Monday, December 21, 2015

Living Deep and Living Wide

On the banks of the river Cangrejal huge boulders rise smooth and grey and triumphant. You can stand on their edge and see the water rush below you, roaring like the sound of a shell to your ear, which is really the sound of our own heartbeat, slow and mighty.

It was my first time in La Ceiba, my first time seeing the river, and the newness and the roar of the water made me feel brave and awake, a feeling as sharp and fierce as fear.

It’s hard not to chase this moment of awe, of discovery, of experience, of life as life feels that it should be. Who’s to say I didn’t chase it here, all the way to Honduras, that this pursuit didn’t influence a decision I thought I made based on wisdom, passion, even altruism?

Yet as I unpacked again and settled into a new adoptive home, this narrative began to fall apart.
I believed, falsely, that breadth of experience would make up for depth, that knowing a little about a lot of things would excuse me from knowing intimately anything at all.

I know Honduras widely, but not deeply. I have visited banana plantations and the Honduran Congress. I have visited more of the country’s beautiful edges than my host mother, but I don’t know my neighbor’s names, who’s sick and whose daughter is looking for a job, where to stand to avoid the pick-pockets, how much to pay for bananas on the street corner.

This knowledge takes time, it takes intimacy, it takes a sort of attention span that’s longer than the three days I spent on the river bank – a lifetime, or the start of one.

It’s also far less glamorous, less exciting, and it feels a little more like work.

Because when the blurry line between vacation and home is crossed, things get harder. Public transportation turns from a thrill to a frustration. Cracks appear. After weeks, the precocious boy who hugged you every time you entered the room will turn moody and pout – you will have lost your novelty. You’ll search for what you felt on the riverbed and there will only be a ghost of a memory, replaced as it is by new feelings like duty and connectedness and place.

When the inebriating thrill fades, we find ourselves wanting to move on to another country on our bucket list. We live, we know, in a world that wants quick results, cheap thrills, the gasp of a new view and not the savor of nuances

But I’ve learned that what the world wants is very seldom the path that I should take.

My host mother knows and is known here. She’s mothered dozens of surrogate children and grandchildren and been steadfast as she watched the world change before her. She has lived on this block for thirty years, and who’s to say that experience is worth less than the parts of the world I’ve seen briefly, through the viewfinder of a camera or the demanding itinerary of a scheduled trip?

Wendell Berry, one of the prophets of home and community, writes in Life is a Miracle:

My own experience has shown me that it is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension… Living and working in the place day by day, one is continuously revising one’s knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by it and in error about it. And even if the place stayed the same, one would be getting older and growing in memory and experience, and would need for that reason alone to work from revision to revision.

Isn’t this what we’re looking for, in the end? To be revising, to be corrected in error, to be surprised? What if this is found not in living widely, but in living deeply – to not just live at a place, to live in it, to be of it, as we are of faith, as a thing that forms and shapes us so deeply that we cannot be rid of it?

I have a feeling that what I look for when I seek to recapture that rush of newness, that excitement, remains elusive by the very act of looking for it.

I can chase a feeling across the planet – live widely – but to know and be known, I need to learn to live deep.

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