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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Changing Context (August 5, 2013)


My trip from Grenoble to San Francisco approaches, and as usual, I find conflicting feelings about planning for such a trip.  On the one hand I want to make sure I plan enough so that I have a place to stay, and don't get stranded somewhere.  On the other, I want to keep open possibilities and allow things to unfold organically and give me some freedom to act on possibilities.

This captures part of the dynamic that freezes me in my planning, but not all of it.  There is a part of me that refuses to plan, refuses to imagine myself in another place, refuses to believe that this other place exists, and refuses to believe that I have much understanding of how things will work in this other place.  I try to understand whether it is truly a refusal, or more a lack of ability.  Why does my otherwise creative, highly visual, often quite organized mind fail me in this basic act of imagination?

I know that this dynamic has at least some basis in the way I grew up in Santa Cruz, California.  My parents were divorced when I was three, and they had joint custody over me and my brothers.  Until the age of 18, I never spent more than one week at a time at one house.  I went between my mom's and dad's houses either once or twice a week.  The difference between the two houses was substantial enough that I would have the sense that the rules I know at one house do not apply at the other.  The day of transition became a kind of event horizon.  Not that I so much dreaded it, but that I just couldn't think past it in certain ways.

Sometimes I've likened the experience of going back and forth between houses to diving into a swimming pool.  One stands above the swimming pool looking down into the shimmering depths.  Its a hot day, and so one imagines it might be nice to cool down a bit.  However, one knows that the transition will involve a shock.  What one thinks now will be changed.  One's concerns, ideas, feelings in this moment will be interrupted.  There is a shock during that period while the water covers your skin.  Its as if you fall asleep for a moment and wake up in a new watery world.  There may be a brief moment of discomfort, but you quickly adjust, and get used to the new viscoscity of your environment.  You move your body in new ways.  The water supports you in new ways and impedes you in new ways.

At my dad's house, we were cooked and cleaned for.  My step-mother Judy was a never resting house-keeper, always offering, always doing, always giving.  We were always to be aware of her constant motion and constant doing.  Lying on the couch in the living room, one could be interrupted with the vacuum cleaner, or mopping, or sweeping,  perhaps a suggestion to go outside and play. One would return home from school to find beds made, closet rearranged, toys moved.  Dinner was regular, an enthusiastic call to join around the table.  Always cooked by Judy.  Always comments about how much work it was and how fast it was gone.  Not enough to call it bitterness, but enough to induce a steady undertoe of guilty conscience and awareness of the sacrafice and toils of another.  What have I done to deserve this steady flow of hard work and meals directed towards me?

This sense of induced guilt was supported by a foundation of the story of Judy's family history.  She grew up in Fresno, the child of Armenian immigrants who had come to the US following escape from the Turkish government and military intent on wiping out the entire Armenian population.  Her parents had walked across a desert in Syria and Lebanon.  Her father had lived in an orphanage, her mother with a Turkish family.  The story of the Armenian genocide was often present at my Dad's house, and provided a cultural background, but also a sense of unimpeachability to the value of Judy's hard work.  Both her and my father were working hard.  They ran a medical clinic together, doctor and nurse practitioner.  Judy came home and did double time keeping up a large house for five kids.

My father was born in New York, and grew up in Los Angeles.  He was the son of a Hungarian father and American mother who met in France.  He spent his life continuing the travelling momentum that had carried his father across the globe.  He sought out far away places, particularly liking the islands in the South Pacific, living with my mother on the island of Yap for a year while my older brother was a small child.  He was in college in the 60’s and was animated by the spirit of that time, going to the south to fight for civil rights (
1954 to 1968), and spending a few nights in jail for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war (1955 to 1975).  He was married to my mom for ten or so years and after three kids, and a feeling of inadequacy in the marriage, divorced my mom and married Judy, the nurse practitioner working in his medical office with two children of her own.

Like my dad, my mom was also a child of the 60's.  She also grew up in Los Angeles, with Jewish immigrant parents, and later spent time at UC Berkeley studying literature and dance before her father pushed her into the more practical career of teaching.  She had her wild years as a younger woman, but was shy and delicate in some ways, suffering from asthma and lacking self confidence.  I don't know whether she was introduced to Transcendental Meditation before or after marrying my dad, but it became a fixture and a point of stability in her life.  She says that it cured her asthma and gave her a confidence and a calm that she had lacked before.

My mom's meditations were a steady element of our life at her house many years later, as well.  For one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, she would stay in her room meditating.  Besides an occasional reminder to be a little quieter during these times, my mom's meditation was not much of an imposition on our life.  Although we learned the technique of Transcendental Meditation and did occasionally meditate separately or together, there was never any pressure to practice this technique or to get involved in the heavier side of this Hindu derived new religious movement (which, during less generous moments, I might classify as a cult).  I did struggle to understand some of the philosophy and basis for the wilder claims such as the yogic flying and the Maharishi effect, but this was mainly out of an interest in finding common ground and to be able to be enthusiastic about some of what my mother believed and what grounded her.

At my mom's house, we usually all helped out with the cooking, and usually went grocery shopping together.  Having some digestive problems, my mother ate very bland foods.  Although she would offer her own food to us (rice and lentils or a soup of ground green vegetables she called "green soup") she knew that we enjoyed a broader set of foods and so would encourage us to cook these ourselves.  So we would shop together at a few local Organic markets in preparation for our meals.  I remember particularly enjoying cooking burritos and lasagna.

Thinking back on these years, the odd thing is that life at each house feels so self contained.  I feel like I had two separate childhoods.  I don't feel particularly negative about either house, but I just can't seem to visualize the whole thing as one piece.  I was either at mom's house, or I was at dad's house.  I adjusted myself after the transition.  But the sense of the worlds not mixing remained, and still remains today.

Today I find myself living in a different culture from the US, in a different country from the US, on the other side of a large ocean.  I adjust.  I find myself pretty easilly fitting into new surroundings.  I slowly but surely learn a new language.  But these questions about separation vs. integration remain.

I am brought to these contemplations as my trip to the US approaches.  I try to understand why I plan so little.  Why do I leave things so open?  Why am I so slow in responding to emails that ask me to articulate my plans?  My feeling is that its like diving into the swimming pool.  New rules will apply on the other side.  Once I'm there, I will find my way.