Saturday, January 30, 2016

A man. A place. A meaning.

A few years ago, the Association of American Geographers recognized Barry Lopez as an "honorary geographer."  It is to recognize "excellence in research, teaching, or writing on geographic topics by non-geographers."  I understand that sentiment--after all, I do not have any formal education, from the undergraduate through the doctorate level, in geography and, yet, have been gainfully employed as a geography instructor for nearly a decade-and-a-half.

Lopez lives in Oregon, not far from my home.  He, too, is a transplant, from across the continent.  A writer of the highest caliber, reflecting on life by observing places, especially the natural environment.  In this recent essay, Lopez writes:
Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.
The themes of existence, the inconsequential lives that we lead, and attempting to create a meaning through experiencing a place, are all regular features of this blog.  Existential loneliness was also very much a part of Anomalisa that I watched last night with the friend.  Which is perhaps why that paragraph appealed to me.

I am convinced that if we paused to think about our existence we would then realize the crisis within.  I suppose we do our best to avoid thinking about it.  Or, we try to lighten that crisis by making meaning via our affiliations with everything from family and friends to football teams and faiths.  When we strip all those affiliations away, the existential loneliness is all that remains.  Of course, to some extent, these are all age-old questions that humans have been grappling with.

Lopez writes:
The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded. And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known. And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them. And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.
Indeed.  Whether it is Pattamadai and Sengottai, or Neyveli, or Calcutta, or ... the deep desire to know about them and understand them has been a wonderful blessing in terms of how much they have helped me know about myself.   I even routinely tell students that, without going into autoethnographic details--understanding the world, understanding the peoples, is a wonderful way to understand our own country and our own place in the grand scheme of things.  

Back to Lopez:
Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.
Yes. To pay attention. To observe the place.  To be patient. To be in the here and the now.  I suppose it is not easy to translate those ideas to everyday life!

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