Sense and Provinciality


Ah, a good Sunday, restful and connected. Is there anything else like it? After neglecting to vacuum my house for two weeks (two choral concerts in a row ate up my Sundays, which are my vacuum days), yesterday I VACUUMED. It was a thrill. Today the house is peaceful and clean and I am home from church. It rained all day yesterday and the birds are singing to me as I write this.

I started my poli sci paper last week. God, what a pleasure. It’s a perfect storm of an academic exercise. I love this professor, love the material, love the assignment… I sat down the other day to just write the intro and wrote three or four pages in a happy flow. The assignment, which is my take-home final exam, is pretty much to summarize the ideas of the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. If you don’t know his work and are at all interested in economics, check out The Mystery of Capital, in which de Soto steps up to the podium of the world stage and offers a single, simple explanation for world poverty and a single, simple way to address it. He’s like a mysterious sage who enters a conversation and offers a numinous and powerful piece of wisdom, a single puzzle-piece that is a thought-provoking and completely new approach to curing a major global problem. I found the book utterly fascinating, and also easy to read. De Soto is quite eloquent and speaks English fluently without even an accent. He’s really a remarkably intelligent man. I may post my finished paper here for the curious.

As the semester ends, I always do one thing. I invite my friends Heather and Rowan out to lunch. And together we answer three questions:

what was the high point of the semester for you?

what was the low point of the semester for you?

what are the things we learned not from our studies, but through them?

I see now that my high point of the semester was giving up on a formal education in the sciences and naming myself Writer at last. Being a writer really is cool, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not what I am. If the shoe fits, wear it, even if some strange part of you thinks that you cannot possibly deserve such a lovely shoe. Put the other shoe on already and silence that part of you by making those shoes your own. You don’t have to strut, but it sure is OK to know you look good.

It’s not just metaphorical shoes but a very real scarf that I wear with happiness. I still think of my green-and-orange one-row handspun scarf as my Writer Scarf, and have grown quite attached to it. No more trying to go deep into math and science as my first choice. It’s time to go deeply into what I am actually good at.


(Terrible image of an unphotogenic but attractive scarf.)

The low point of the semester? Good lord, was there even one? I suppose it was failing that physics test, sitting in a lecture hall with a pounding stress headache that pulsed like a horrible heartbeat every time I tried to think. Making a 19 on a test. Trying to be something I wasn’t. Not yet understanding what I was and wasn’t. Funny, that was only a few months ago, but it feels much farther away. It doesn’t feel so much like a low point but a rite of passage, an initiation, a test. It’s over, and even though I made a 19 I think I passed nonetheless.

And what did I learn that I didn’t really learn in class? SO MUCH! All my college education before this was about learning what I couldn’t do. This time, this time, it was all about what I COULD do. I went to college wanting to study political science or economics, discovered astronomy and immediately dropped everything but science. This semester I took a poli sci course because I had to. I had to pick a class from a liberal arts “cluster” to satisfy my college’s requirements. I took the poli sci class because I liked the subject (though not as much as math or science, or so I thought), had heard the professor was great, and because I had to.

It took me about two weeks to remember all the reasons that that subject interested me so. Dear God, I used to want to become a foreign correspondent! Now I remember why. I was shocked and surprised by just how much I enjoyed the learning in that class, the endlessly fascinating articles that played to my desire to understand the bigger picture of the world that I have missed so much of as a relatively provincial American. How utterly lovely to think about ideas and concepts rather than facts and laws! Or rather, how lovely, how utterly lovely, to be even feebly conversant in both. I truly loved this class and am considering a poli sci minor.

The best classes and the best teachers are to me the ones that make us ask the most questions about ourselves and the world. This class made me ask so much, and understand so much. It even made me better understand myself. A great class frames and connects what you already knew, while driving you to learn more. I am so surprised and so gratified to feel this about something other than math or science.

One of the books we read had one tremendously interesting piece of information in it — an x-y graph of what different cultural groups like in their movies. Unsurprisingly, Americans in general like their movies clear-cut and straightforward, with unambiguous plots and characters. Russians and Asians as a group prefer more ambiguity. Knowing this at last lets me frame my own taste in movies.

I always knew there was a wholesale difference in American movies and the movies of, say, Bollywood, but it all came together when I saw these differences spelled out on a graph. Reading that one page in that one book at last allowed me to completely frame, understand and back up with academic data what is really going on with my own movie-liking habits. I just like Asian cinema because my tastes are a lot more like the tastes of Asian moviegoers than most Americans. Turns out that I’m just in the wrong cultural matrix. Thank goodness for modernity, which allows media to be shared. And for college, for all the good learning there.

I also thought about my own ethnic identity, and decided that I really don’t even have one. I have a cultural identity as an American, but all my people’s old traditions are gone. Maybe I have no ethnic identity because ethnically I’m just too much of a mishmosh. My people discarded an ethnic identity for a cultural one, as Americans, a tradition-challenged people if ever there was one. And maybe that is perfectly OK! Maybe I can embrace ethnic nonidentity. I’d still be me. Maybe it’s enough to be just a person. I think there really are people who don’t really have an ethnic identity, and I think that I am one of them.

You know, I also now realize that a major life experience for me was my childhood in South Florida. I lived there from age 2 to 9, thus guaranteeing that I will never truly have a Southern accent, and also guaranteeing that I would have a far greater exposure to different cultures than most people get. South Florida, especially the tip-end where I lived, is a cultural stew. There’s Latin culture from Cuba, Puerto Rico and South America. There’s island culture from Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas. There’s European culture from Germany and England. There’s everybody from everywhere, all thrown together in the tropical heat. And the cultures seems less isolated there than in other places in the U.S., not so compartmentalized– you meet everybody, see them at the grocery store, eat their food, go to school with them. I am indeed a provincial woman from Black Mountain, NC, pop. 4,000. It’s just that that’s not all that I am.

Yet I am too provincial. I like being from somewhere, but I don’t like how little I know about the rest of the world. I thought about that in class too, where, frankly, I assumed my professor didn’t grow up speaking English for one reason: he had an unrecognizable accent I didn’t associate with English-speaking countries. Honestly, an important thing that happened to me this semester was an encounter with someone from a part of the world that I am not familiar with. I, who love the big picture, now realize that the big picture is more than science, more than the eventual fate of the universe, more than the nebulous mathematical concepts of the calculus. It is culture and geography; it is seeing and knowing the world and the people who live there. The big picture includes the real world. And the real world is quite delightfully large and varied.

I mean really, just a few years ago I had to have a historian friend explain to me what Egyptian people look like and are like culturally because I had been so confused by the misappropriation of North Africa by that ignorant and greedy segment of the commercial world that wishes to somehow conflate West African and sub-Saharan culture with that of Egypt and the Arab world. Jen has never been to these places, and there is so much she has not seen and does not know. I see now that I wish that she was not so easy to fool.

But becoming less ignorant is not always painful. Truly, sometimes it is delightful! I am always up for having my ignorance beaten down. Really! And what is the take-away from this semester but that I need to see more of the world? Oh, heartbreak. It’s time.

There are harsher lessons.

BTW click here to see Ingo Gunther’s artwork called Comprehensive Guide to the World, number 037 in his thought-provoking Worldprocessor exhibit of maps and globes as art.

One response to “Sense and Provinciality

  1. I followed your link to Gunther’s Worldprocessor exhibit. Very cool.

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