Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
Have I been more concerned with making a document of an experience than with the experience itself? Why so few walks; why so much stress? “No one cares” – says the movie boyfriend to Miranda July when she’s stymied after day two of her 30 day internet dance project – maybe the kindest possible advice to give someone banging away on the door of their limits.
Look: if I’m delivering bloodless, it won’t matter anyway. And I’ve been trying for years to write something honest – but trying, what’s that? I see too much wasted energy when I could have just lobotomized myself with bakery dough and sports television, or spent more time outside. I see an uneasy decade and a half spent not writing, but also not forgiving myself for not writing.
Eventually, I did recognize that I was better off half-vacant and vaguely blissed out than completely disappointed in the hall of mirrors. I gave up, if only the worry that I wasn’t actually producing anything in the first place, and what a relief. But whichever I pick, a pacifier is a pacifier and in time, I need to throw myself into stress, if only to feel some new and instructive discomfort. So here I vomit, and I can see it repeating into infinity from the corner of my eye.
I wonder: in 2004, I traveled the U.S. with De Vroomen and swore that I was going to keep a log, for myself, and take decent pictures. And I remember the one entry I wound up writing- a totally slapdash attempt to distill a week of vivid 21 year-old stuff into a single lazy and unbounded block of text. It started off with the sentiment that so much had been lost already, since I’d waited a full and bleary week to begin. Now, I’m wondering how much more is lost when I separate myself into actor and recorder.
Zach wrote me tonight, saying that she’s realized more about her life in the last six months than in all of the years prior, and that she wishes she’d written more of it down, realizing how easy it is to forget that kind of thing. Chronologically, she’s facing the same window of life that I was in during that summer in the van. I know that I was really feeling it then; feeling really moved and alive and eager for my life; ready to ask for what I wanted, not going to wait, all of that. The stuff that makes you walk up to the door and knock, or just set up your show on the subway platform if that’s the only place you can play. Now, like my reverse Hansel and Gretel, I kind of wish that I had a map back to that energy and faith and verve. Because on that trip in 2004, the camera broke after the first roll, and cheap or addled or whatever, I decided that I’d just have to look real hard and remember everything. In some ways, I really did: Montana access roads and desperate parking lot hustlers more real for the total lack of proof. I believed strongly and for a long time, without any reexamination, that this was the only way for me. Maybe that’s why it’s horrible seeing pictures of myself now. It’s as if I’ve aged 15 years overnight.
I’m inside the mosquito net, with my face and notebook crowded inside the pool of light from the bathroom and my dirty feet up near the pillow. There’s no escaping the mildew, so I’m starting to love it. My body hurts from yesterday’s exercise, mosquito-borne death, or whatever. I whispered a promise of a little extra self-care when I was dragging around this morning but now, that only amounts to an extra half hour of sleep. I’ve rarely been this regimented about bedtimes; before grad school, almost never. I like the idea of growing in discipline and carrying it back to my regular world, wherever that is.
Possibly, another silly thought of the separating- myself-from-life variety.
So real quick, today: The indulgent students assigned to be our campus ‘buddies’ took us to an open house at a community for orphaned children which emphasizes a non-institutional feel and the creation and maintenance of family units. The 100-plus residents are assigned, ten to a cozy house, and raised by a ‘mother’ – a single or widowed woman who makes a lifetime commitment to the center and its kids. When the moms reach 60, they retire and take grandma status, living for free on the compound. Grown former residents come back for days like today, and the whole scene was loving, colorful, exuberant, and open-hearted. The kids seemed relaxed and happy and able to laugh. They put on a talent show and demonstrated shoulder-intensive dance moves that I’ve never seen before, set to hypnotic and circular music to which I futilely struggled to keep time. In the midst of these tightly choreographed and bombastic performances, a tiny boy took the stage alone and sang a heartbreaking song in a crazy, warbling soprano. We took some time to wander and the grounds were otherworldly – this part of the country is truly sweet, and I understand that we’ve hardly seen it.
The bus ride back had me agog and stoked again at being here. I hung my elbow out over the window’s metal railing, and the man in the next seat over clucked some reprimand. He was looking out for me; soon enough, we brushed the first of several heavy branches. The buses here look to have been in near-continuous operation since the ‘60s, or earlier.
On the street in Aluva, as in Mumbai, I constantly found myself lagging at the back of the pack, taking photos or spacing out. I think that exploration alone would help me honor my own pace without feeling that I was imposing it upon my companions. A bike would help.
Theodor and Joseph asked if I’d like to see the campus stables, and I followed them past a cathedral and through a slight forest of rubber trees. On the way, they asked if I was a Christian and seemed confused by my tentative reply which was, in essence: “Sure, but lazily.” This seemed like the old reverse Judas: pressured by circumstance, a denial of my lack of faith. Well over 90% of Keralites are religious, many are devout, and an answer to the effect of my parents’ beliefs seemed most appropriate in this instance. But it felt dishonest and incomplete and conniving in my mouth, and I don’t think it even served the desired aim of making my hosts feel more comfortable.
Chickens, pigs, ducks, etc. All of the animals made me so gooey. And the cows were obviously happier, in addition to being so much clearer-eyed and less intoxicated. Their sweet caretaker played loud club music, which I really enjoyed, and Alan explained that the cows like it and are said to produce sweeter milk as a result. We passed the composting and recycling centers on the way to the stables and I got excited, thinking that these are the projects I want to get involved in here. It occurred to me just how silly that is, traveling to the opposite side of the world to become excited about something I’ve failed to get involved with back home.
The imperial eight sat down to play Cards Against Humanity and though it tends to give me a sick feeling, I was looking forward to some familiarity. I didn’t win one single hand. I felt completely out of sync with my companions; intrusive and weird as the one man. I left there feeling lonely and bummed, and it was way out of proportion to losing a round of the mean-spirited card game. We don’t find the same things funny.
The feeling carried through dinner, and I ate sullenly while it seemed like everybody else was laughing a lot. Afterward, I decided to answer more email instead of fussing to transcribe my notes again tonight. Back onto the veranda by the commissary, and I tethered my laptop to a power supply. Crowded against a stack of unused classroom desks, I sat in isolation and again did what I promised myself I would not: I retreated into the internet. I got a message back about the blog that these notes are meant to become, and it looks like all is a go. I sent a copy to Thom, because he expressed interest, and his reply was a little acerbic, but correct: “there’s nothing intrinsically interesting about some dude’s journal.”
It started to pour. In general, the mosquitoes are worst in the hours on either side of sunset, but they’re a constant at night under the fluorescents where I sat. I’d already been bitten dozens of times, mainly on my bare feet, and tonight, I was just letting them feed. Zie sent me a model of culture shock and suggested I look it over. I think that I’ve been in its first trough for a few days now.
At 9:56, the gatekeeper’s umbrella popped out of the guardhouse and he began walking in slow motion toward my dormitory. I shoved the computer into its bag and bounded down the precipitous staircase which doubles as bleachers, through the storm and across the pools forming on the basketball court, clear to the awning and the edge of curfew. Upstairs, I ran into the guy who led with, “Why are you bald?” when we met on day one. This time, he planted himself directly behind me, while I refilled my water bottle for the night, and asked more questions: What’s your father do? Are you married? Do you like the food here?
Satisfied or exhausted, he excused himself abruptly after disclosure of my third intriguing detail. But he called down from the top of the stairs: “When you get bored, our room is up here. You can drop by.” It meant a lot just then, and it got me wondering, Am I isolating? Do I need more quiet time? Like the difference between those nights when it’s good and necessary to drag myself out into the world, and those others, when I should mind the voice that knows I need quiet. They’re surprisingly tough to tell apart.
Thom expanded on his earlier appraisal and he was a lot a more charitable this time. He agreed that a guileless, impressionistic, and personal approach is probably my best bet for writing this thing – particularly, in light of my vast ignorance - but he suggested that I try to really pick my tack and hone in. Pick an angle. I think, The bit about liquefying from the inside, probably. Thom posed the question: who’s writing it? Old you, new you? Survivor you? You on the journey? You who’s a musician? You who’s in love? You who’s winging it?
Yes. And it’s definitely me who doesn’t want to be a bureaucrat and who doesn’t want six roommates anymore, either; who doesn’t want to gossip along with my compatriots even though, of course, I relish that sometimes; me who feels better when I exercise and write it down and spend a lot of time alone; who respects animals and children much more than I do most adults; me who is thinking about the one I love from the other side of the planet; me who is kind of a grumpy bastard after all; who is too old to live off pasta anymore, anyway; and who is always struggling to set a balance between excitedly staying up all night and my beloved 8 hours sleep.