Wednesday, January 04, 2017

In defense of nostalgia tripping

Journeys of any kind—physical, mental, virtual—are multilayered things. There is the experience of the present, in terms of the stimuli of the immediate; then there is the remembrance of the past, the paradigms and the vocabularies that frame the way we see and respond to these stimuli; and there is the anticipation of the future, the steps we need to take to further immerse ourselves or shift direction, along with the wondering about what it all means.

Further we are all constantly narrativizing our lives, plugging moments of existence into a storyline, imagining the way we will be read on social media, and shaping the retelling of our journeys to provide coherence to the ongoing script of the self.

Maybe the yearning for coherence and meaning forces such a perspective, and who am I to argue with that, being as culpable as anyone else in this project of self-making and self-presenting?

These past few months have been particularly poignant for me in relation to this project, having had the luxury of time and solitude to think through and about the various moments that have made up my own life—personal, professional, political. I have had the opportunity to discover new people and places and rediscover old ones, some unearthed from distant memory formed more by photographs in an album than by tangible experience.

Pasadena, 1966
Thanks to the indulgence of my nephew and his wife, I was able to drive through the streets of Pasadena and find my kindergarten school. Two old photographs, now lost somewhere in the detritus of multiple moves, along with the remembrance of my teacher’s name and a blurry sense of her face, are the only things that tie me to this spot. I have the vaguest memories of that first school year in this CalTech neighborhood: Mrs Nevra’s 1960s beehive hairdo, a girl called Maeve who walked with me a few times and told me never to “step on the cracks”, and the privilege of banging dusters in the backyard at recess. Yet, for some (not-so-inexplicable) reason it was important to me to find the yellow building and recover the reality of having been there, half a century ago (groan, the years, the years!).

Pasadena, 2016

And then, the Grand Canyon. I always said I had never been there, but that was only partly true. I could not remember having been there, despite the images in that same old photo album and my mother’s occasional references to a cross-country drive that we undertook in a blue-and-white Chevrolet in 1966. Fifty years later, a dear old friend and I spent a wonderful day riding on a bus listening to a garrulous driver-cum-guide educate us on the history-geography-culture-ecology of the Arizona desert. Apart from the warmth of really good friendship, I rediscovered bits of sandstone-etched images that were now busily acquiring a second layer of remembering-in-the-making.

Grand Canyon, 1966
Grand Canyon, 2016

Many people say that nostalgia is not only useless, it is counter-productive, particularly in political and social change projects. Reminiscing takes time and energy from what needs to be done. But we might also argue that it provides a motivation for movement, a template for where we might want to go, or a framework for what we might want to recover. Maybe, nostalgia adds meaning and perceptual depth to our personal stories. It is in the journey to recover our past that we sometimes find ourselves, and in the process are given—in a more conscious way—a means to curate our memories and reclaim (or discard) elements that give us pleasure, or that define our pain. Maybe, it allows us to map our lives in a way that redeems those of us who feel like we’ve stumbled through the maze of existence. Maybe, it gives us an appreciation for where we are now and the things we’ve lost or gained along the way.

I’m certainly not arguing for wallowing in the past. But once in a while there may be something to be learned from taking a quick detour from the present and pause at instances—and places—that can give us clues to that inner self.

 Although some might say that the best place to find that self is in the here and now

Thursday, December 29, 2016

One hundred cups of coffee

It's been raining through the afternoon and even now I can hear the wind rush through the streets as it makes its way to or from the sea, carrying with it the varying moods of the New England winter. My landlady, Vera, told me this old regional joke: "If you don't like the weather in New England, well--just wait a minute!" And each of us travelers must discover the import of that in the gloves and scarves we carry in our bags and refrain from discarding too early, or, for that matter, putting away our short sleeves and sandals before the leaves turn, just because the calendar has announced the advent of cooler weather.

I've been packing all day--make that two "all days". Stuffing things I can't bear to leave behind and things that seem to have grown arms and legs and girth. Books that probably would have cost me less to buy on Amazon and delivered to India than to box and ship--clearly, sales at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse do not carry a warning sign on bargains (they should have said--"THESE BOOKS HAVE WEIGHT AND DO NOT TRAVEL ACROSS SEAS LIGHTLY OR CHEAPLY!"). I tell myself that books are priceless anyway, and if I've saved them from being left on the shelf, un-bought and probably in the long term, pulped, well, then I owe it to them to take them with me.

So the books have been boxed and the suitcases have been stuffed, and I am sitting here feeling somewhat in limbo. Goodbyes have been said and notes put away for future reference. As I rummage around the corner of my living room known as the kitchen, wondering if I should take the trouble to cook something that will get left over or just snack on an apple and a tub of yoghurt, I pick up the box of coffee filters to check how many are left.

There's just one.

Just enough for my last cup of coffee tomorrow morning.

I've been through several cartons of milk/half-and-half, and a few pounds of coffee grounds, but I haven't had to buy another box of filters.

It's like Trader Joe's had it perfectly packaged for my stay here, taking into the reckoning absences from Boston, and accounting for all the rest.

We often have the impulse to take stock, to tote up our gains and losses and see how far we have traveled between then and now. Four and a half months is not a long time by most standards, and, like most experiences, it seems long in the living and short in the recalling. I've had plenty of time to read, reflect, weigh new ideas and discard some old ones, look out windows of libraries and walk under the gold and russet leaves of oaks and maples, and just think, and be, without the disciplining frame of a routine. So here's my tally:

20 blog posts
8 interviews
4 presentations
2 articles
1 course audited
...and countless enriching conversations

And yes, 100 cups of coffee (not counting the ones served up by Starbucks and Peet's and the like).

When I open up that brown box tomorrow to take out that last paper filter, it will seem so final, so...over. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to pull myself away from the desk, or this uncomfortable chair on which I have sat typing one post after another, looking out the window where the old church stands solidly in the light of a single street lamp. I realize that while I've been thinking, the rain has stopped and the wetness on the road has turned into a slick, shiny layer of ice.

Less than a day before the New England iciness yields to the mild Hyderabad air.

Less than a day before my coffee comes strong and thick and aromatic, dripping through the perforations of my south Indian steel filter.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Walking the infinite

I had walked down the passage many times, narrowly missing rushing students and their bulky backpacks as I dawdled, reading the notices pinned on the soft boards along its length or the announcements sliding across the display screens at every archway. It seemed to me like just another corridor where no one lingered, apart from under the tallness of the Great Dome at one end or midway down in the sudden, imposing expanse of Lobby 7 before it narrowed again to lead you decisively toward East Campus.

So when students casually kept referring to "The Infinite" I had to ask, "But what is that?"

It is--only somewhat fancifully--referred to as MIT's spinal cord, this 825-foot corridor that runs east to west through some of MIT's main buildings, passing by the administrative offices and student affairs and several departments and labs. Apart from the fact that it is among the longest (but considerably shorter than that of Freie University, says Wikipedia) university corridor, it is known as the site of a biannual solar event, when the dipping sun aligns perfectly with the large window under the central dome and sends a ripple of light along its length--a phenomenon that the community has dubbed "MIT-Henge".

I wish I had known this earlier--I missed the last occurrence, in mid-November, by a few weeks. But learning about this made me walk the corridor with a bit more curiosity and appreciation for the design outlook (this set of buildings is credited to architect William Bosworth) that drives many structures on this campus. The Great Dome is iconic of MIT, and clearly, so is the Infinite, and both are pretty much part of the everyday rush between class and coffee shop and laboratory and library that characterizes student life on any campus.

Over the past four and a half months, the Infinite has for me been a pathway from the light-filled (okay, only on sunny days) and airy Haydn Library to a much-needed cup of Peet's brew under the lobby of main entrance, the Grand Dome. When time permits, I grab a table and watch the traffic go by, students solitary or in clumps, some finding a spot in one corner or another of this large space to hunch over assignments and readings, others in tight knots that conspire team projects. I've chanced upon an acapella group rehearsing Christmas carols and engineering students displaying posters...and of course, on that post-election Wednesday, draping their anger and anxiety on the massive pillars.

But if the Infinite is MIT's spinal cord, the other hallways that radiate from it are like neuronal pathways gathering and sending out stimuli. You have a sense that ideas are constantly cooking, that synergistic plans are being hatched, from the Vannevar Bush room to the Eastman lobby, the names that spell invention seem to be everywhere.
When you are inside the hub of innovation, inventiveness seems an ordinary, everyday affair. The environment seems to seethe with ideas and the possibility of their realization. You're encouraged to dream, and to make, and to show what you've made. You're encouraged to walk the Infinite--and soon you come to believe that it takes you places beyond that mere fraction of a mile.

Those who study architecture know how keenly spaces can shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in our immediate communities and in the world. Those who work with words know how keenly names can shape the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

There's a certain arrogance in calling an 825-foot hallway the Infinite.

Or perhaps... a certain imagination.