Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Time to Process

At the close of an equity and social justice training institute in the coastal town of Ocean Shores, Washington, my husband joined me for a few days on the beach. This intense training fell on the heels of a three-week visit with a dear friend in England; a friend who spent the past six months fighting the cancer that had invaded her body. I needed time to process. 

To process = to make sense of events lived, images observed, feelings triggered, stories shared; to understand and make sense of experiences. But how? Where to begin?

At the end of the road. A coastal highway lined in deep towering green with glimpses to the west of the wide Pacific shrouded in fog. Mist, rain, clouds, fog, gray. I’d been in gray for a month. The gray of confusion. I walked with the mist of the Pacific clouding my thoughts with heavy pungent emotion.

We drove north on the coastal highway to its end. A dead end. A town of ramshackle homes; broken windows covered with heavy woolen blankets to keep the ocean air from penetrating bones and hearts; boats that will never again float atop trailers without tires; cars abandoned to rust, stripped of all value, residence taken up by local wildlife; plastic bags, empty milk cartons, beer cans and cigarette boxes lost in the dry, unmowed grass in front and behind the hopeless homes.  All contrasted against the mystical beauty of an estuary outlined with bleached drift wood and smooth-washed stones.

The natural beauty tugged at my husband. “Let’s stop and take a look.”

“No,” I said, a voice harsher than intended. I felt eyes at my back. “We don’t belong here,” I said in a feeble attempt at explanation.  It felt a bit like stopping to gawk at a multiple car pile-up on Interstate 5 at rush hour, our eyes violating the privacy of the victims. “Let’s get out of here. We don’t belong,” I repeated. “We didn’t come with anything to offer. We don’t even know if there’s any way we could help. Would our help even be wanted?”

We talked of what we had to offer, of what would be of meaning or value to a depressed community, a reservation culture of which we were no part. Could my husband offer art classes?  Would memoir or journal writing have meaning to people lost in the hopelessness of poverty?  We talked of stereotypes. Was this reservation town the norm? An aberration? We didn’t know.

At the equity and social justice training, a YouTube video was shown. In the interview from "Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School," Andrew WindyBoy spoke of his childhood experiences in a boarding school where he was violently forced to learn English and conform to the norms of white culture. I saw the lasting tragedy of his words at the northern end of that coastal highway.

We drove south.

“I have to see it,” I said.

My husband knew what I meant and turned up a road we’d passed earlier which led to a hilltop development with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.  A planned community of perfection – perfect houses on perfect streets with perfect trees and perfect white crushed stone pathways leading from one perfect cluster of houses to the next – Key West here, Martha’s Vineyard there.  I felt like vomiting.

Two realities juxtaposed against each other, separated by less than 15 miles. MapQuest precision = 12.76 miles of separation.

“The Truman Show,” my husband said.

“Disneyworld,” I said.

“Holiday escapism of the privileged,” he said.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. Again. “At least the reservation is real. The dirt, the pain, the poverty are real. What’s this? Plastic. A lily white make-believe world for the rich right next door to historic devastation of a nation of people.”

The contrast hit hard, deep. The two worlds stood as physical realities of all the theories and personal stories of oppression shared throughout the institute on equity and social justice that I’d just attended in the sterile comfort and insulated world of a hotel conference room. And now I return to my life in Seattle, a life of teaching and curriculum development; of writing, friends, family and comfort. But what do I do with these images of contrasting realities that plague my quiet moments? Realities that lie side by side on the Pacific coastal highway, in a landscape of lush green, towering evergreens and the pounding of waves on a long barren beach lost in heavy fog and floating mist.

I need more time to process.