homes, these people had to find a center of gravity within. And they did. They returned with an internal compass that provides location in the midst of dislocation, celebration in the midst of death, and a still point in the turning world.
Through the experience of dislocation, immersion and pilgrimage alike sow the seeds of gravitas.