Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Burden, Unburden, Voluntary, Involuntary
On the Camino, one of the disciplines, an askesis, really, is to strip down to the minimum that you're willing to carry. How many shirts do I NEED? How many books? Marty wrote of the little "shrines" we left of things we decided that we would carry no longer. We wouldn't just toss the stuff--we'd leave it carefully stacked, imagining another pilgrim might want it.
On immersion, a different kind of stripping down goes on. We try to reach a kind of understanding of those we meet that reaches across cultures, so we try to relativize our own cultural stuff--do I NEED American TV? DO I NEED a nice steak with a decent California Zinfandel, or can I experience pupusas with an openness to their own delights? Tourists take in the superficial delights of other cultures in limited doses, while immersers dive in. Culture, of course, cuts deeper than entertainment and food, but the idea is the same--we strip down closer to the common humanity that we share, discovering different ways to approach life's challenges and opportunities. We discover that the basics are available wherever we go, and that some of what we thought was essential to happiness is merely auxiliary, and we gain, perhaps, a sadness and outrage when the essentials we have in plenitude are denied others for no reason other than greed.
Returning can be jarring, because we suddenly become aware of the burden of our excesses--if I only NEED three shirts, why do I have 20? Why am I burdened with storing them, choosing a shirt every day, with wanting new ones? Simple living comes to be seen as a freedom, not a deprivation, though, 'tis true, if I wore only one of three shirts, it's possible my students and colleagues would take note, and not in an approving way. One advantage of religious habits is that you can't tell whether the wearer has 19 more, or only 1 or 2. And there's little point in having 20, since they're essentially identical.
Returning jars when we see the excessive plenitude--why an entire grocery store aisle of pet food when people are hungry? Do cats really NEED a choice of flavors of food? Do we really NEED to cosset housecats so? (Dogs, well, that's another story...)
When I returned, I moved into a house, the first I've ever owned (co-owned, in this case.) My sense of being feral is curtailed by having an address that is "mine" in a way that an apartment or studio never really is. I have painted, cleaned, replaced toilet workings, swept, raked, mopped, chipped old paint. The house is a form of security--I realized that unless I had some major investment, I would never have the option to retire. And if I become seriously ill, I would be purely at the mercy of the state. A house for me represents, (if the market rebounds,) a kind of paradoxical freedom to be able to take care of myself should I need to. It roots me to one place, but enables independence.
Then we were robbed. My housemate's computer was taken--a serious machine because it's a primary workstation. Among other things taken were my late mother's wedding band, and a ring she'd had made from her first engagement ring. Neither especially valuable--we're not an "estate jewelry" kind of family. We've been broke for generations! But they were hers and they're gone. We have a lead to the burglar, but the Oakland police are disinclined to investigate--they have more important crimes to track, and we don't live in the kind of neighborhood where the police are especially attentive. If we were wealthy, the police would protect our belongings, but since we're not, burglary is tolerated where we live.
What do we carry, and what do we leave behind? I seem to be carrying a house now, a serious burden, but perhaps a form of freedom, not unlike the freedom of carrying my netbook across Spain. It's not a burden I ever anticipated would be possible for me--without my co-owner, it still wouldn't be.
The burglary reminds me that I can be stripped involuntarily of my stuff, without recourse. In the end, of course, we leave everything behind except love. But still--my mother's rings. I was willing to carry those, despite their minimal value. Now I don't have to. And I'm sorry about that.