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Issue 89. The Journey Home December 27, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Place.
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When my father started to lose his memory, it was as if he gained an entirely new set of memories. He remembered travels to Egypt that he had never taken, visits to France with his father (who had died when my father was 14) and explorations of India and Hong Kong. Wherever we took him, he recognized as a place he used to live many years ago. The house he and his father built — he was pretty sure — lay just beyond that hill, or around that corner.  My father died nearly 13 years ago, and now it’s my mother’s memory that no longer quite works. But she is planning a journey.  She wants to go home.  She waits for the bus that will arrive to take her as far as the home of her aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, who will surely be happy to put her up overnight, and she thinks of other places she can stop on the way home. All these stops are with family and friends who have long since passed away.  And no matter that we are there to visit her, she seems to believe that she is visiting us. This is not her home, and there seems no way to make it such.  

I-95, heading north

As my husband and I drive back north on the same route we took last week down to visit my mother in Florida, we both fully agree that it’s good to be going home.  But the journey home is also quieter and more reflective than the journey away from home. We still notice a few new things along the way, but we mostly recognize places we’ve seen before.  Mostly we think about where we’ve been and about what we’ll do now, after we get home. This is a transition place, or at least we treat it as such. And there is more than a touch of sadness to it. 

I think many study abroad students also experience this sadness on their flights home, perhaps especially those who may have felt ready for some time to go home. Homesickness happens to many people, but going home never really erases that experience, nor does it exactly promise a new beginning in the way that going away from home sometimes does. Going home concludes the journey and re-establishes our connection with this place. Driving home from Florida, we had many moments when we said, “Now we are home.” First when we reached the familiar places on the New Jersey turnpike we knew we were close and with each familiar landmark or recognizable space we renewed our feeling of being home. We identify ourselves as part of this place, and our lives move in this space and among the people here.     

For some reason, as the New Year begins, it is common in the English-speaking world to sing a song from a Scottish poet about not forgetting old acquaintances and times gone by. I feel the same nostalgia with the old Beatles’ song that goes “There are places I remember….”  My mother remembers her aunt’s house where she lived for a while as a young woman before she was married. She remembers that she was a student at Southern College, a boarding school in Virginia that disappeared long ago, so sometimes she supposes she is there now, and that the school year will soon be over and she will be going home. So she asks again when the bus will come, the one that goes past that house in Bowling Green. Knowing that these places no longer exist, and that these people are long gone, I am the one, not her, to feel their absence. And I dearly wish that I could drive her home.


Issue 82. Patterns October 10, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Intercultural Education.
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GREEN_BOOKThis week I read “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect” in the Tuesday science section of the New York Times in which Benedict Carey describes an intriguing theory. The idea is that when we come across something that defies logic or is disorienting, our brains try to make some sense of it by looking for patterns, and in that process, we may become more aware of other patterns that we might otherwise not notice.

The patterns we find may not in fact explain anything. I’m old enough to remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot (in a shopping mall). In the aftermath of the absurdity of that crime, people turned up many types of previously unnoticed patterns, including a seemingly endless list of ways in which Kennedy’s life parralleled that of Abraham Lincoln. My personal favorite item in that list was the importance given to the fact that their assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, each used three names that had a total of 15 letters. It reminds me of the joke: What do John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in Common? (Answer: Their middle name.)

IMG_2346 Patterns may not in themselves have meaning but it does seem that we organize meaning through the recognition of patterns. Patterns organize almost anything — events, people, plants, food, concepts, words, tones, experiences, elements and more — by given an order to it in time through sequence and/or  in space through location or position and through identification of similarities and differences with other events, people, plants, food, concepts, words, tones, experiences, elements, etc.

As patterns become familiar, we often stop paying attention to them perhaps because we no longer have to learn them. As long as the patterns remains the same, we don’t have to think about it. So, for instance, as I type this text I am not thinking of each letter and never looking at the keys. The small dot under each index finger keeps me sure of being on the “home row” keys and from there everything is on automatic: at least as long as I am typing in English, and on a US keyboard. The small change of two letters with the German keyboard makes my nick name appear as Betsz, which always startles me when I type it. On Spanish keyboards, the characters and punctuation around my little fingers comes out wrong until I slow down and adapt to this new pattern.

What does it take to get us to notice the particular cadences of the television news program, the design of the floor tiles in our hallway, or the particular taste of our morning coffee? Without the experience of other places, the tones and colors, textures, tastes and aromas of our daily lives might escape our notice. We recognize the sensation of our own bed only when we have slept elsewhere; it is the journey in the end that defines what we mean by home.