Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Epilogue

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The account of that trip begins here.

There was a presentation on the Oaxaca delegation at LSP’s Minneapolis office a month ago. Terry, Aaron, Charlie, Chris, Sylvia, Sue Ellen and I were there. Afterward, Sue Ellen asked me why I hadn’t blogged about the fact that we couldn’t flush our toilet paper in Mexico. It had to be thrown in a wastebasket next to the toilet, which lent our hostel bathroom a strong scent after a few days, what with all the diarrhea and people throwing up in there. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration.)

That wasn’t my only oversight, of course. I forgot that a bunch of us went out that first night (Day 0) to the z├│calo for beers. I even ordered food. It’s strange to think how uncomfortable I was that night. I don’t know what I was afraid of.

In the village of Teotitl├ín del Valle, our host “mother” Petrona called me “Miguelito” and would periodically ask how I was doing. She was probably concerned by my quietude. I was moved; she was acting like a mom. I wish I’d shown them more warmth and affection. I guess I just wasn’t ready yet.

It’s been a not-that-long, not-that-strange trip to this point in life. I feel like Dante at the beginning of his Inferno:

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for too long. I need to retrace my steps and find my way back to civilization, to humanity, and reclaim my place in the human race. I need to get back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now, oh yeah. (That was for my fellow Soul II Soul fans.)

I have the capacity to do great things, but fear holds me back. Spring has brought a surplus of energy and, along with it, the annual anxiety. My springtime angst is a vestige of childhood and adolescence, when I didn’t have many friends. I dreaded the summers, because I didn’t have any structure or anyone to play with. This wasn’t due to a lack of kids my age; it was just my lack of confidence to ask the neighborhood kids if they wanted to play.

I was hoping the trip would help with my anxiety, and it did. But I didn’t have a safety net to catch me when I got back. I was floating along fine for the first week with my parents on vacation and the house to myself. But then I hit a wall; an anxiety attack really shook me on the first full Sunday after returning. I’d been too isolated, not going out much or getting much socialization. My internship kept getting cancelled because of illness in my boss’s family.

This afforded me a lot of time to work on the blog, but I kept procrastinating. I think I was afraid of finishing the travelogue because it would force me to say goodbye again: goodbye to Oaxaca, goodbye to my fellow travelers, goodbye to the experience. It also meant I couldn’t live vicariously through my memories anymore. I’d have to get back to the business of building a new life for myself.

I felt myself clinging to my memories of the trip. I have a love/hate relationship with them. When I was embroiled in the blog, I luxuriated in them, letting them wash away thoughts of my predicament. But the rest of the time I kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t want to be reminded of the possibilities they opened up to me, because my life is so disappointing and has been for a long time. I didn’t want to be reminded that I could always be as alive as I was in Oaxaca, that I could always be that happy, that engaged, that surrounded by kindred spirits, like-minded people who actually give a fuck.

But finishing the account doesn’t mean I have to leave the experience behind. I can still keep it alive in my head and heart. I’ll just have to live to the standards I set for myself on the trip. I’ll have to change. I can’t go back to my safe, old routine. I must finally have the courage of my convictions. I was reluctant to make the intention with the corn kernel, to live a life "devoted to service to those who need it," because I wasn’t sure if I could live up to it, and I’m still not sure if I can. But I don’t want it to be just another one of my empty promises, another grand scheme condemned to exist solely in the mind of a “champagne socialist.” (This was an epithet flung at Karl Marx and his wife due to their fondness for luxury.)

The truth is I don’t have much choice anymore except to “follow my bliss.” My options are dwindling. In video game parlance, I’m running out of lives. My body keeps telling me to help people and write and do comedy and act and sing (literally). But the world (and my parents) keeps telling me to play it safe, make money and save those dreams for my spare time. The problem is, when I worked those corporate jobs, it sucked all the energy and life and hope out of me, so I had nothing left to give to my passions and other people.

I’m trying to figure out what I can do. The corporate world no longer seems to be an option even as a fallback. I may have burned too many bridges there. Organic farming still holds plenty of allure, but my body doesn’t seem up to the challenge. My neck and back are often stiff with pain, although I think that’s a product of stress induced by anxiety over my situation. Farming would also hurl me into the countryside, where I’ve heard it’s lonely, and Lord knows I’ve had enough of loneliness.

That seems to leave me with just one option: to stay in the Twin Cities and get a desk job or a McJob, a food service/retail job. But I’m loath to work for a Big Box store or any chain, so I’ve applied to non-profits, including Salvation Army and Goodwill. One problem is I have no retail experience and my food service experience is limited to being a cook at Pizza Hut in high school, so I may not even be able to take that step down the socioeconomic ladder.

I’ve had some interviews for non-profit desk jobs, but so far those haven’t panned out. Tomorrow I have a phone interview for a job at a warehouse that accepts donated furniture and delivers it to people who can’t afford their own. It sounds intriguing; I just hope my back can hold out. My prospects in manual labor may have more to do with emotional health than physical.

I’ve been overwhelmed by my own pain, shame and guilt, leaving me no emotional bandwidth to feel the pain of others. I was paralyzed and afraid to allow myself to empathize with others for fear of being completely overcome by despair. But I’ve gradually learned that opening up to others gives me energy, hope and strength in much greater proportion than pain, fear or despair. I just had to take the risk of making new friends, without worrying that they would leave me high and dry, like my old friends did.

Now I can open up and hurl my innermost thoughts and feelings into the void of cyberspace again, because I feel that there are people out there reading this who understand. I feel I can make that essential emotional connection with people again, the one that gives (my) life meaning.

This morning I became an uncle. I’m more excited and happy about it than I thought I would be. It occurs to me now that kids can be a ray of hope, because they have that absolute faith in the future. They haven’t been let down yet. There are no memories of disappointment to haunt them. Their minds aren’t yet full of doubt and insecurity.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Kenneth Patchen (whom I’ve otherwise never heard of): “Caring is the only daring.” It’s also the only choice. The other option is death, basically, preceded by a meaningless, selfish half-life. I no longer have the luxury of wallowing in adolescent self-pity, not if I care at all for anyone but myself.

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