Thursday, September 06, 2007

Final Watson report

I submitted this report to the Watson Foundation in early September, 2007:

When I leave Berea in a few more days headed south, it will officially begin my 14-month stretch of homelessness. My final two months in the U.S. will be a practice run of sorts for living out of a backpack, being perpetually on the move, and packing in as much life per square minute as possible. I enter this moment with prayerfulness and requests for guidance. More than anything else, I want to live well, to walk through this world with love and courage, and to find purpose and understanding. For my part, I promise to listen carefully, to tread lightly, to cultivate mindfulness and compassion, and to be strong.

I appreciate the opportunity to write this summary, as well as our presentations at the Scripps conference; both have provided me with a good excuse to go back through my journal and reflect more critically upon this incredible year I have just completed. My journal entries reflect a roller-coaster of emotion and experience; moments when I felt I could burst open, unable to contain my joy, and times when my heart was so heavy I thought I might sink. Since the first time I heard of the Watson Fellowship, I wanted this opportunity more than just about anything else I could think of; and yet, as a mentor chided me shortly after winning it: “God sometimes punishes us by answering our prayers.”

Some time later, a few days before I would leave the U.S. to begin my fellowship year, I was sitting on my roof with a friend, watching the stars and sharing some celebratory beers. He asked what I wished for now that I had been handed this fantastic opportunity. I answered that what I wanted most out of my life was simply to understand it, and to be in love. I realized in that moment that the true reason I had longed for the Watson experience was not primarily because of the prestige, the money, the travel, or honestly even the opportunity to devote my time and energies to a long-standing interest, it was because it offered me the chance to spend a year walking the Earth, unfettered by responsibility or personal connection, trying to understand my life and learning what it means to be in love. I got exactly what I prayed for.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, only days before the Scripps conference, I was sharing a meal with a newfound friend who had herself undertaken a Watson fellowship a few years prior. She has kept up with several former Fellows, and noted with some irony how emotionally and spiritually jarring the experience had been for many of them, that some of her Watson friends seemed to be left in sort of a limbo they had not yet fully recovered from. And now here I sit, back in New Delhi in my rented flat, all the hubbub of the city just outside my window, going on about a life in this surreal environ which so overwhelmed my senses and sensibilities only one year ago. Contradictions still abound, more complicated questions arise each day, and yet I feel a much greater willingness to, as Rilke has suggested, live my way into the answers.

In a few more months I will likely leave India (though I doubt I will ever be finished with it), and I will return home to Florida to be near my family, become rooted in a community again, and slowly re-engage in some of the political-intellectual projects I left behind, albeit with new insights and motivations gained in this time abroad. In general, I feel much more at ease and almost aimless than at just about any other time in my life; I feel less self-imposed pressure to achieve, less certainty about what the world needs and what my place is in it, and am overall simply less optimistic of a favorable outcome for humankind. At the same time, I feel more adventurous, confident, grateful, and serene than I probably ever have. Contradictions abound.

It has been most interesting trying to explain to people I met on my travels, as well as to my working class family who had never even heard of a “fellowship,” what exactly I have been up to these past twelve months. Most of the time I would tell them that I was exploring a wide range of issues related to science, technology, environment, and development in an Asian context. “That seems like a lot,” was usually the response. Yes, indeed it was. Yet as I discussed in my presentation at Scripps, the aspect of the Watson experience I most appreciated was the opportunity to pursue my curiosities and instincts wherever they led me, to basically be an intellectual sponge and just soak in as much as possible. I also had the freedom, once I was properly saturated, to drop out for awhile and take some long, quiet walks, to be left alone with my thoughts and reflect upon what I had learned. This experience has profoundly influenced my thinking about the purpose of education and the processes of pedagogy.

What I learned about myself in the process is how much I value community, and public scholarship, and how fascinating I find the confluence of economics, ecology, politics, metaphysics, and epistemology in modern-day struggles related to development. Conflicts around what constitutes progress, around who wins, who loses, and who decides, are everywhere apparent throughout Asia as these nations industrialize in a much-compressed time frame and in a wholly different global context than the West underwent. In each of the diversity of situations I encountered, I witnessed some common themes, centered on the de/valuation of certain groups of people and certain ways of knowing, and on processes of ex/inclusion based upon these valuations. I learned how important it is that we ask the right questions in formulating development objectives, and how those questions are shaped by the processes employed and the interests involved.

Yet when I look back upon my original research proposal it is difficult not to feel as though I failed in some important ways. My proposed topic was not only overly-broad, it set me up to spend far too much time enmeshed in books and scholarly pursuits rather than the fantastic environs in which I found myself. I also misjudged the extent to which my diffidence would be magnified in such a foreign context, how time-consuming dealing with basic logistical issues would be, and how exhausting it would be to have to seek out not only mentors and resources, but also companions. Hence I struggled with feelings of purposelessness, irresponsibility, and alienation throughout my fellowship year. Especially after spending a few days with the other returning Watson fellows and hearing more about their projects, observing how easily they navigated social situations and how rooted they were in their research topics, I could not help but feel as though this opportunity had perhaps been wasted on me. But then, as I have realized most fully these past months, we are always simultaneously failing some challenges and overcoming others.

The extremes of poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation I witnessed during my travels were also unsettling, to say the least. What was equally unsettling, in some respects, was my ability to acclimate, to go on about my day in the midst of such affliction. Some days as I sat eating a meal that likely cost the equivalent of some worker’s full day’s wages, I tried to reason with myself as to why I should not just go empty my bank account and distribute my Watson funds to NGOs or even some random poor person on the streets. In the final analysis, reason had a lot less to do with my decision than the fact that I was thoroughly enjoying the meal; instead I moved on to pondering what invisible barrier was keeping people in situations of such desperate poverty from resolving matters violently. I harbor no illusions that they deserve their circumstance in life any more than I do.

Another issue I struggled with was being cut off from my community, and this experience more than perhaps any other confirmed the importance of that facet of my life. Despite the Foundation’s admonitions, from time to time I did find myself devoting significant energies to communicating with my people back home. I maintained a detailed travel log of my adventures (mostly focusing on the more cultural/touristy aspects of it which I thought they would find interesting) and tried to keep up with the happenings in the people’s lives that I love. These efforts were richly rewarded, and I am learning that the relationships in my life are more important than probably anything else—more than accomplishment, material gain, or even some sort of generalized sense of “saving the world.” Instead, I am finding that my relationships both encompass and transcend all these areas, as I look to the people that I love for intellectual stimulation, guidance, material as well as emotional support, and even a sense of community that propels me to want to make the world a better place. I feel that in some sense, several of my loved ones accompanied me on the trip, offering support and guidance, and, even if only virtually, engaging in this learning endeavor that I had undertaken. I am all the more thankful for their presence in my life now and do not feel that our semi-regular communications distracted significantly from my experiences.

All these lessons have led me to this present moment back in India, examining a variety of the country’s development objectives on the basis of processes of exclusion and inclusion, as well as the formulation of holistic, participatory indicators of progress. I am already seeing some ways in which this ongoing work will influence my pursuits once I return home in a few more months. As I alluded to earlier, I am not optimistic my efforts will be successful. In short, I have a more articulated vision now than ever before for the sort of world in which I would like to live; at the same time, I have less optimism that it will actually be realized, and to a degree, less of a sense of responsibility or attachment. But what I also realize more fully now is that it is the effort, the process, which is most important. At some point during my Watson year, one of the many friends I carried along in spirit shared the following quote with me: “I wake up every morning torn between a desire to savor the world and to save it. This makes it rather difficult to plan my day.” The tension between those two poles has truly frustrated me over the years, and yet I feel closer to resolving it now than ever before.

I will close with a few specific recommendations for the Watson Foundation, for whatever they are worth. As I have already mentioned, I struggled a lot with justifying this experience and these resources in light of all the pressing needs I encountered, and part of me would like to see the Foundation fundamentally alter its course and begin using its resources to more directly address those needs. I think of how many hungry mouths could be fed, how many degraded landscapes restored, with the resources that are instead being devoted to supporting globe-trotting, novel experiences for a mostly over-privileged group of youngsters. On the other hand, I clutched so greedily to my own Watson experiences that it seems profoundly hypocritical to even entertain such a suggestion. Provided that the Foundation continues in basically the same direction, here are a few other suggestions which I hope you will take into consideration:

Increased material support.
This issue came up at the conference. Of course, people’s experiences varied pretty dramatically depending upon where their fellowship took them, but whether or not the Foundation increases the actual amount of the stipend, it should definitely consider a variety of ways in which it might increase other forms of material support. For instance, since every fellow will have to pay taxes on their stipend and purchase health/travel insurance, and overlooking either of these might lead to significant detriment, the Foundation could simply agree at the outset to take care of these costs, similar to what it has done with our student loan expenses (much appreciated, by the way!). Alternately, the Foundation could provide fellows with a list of resources suggested by previous classes, such as couchsurfing, which might help stretch their resources further and/or provide valuable contacts.

Greater “fellowship.”
Though I can appreciate the Foundation’s emphasis on students immersing themselves in the cultures they choose to visit, I do not necessarily agree that walking into a situation with minimal familiarity is generally the best way to do so. When I passed through Mumbai for a few days, I think that my experience would have been enriched immensely by meeting up with another fellow who had been there for several months and could have helped me navigate my surroundings, recharge, and get to know parts of the city that I would likely miss otherwise. Similarly, when other fellows passed through Delhi, or Beijing, I was able to inform them based on my own experience whether or not they were being ripped off for accommodations, the easiest way to get around, etc. Such networking could be facilitated, and with little real distraction for the fellows, through the use of social networking websites such as Myspace, Facebook, or any number of online travel logs.

Even greater freedom of movement.
I do not know whether it is simply well-intentioned caretaking or some sort of legal/fiscal responsibility which leads the Foundation to limit their fellows’ choice of destinations, but I sincerely hope you will revisit this policy. We are all aware that significant threats to fellows’ safety and wellbeing exist everywhere, and that the U.S.’s designation of which countries are safe to visit has at least a little bit to do with politics. Some of the most so-called dangerous locales in the world today are also some of the most fascinating, and if the fellows can make a compelling case that they have adequately considered safety issues and have a sound plan of action, they should perhaps be allowed to proceed. Besides, denying fellows access to some places while simultaneously providing so little day-to-day oversight can too easily translate into them visiting these places surreptitiously, and with no foreknowledge or support from the Foundation.

And on that note I will close. My sincerest thanks to the staff at the Watson Foundation office. Though our contact was infrequent, I appreciated knowing that you were always only a phone call away, as well as the little things you did to enrich our year, such as the excellent feedback on our quarterly reports and well-wishes around the holidays and our birthdays. All the best with this year’s group of Fellows, and as an Australian tour guide once told me, “May you dream of places you’ve never been, and visit places you’ve never dreamed of.” A dubious benediction indeed.

People, like places, assigned borders and designations.
Governed by law?
Fragile yet enduring. Dynamic terrains acquire unique yet familiar contours, shaped by forces not entirely known to them.
Built layer upon layer, histories buried and unearthed. Futures uncertain and yet seemingly predestined.
Emergence, potentiality.
And we pass through these alien landscapes, sometimes as a ghost, sometimes with the force of a hurricane, but always, always taken with what we see.
An entire life’s devotion and I could still not fully know even one. And yet as I stare into the sea, the skies, another’s eyes, they sing back a song of myself.

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