In a podcast called ‘Certainty,’ I talked with S P A C E contributing writer Michael Bridgett Jr. about the importance of ‘greeting the world.’ The episode is here.
It was good to hear him share those thoughts about renewed energy he was feeling to show up for people to see you, see what you create, and give those things to the world and show up for yourself in the process, too. I was moved. Inspired, too.
GREETINGS. I’ve opened up Atelier S P A C E to be a virtual conversation and zinemaking workshop, this season. I also got in touch with lots of people from different chapters of my life, inviting them to meet one another in the unique spaces that I love to host, in my own ways.
Living abroad for 10 years this time around after 3 years in Ireland and one in Japan in other chapters of my life, I have talked a lot about adapting.
About how we have to create out of what we have available to us the kind of social connection we need as human beings in the places where we are not ‘from’. In other words, despite the losses of not having a cultural framework that’s shared with the people who are native to the countries where we find ourselves, we can shift. We have to. I personally prefer ‘acculturation’ to ‘assimilation,’ because agents that really felt the best bet for me was the latter is the very reason I got into trouble growing up in the United States. It’s also why I make S P A C E the zine, anyway.
INSIGHTS. ‘Insights from exile’ is a phrase that came from an essay, ‘Rapprochement.’ It was published in the S P A C E issue with that title and was written by Michael Tharamangalam. He is a thinker, educator, and contributing writer, to S P A C E, too.
Below is ‘Rapprochement,’ posted with permission.
‘Maybe those of us in the shadows of societies in which we live can use our insights from exile to begin the rapprochement… starting near to us.’ —Michael Tharamangalam
By Michael Tharamangalam
Sometime in the late 90s, a cheesy spoken-word ‘graduation song’ became a surprise hit. Taking the form of a commencement speech, the song dispensed words of wisdom to a supposed ‘graduating class of 1999.
Part of the success of the song was due to urban myths—that ‘it was recorded by William Shatner,’ that ‘it was an actual commencement speech given by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT’—all of which turned out to be false.
Somehow, I find a kind of poignancy to this speech and keep drawing back to parts of it. When I turned 22 I remembered the part where Baz Luhrmann (or was it Lee Perry?) reassured his listeners that the most interesting 22-year-olds he knew, didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives.
When I turned forty (having lived no more than three years at a stretch in a single city for the past dozen years, and preparing to move to another new continent) I remembered the second part: ‘some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.’
The other lyric which has stuck with me over the years is about friendship—‘work hard to bridge the gap in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get the more you need the people you knew when you were young.’
In finding this song on YouTube recently, I saw that I was not the only one affected by it, and many fans of my generation left comments about how deeply “Wear sunscreen” affected them.
In fact, it seems less cheesy than I remembered—perhaps cynicism is a luxury which only the young can truly enjoy.
‘A… perpetual homelessness’
The gap in geography becomes particularly challenging for someone with an itinerant lifestyle. The paradox of this life in exile has been addressed by intellectuals like Edward Said, Giorgio Agamben, and Theo dor Adorno.
For them, being on the margins of the mainstream afforded certain freedoms which were not found in the centre. These thinkers used the fact of their literal geographical exiles from the lands of their birth, to re-imagine their intellectual journeys as another sort of exile.
That figurative exile became the creative space for critical thinking and inquiry.
Most expats can relate to some degree to that journey though geographic and cultural space, even if not intellectually. To be an expat – or an emigrant, or an immigrant – is to be paradoxically uncomfortable in comfortable situations—‘where home is a sort of perpetual homelessness’ as Said put it.
This adds both logistic and emotional complications to the task of rapprochement. It is not only lifestyle and physical space which separate the stay-at-homes from the expat. It may be possible to cross space and welcome another into your home, but in what sense can you welcome someone in to your homelessness?
This is the lived experience of the itinerant nomad, but it’s not easily conveyed to friends who have a car, a house, and an address which hasn’t changed in a decade.
And yet the old song remains true—we need the people we knew when we were young.
Maybe more so than the long-term inhabitants of the city, secure in their domestic comfort from which new long-term networks can be built organically over relaxed time spans.
In yet another paradox, it is the same technology which alienates people inside their homes—mesmerized by their ever-glowing screens—which allows them to reconnect.
These screens provided a simulacrum of rapprochement during the corona quarantine. I used social media apps to stay in touch with friends from high school and earlier, one of whom I discovered living near me in Europe.
I stayed with another friend in Canada last summer whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade.
Have we truly reconnected?
An epoch of ‘I am’
I don’t know.
I don’t know the stories of their houses, and car payments, their spouses and their children. I’m no better at conveying my deepest stories to them, besides.
I’ve seen hot air lamps floating over the Yangtze river, their reflections sinking deeper as they ascend the pitch-black sky. I have been drunk on sugary spiced wine as I walked past the Christmas stalls in the German Christchild markets, as genuinely moving as they are gaudy.
I’ve spent sweltering Tuesday evenings in meditation sessions at a Phnom Penh temple, trying to focus on my breathing, rather than the sweat on my eyelids.
I have lived on the margins of the cultures that hosted me and I could not claim to understand the languages and cultures I encountered. Yet there is a profundity to these experiences being in my home—perhaps of the homeless sort, but nonetheless a home in which I was physically if never fully culturally located. To attempt to articulate that profundity would be to sound pretentious or flakily spiritual.
All of our stories are further complicated by the embarking upon a new world. Sure, it’s a cliché to talk about a rapidly changing world, but there really is no other way to describe the great unknown that will be our fate in the coming months and years, during and after this coronavirus.
Maybe it will open up new spaces for solidarity and connection?
In which old and new can combine to help us connect across the gap of difference or other people’s expectations?
Or maybe those of us in the shadows of societies in which we live can use our insights from exile to begin the rapprochement… starting near to us. Starting with, that is, our friends and family.
Maybe rapprochement will mean connecting the frayed, underexpressed threads of memory to our present selves, creating a conduit through which we can slowly, sometimes inarticulately, frame and shape that which is next: our continuing narrations.