When I do guided imagery as part of writing instruction, I read from a script adapted to the theme I am developing with students. I take them through a visualization, usually of an event, and ask them to recreate that event in their imaginations as a kind of internal movie. To conclude, I always read slowly and deliberately from the script, “And as you finish experiencing this event in your life, you can think about what it means to you now, and you can appreciate the insights it gives you… And now, you can gather up the sensations, ideas, sights and sounds to bring back with you… and you can gradually return to this time and place… to this room, taking all the time you need.”
After that, I direct them, when they are “fully ready,” to pick up their pens or pencils and “make as many notes as you can about the details of what you experienced so you will remember them when you write.” On my recent trip to Costa Rica with a group of teachers from the Portsmouth area, we frequently stopped to write and reflect. I find myself reviewing those notes, and thinking about what these experiences mean to me now, hoping to experience the insights they give me; first I gather up the sensations, ideas, sights and sounds and sort through what I have carried back. What I remember most are sensations.
I remember the bitter undertones beneath the sweetness of the hot chocolate we sipped in the forest, made from the roasted cacao beans we had shelled and ground into a thick paste mixed with sugar cane juice and boiled water. I have never tasted better chocolate.
I remember how our guide would suddenly go still in the rainforest and listen, poised, until he could identify a squirrel monkey, a coati or a scarlet macaw. I remember the sound of my own footfalls, and the way the light changes as we move deeper into the forest, the crashing of the waves heard through the humid bosque as we came close to emerging.
I carry with me the zumba classes with “Rico Suave” in the unairconditioned hall in Puerto Jimenez, and “Domingos en Movimiento” en la plena sol en la plaza en Pital. I carry the bells of the church calling the entire village to la misa en Pital, and the whispered instructions of Olga’s granddaughter Valery, “pray for something,” she told me, indicating that I should kneel on the tiny plank provided.
I savor the tastes of fresh cut mango, piña, and banana in the morning, the coconut water from fresh cut pipas on the beach, gallo pinto, and huevos a caballo, tomando un traigo en the sala of la casa de Doña Olga watching “TeleTica”—The Blind Side in dubbed Spanish.
And I will also remember the ominous signs in English inviting me to purchase my “Costa Rican dream,” and the chaos of the colegio in Puerto Jimenez, the young teacher at the bilingual school who asked me to translate her employment form, who is the same age as my oldest child, and who has no idea what she is doing. I will wonder who can own dreams, at what price, and why people believe they have the right to dream of owning what is not theirs. I will wonder at their tendency to simply plant their flags on any soil as if it were uninhabited, merely awaiting their arrival.
The question I posed to the group before we left was about contact zones from a 1991 article by Mary Louise Pratt—what happens when cultures collide in unequal relations of power? I come away from this trip feeling as if I myself am a contact zone. It is not an unfamiliar feeling. When I came back from Santo Domingo the first time in 1991, the shock was total and painful. The discomfort was so great that I coped with it in the only way I knew how. I detached myself. It is a horrible way to live in the world, being conscious of denying the entirety of who you are because no one sees value in it. I remember my aunt’s words, when my son Sam, then a toddler, called her pool ‘picina.’ She said, “He will need to forget that.” I got that message too, to let that go, to move on, to assume my place in the world, but I could only pretend to.
I lived like that, más o menos, for 17 years, until I came back to Santo Domingo to live again, like Rip Van Winkle, in 2008. Since then, I have struggled to bring those worlds together by traveling back and forth, by bringing people here, by working to bring the writing project to Santo Domingo, and even by attending Spanish language lunch tables. These things make me feel healthier and more whole. It sometimes feels like it’s about resistance, about resisting the power of this culture to dismiss or diminish that part of me, to ignore and lessen the people who don’t conform to it. It is about defying those who would domesticate and commoditfy everything in order to control it, and who leave the rest of us such precious little space in which to live.
Everyone on our trip posed an inquiry question. Mine was about social class. Social class issues are salient and ugly in the contact zone. Many of the people I met lived on the boundaries of the tourist economy, hoping to eke out enough of a living to keep going by hosting visitors, offering services as guides for kayaking, horseback and boat rides, or pedaling their wares in the streets of a marginal tourist destination. On the bus to Pital I passed humble shacks next to luxurious resorts. The contrasts are stark.
Up until quite recently, Costa Rica did little to limit or control the foreign incursions. They are now beginning to regulate tourism and foreign ownership a little more. Doña Olga spoke to me about “tourismo malo” where all people do is lie on the beach and give nothing to the country. She prefers “tourismo bueno” where missionary and service groups bring school supplies and help paint or build, but she did not argue with me when I pointed out that those kinds of trips, while providing some much needed goods, did little to challenge the unequal relations of power that had created that poverty and that need in the first place. A five cent rise in the price paid to growers in Ethiopia for a kilo of coffee would transform their lives and provide far more for the country than all of the food aid sent there as aid in a year. But these are the kinds of questions that are not raised. The poverty is taken as a fact of life, as if it were as natural as the coming of the rains in August, and rich Americans come down on service trips, take pictures of themselves building houses, or planting trees in the rain forest, and feel righteous and benevolent, never questioning why it is that they have so much when so many in the world have so little.
So what can one do? When I was in Birmingham this spring for the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, I heard Charlene Hunter Galt speak. In response to a question about what we can do to promote civil rights now, she offered some advice. “Read ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and then ask yourself: ‘what is my place in the movement?’” We can serve the movement best, and by this I expand the idea to the movement for global racial and economic justice, by doing what we do, only differently, more consciously.
What I do is teach, and write, or write, and teach—I’m not sure about the order most days. And where I do it is in the contact zone that I have become, in the liminal space between languages and cultures and countries. This actually can be a position of power. I need to write and teach in service of the movement. Part of doing that is to be more fully who I am as I move in this world. I need to remember every day the people who have invested some degree of hope and trust in me. I need to keep present those I met who are living on the margins and try to honor and widen those spaces by offering fair recompense for their labors, and insisting that others do the same. I need to educate others by doing my work, by writing, by teaching, by asking others to “think, think, think, write, write, write, and to find a stopping place,” as one participant put it. We need to stop sometimes to reflect, but also to know that this work, like writing, is never done and that the struggle itself has dignity and meaning, and that we can’t take a break from it because so many people have no choice.
Sometimes I don’t have “all the time I need” to make a return to “this time and this place and this room,” but I have to make that time. Writing helps. So this is my attempt to gather up the sights and sounds and appreciate the insights this experience gives me, and to create enough meaning to enable me to live more fully and consciously wherever I am, and to honor my place in the movement. The struggle is ongoing. It is how I choose to live.