I have a friend in New York named Huriya who loves to read. She reads like hugry people eat, quickly and with abandon, and she talks about what she reads like she talks about nothing else. When I think of her I think of low lighting, a smoky hemisphere of air, and stacks and stacks of books.
Making friends with Huriya meant that I would need to know about books. I would need to know what happened and with what tone it happened in in all of the books she was reading, so that our conversations would have a purpose. So I forced her to share with me, and would steal used books from her bedside table and from the stack on the floor; we would need to talk about them over drinks that night at the bar on the corner.
Last week I got a package from Huriya, delivered to my apartment in Buenos Aires. It was a package of books, thick and brown and full of that healthy syrum of words in English that I had been missing because I had not brought along enough books in my pack.
I wrote Huriya a thank you note. It read: ¨Thank you so much darling, for the wonderful books! It is as if I have a purpose now, a particular task to complete! I will read these books and feel good about my place in the world!¨ (For books have always made me feel good: the smell that lives between their pages, their importance and their weight, their place in a world of intellectualism that I can never seem to be entirely a part of; these books made me feel a sense of worth.)
Huriya´s reply was not what I thought it would be. She wrote: ¨God I wish that reading still felt purposeful to me. When I am reading, I always feel like I should be doing something else, namely figuring out what I will do with my life.¨
At first, Huriya´s response made me sad. I knew that Huriya´s delight of all delights was a good book, and it was strange to find that she considered reading a guilty pleasure of sorts. And then another thought came to my head which turned the sadness I felt inward, towards my own reading habits: did I only think of reading as purposeful because I had no other present purpose?
Was I leading such a carefree, lazy life that READING had become something that I checked off my list or felt good about at the end of the day? Was my existence really so meaningless? Void of useful activity and work? Would my days of travling be bookmarked only by the books that marked them? Basically, was I a total loser?
Since this particular epiphony I have been doing a lot of thinking (and the mellifluous day of a traveler leaves PLENTY of time for thinking) about the idea of having a purpose, and what having a purpose means to the individual. Hellen Keller said that happiness comes from ¨fidelity to a worthy purpose.¨ So what was mine?
There I was, in Buenos Aires, wandering the streets looking for ripe tomatoes. There I was on a park bench in the plaza, struggling through a Spanish newspaper. There I was on the bus, staring out the window at the lonely fields. There I was on a ferry boat. There I was drinking coffee. There I was. Doing these actions (walking, exploring, speaking) that did not seem to have a purpose in the grand scheme of purposes.
Do we do things because they have a purpose or do we do things because we want to have a purpose ourselves? Was I traveling because I thought it had a purpose for my life, because I thought it was a means to a greater knowledge or certain sensibility? Or was I traveling in order to AVOID having a purpose, to learn how purposeless a purpose is? Does working on a computer make one feel purposeful? Or bearing children or taking out the trash? Do we have a purpose when we have a relationship? Or when we learn a new language or way to dance?
The dictionary says: PURPOSE (noun)
1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
2. an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.
3. determination; resoluteness.
4. the subject in hand; the point at issue.
5. practical result, effect, or advantage: to act to good purpose.
–verb (used with object) 6. to set as an aim, intention, or goal for oneself.
7. to intend; design.
8. to resolve (to do something): He purposed to change his way of life radically.
–verb (used without object) 9. to have a purpose.
All of these definitions seem maluable, like I could bend them around any action or talent or idea to make it fit the definition of ¨purposeful.¨ It seems that anything one sets out to do with conviction can have purpose. And it seems that intention itself can give way to purpose. But why, then, do days without a to do list seem so empty? Why, then, does the city of Cordoba, Argentina, where I am now, seem so hard to be a part of, and me in it so purposeless, a series of wanderings and back peddlings and empty spaces? Why, then, do my actions and movements in some far off place seem so far off?
Perhaps it is that no one is watching my movements that I feel they are without purpose. Or maybe it is because I am not getting paid to make them. Perhaps it is because I feel the guilty waft of entitlement to adventure and to exploration, the sting of being lucky enough to set my feet into the world and to judge it. The rain is coming down outside and Cordoba looks awful, and I am wondering what on earth my purpose could be in a place like this.
In New York, where it is one hour earlier and an entire season colder, Huryia is just getting off work. She is tying on her winter coat and stepping into the slush that collects at the edge of the sidewalks, and she will probably go get a drink with a friend. Her day at work was long, and after her drink she will most likely go home to bed and a book, thinking exactly what I am thinking about wasting time on something lovely (like traveling or reading or days in the sun): these things are about passion and soulful joy, which should be purposes in themselves. Only what happens when the real world interferes with that joy, making you wonder why you are doing any of it at all.
Huriya will let her book fall on her chest. She will fall asleep with the light on.
Nora brown and tall was a person who had three different souls. This was because she spoke three different languages, and in each language her soul took on a different form.
With her father and all of his compatriots (they sat together with coffee and they sat together with wine in the stand up bar next to the shop where they changed the tires and the oil and checked the brakes on so many cars) Nora spoke Italian. Her father and his compatriots had come from Sicily for the railroads but had moved on to cars with the rest of America and stuck together in a band of stubborn love for things no longer, refusing to bend with the English language; they talked and laughed and mulled and were silent in Italian.
When Nora spoke with them her soul looked like this: a room in a small house with a big window, a sepia tinted photograph, a knife with a dull blade, a pair of heavy eyelids, a locksmith´s dirty studio, a simple bowl of fruit, and an accordion, stretched in song.
With her mother (who sat on the floral sofa of the apartment, waiting for what was cooking to finish, pulling at the strings of the embroidery) Nora spoke Spanish. Her mother had come from Veracruz when she was just seventeen, alone with a bag of sugar cookies, and had fallen into the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill only because she had not known where to go and the town had sounded important, like a uniform, which is how America should be. Nico, Nora´s father, whistled for her in the street for thirteen months before he asked her to marry him, on a lark, in that language that to Maria sounded so much like a never-ending sonnet that she could not refuse and was married to him the next week in the Church of the Advent filled with flowers. (She loved the way his hands smelled of grease and his mouth of wine, and he loved the crisp smell of her clothing and the earthly smell of her abundant flesh; it would be a marriage based on smells and of misunderstandings.)
When Nora spoke to her mother in Spanish her soul looked like this: mounds of dough on a linoleum counter, wooden crosses and plastic charms, yards and yards of bolted fabric and an angry iron on its padded board, dust and sweat between the legs, a lost animal, and a frosted cake in the ice box.
At school, Nora learned to speak English, a language never spoken in her parent´s home. (Home was all roaring vowels and decadent twists of the tongue, battling uses of the plural form and the conjugation of verbs that were painfully varied in Spanish and Italian, and the kind of questions, misinterpretations, and silences that arise only when two languages confront each other.) At school Nora was different: polite, sweet, angry. She chewed bubble gum and stuck it under her desk. She used the eraser when she made a mistake.
In English, Nora´s soul looked like this: the aisle of a grocery store at nighttime, the false fur of a stuffed bear, the insides of a car engine, blue lines on white paper, sad cans of soup and tall glasses of milk.
Nora had three souls that looked very different from each other, and for this she was an American.
There is a time in every boy´s life, I have been told, after his voice cracks and his heart has been broken once or twice, when he ¨becomes a man.¨This happens not in stages or with gradual grace, as ¨becoming a woman¨does (all things male are more brash and hurried, of course), but rather overnight, with one distinct and finite action or event. This event could be anything from felling his first tree, killing his first animal, having awkward hurried sex for the first time, winning a match or a game in an honorable fasion and being held on the shoulders of his peers, etc. These are the things, aside from the patchy network of hairs that the boy discovers on himself at a certain point or the scattered way he starts to act around females, that mark the entrance of a boy into manhood, inviting him to take part in all things manly from here on out. He is now in charge.
This manhood, like anything of worth, comes with a price, however. On the day the boy puts on his cloak of manhood, he must then sign a contract that affiliates him with the responsibilities of being a man. The contract says: ¨I will know how to perform any and all physical/manly tasks. I will protect females from harm. I will know how to build things and fix things. If I do not know how to do these things I will pretend that I do.¨ A signature is mandatory before the boy is able to drink beer and watch football in peace.
Throughout my travels through Central and South America with two other women, I find myself consistently wishing for a man who has signed the contract of manliness and can therefore perform the necessary manly tasks that need handling without a fuss. We women, although capable of handling these tasks, often feign weakness or fatigue in the face of a broken door handle or a heavy backpack, things that men would so easily repair or carry or solve. I have wished for the definite, sure, tough presence of a man, the specific strength that a man brings in times of trouble, the presence of someone with a thick skull.
(We women have signed another type of contract, you see, one that hints at independence but does not demand it, one that eludes to grand intellegence but does not admit to it, one that says: ¨Although you are capable of caring for yourself, you will learn to need the man, even if it is only for the act he will put on concerning knowing how to take care of things...¨)
It was getting depressing, though, to think in terms of men and women, of needing something other than ourselves, of missing something or depending on something that we simply did not have. It was last Monday, on a bus ride down the Atlantic coast of Argenitina, when Maddy and I, in a fit of feminism and determination, made the call: We would become men.
It would not be hard, we decided. All we had to do was sign the figurative contract that bound us to decisive action, bold claims, getting shit taken care of, fixing things, and beer drinking. We would be upfront, determined, daring, adventurous, cocky, and absurd. We would hit on people instead of waiting for them to hit on us. We would eat food when and where we wanted it instead of waiting for a pretty restaurant or a healthy snack. We would brave the elements and embrace the outdoors. By golly we would be real men.
With this idea in our heads, Maddy and I were invincible. Upon arriving at the beach, we purchased the first tent we found, looked up the nearest campsite, and trekked with all of our luggage along a dirt road for a couple of miles. This was a good start to a man´s adventure, we thought, and when we got to the campsite we were thrilled to find an amazing cove of tents set up in the sand dunes, full of other men and their cronies or lady friends, who had set up their tents like we would under a crop of trees on the sand.
Setting up the tent: normally a man´s job. But I took on this task with determination and finesse, propping up poles and hammering steaks as if I had been born to be a boy. Maddy was astounded, and to match my manliness she headed for the grocery store, bought two 40 ounce dark beers and playing cards, and set us up with a manly evening of drunken gambling. Being a man was super fun.
In the middle of our third round of gin rummy, the sky began to darken. Clouds began to intrude on the colors of the sunset and there was a flash which looked to be lightening above the ocean in the distance. Around us, people started bustling around; all the men and boys of the campsite were putting things in plastic bags, fastening rain flies on their tents, battoning their hatches and making sure their women were safe inside their tents. Maddy and I looked at each other. Where were our men to batton our hatches?
Following the example of the men around us, we gathered what little luggage we had and put it into plastic bags. We found our ¨rain fly,¨ which was no bigger than a postage stamp, and tied it over the mesh opening on the top of our tent. We bunled our clothes together as pillows, climbed into our tent, and waited for the storm to come.
The storm came. It was as harsh and cruel as any storm could be, and our spirits, along with our tent, began to sag. Wind blew. Rain seeped through the sides of the tent. Thunder shook the air. Dogs barked and their shadows circled the tent. We turned weaker and wetter throughout the long night, like women are expected to, I suppose. We wished only for morning.
The rain finally stopped and the dawn came with difficulty. We ached from the hard ground and were cold and damp from the rain. We emerged into the day, broken and hard faced. And then it occoured to us: this had been our manly event. This had been our overnight transformation, our act of manhood. We could do anything we wanted! We could sleep on hard, wet ground and we could survive through the night! We were invincible! We were men!
The rain had stopped, but the morning was raw and cold from the storm. In a decisive (and might I add very manly) decision, Maddy and I broke down camp, left the campsite, checked into a hotel room, and ordered pizza. We had long showers, watched cable television, and laughed about our man´s night out the night before. We put lotion all over our bodies and shampooed our hair, and we were women, happy and warm, once again.
Over three weeks ago, my mother went to the main post office in Santa Cruz, California with the intent of sending me a Christmas package, full of little holiday trinkets and morsels (books, my favorite flavors of Cliff Bars, a 10% sacylic acid face wash that can only be bought in countries like the US where people fight imperfections with strong chemicals) from the States. My mother was, for once, planning ahead, and was sending the box with enough advance that it should arrive at my doorstep, Calle Brasil Numero 409 Segundo Piso, by Christmas morning.
The package doesn´t come by Chrismas. In fact, the package never comes at all. Instead, I have to call Correos Argentinos (the main branch of the web of Buenos Aires post offices), stay on hold for twenty minutes, obtain a tracking number from a woman with a voice like a newborn seal, and set out in this city of to fetch the package myself.
I am first sent, by way of a slip of paper I find wedged under my doormat by some coy delivery boy, to the local post office. Only I cannot read the address that was hastily scribbled on the slip of paper by this particular, hasty-handed coy delivery boy, and I am forced to ask for directions to this particular local post office from passersby on the street.
¨Can you read this?¨ I ask the old man with the wooden cane, but his eyes are out and he cannot make out what the slip says.
I ask the boys that work at the internet cafe. (They call the internet cafes Ël Ciber¨here, which creeps me out entirely and makes me think of both cyber sex and the nineties, both of which are horrible illusions.) The Ciber Boys pass around the slip of paper and study the frantic writing. Finally, one of them blurts out an address, points in a direction, and sets me on my way.
The local post office is a mad house. There are three postal workers, behind plate glass windows labeled CAJA 1, CAJA 2, and CAJA 3, who are always looking down: stamping, taping, writing things down on those types of paper with three colors and the ink goes through to all of them. The room is full of people, waiting. It is the kind of waiting you do in a doctors office: patient and impatient at the same time, anxious, depressing, stuffy waiting. First you must take a number out of the red machine that spits numbers from its tounge (we get number 98, they are only on number 23) then you must wait. There are over forty chairs set up for waiting. They are full. We wait on the floor.
We wait at the local post office for over two hours. Then our number is called by the bald man at CAJA 2. (We had been, in our state of boredom, making
bets on which of the postal workers would be the one to help us, which was more efficient, and which would be the nicest.) The postal worker at CAJA 2 is definately not the most efficent, and it takes him over ten minutes to fetch our package. He eventually returns with it, a long white envelope, and asks for our signatures on the dotted line and our passports, please. We do not have our passports.
You cannot pick up a package without your passport, senora. Please come back when you have proper identification.
We walk 22 blocks home, get our passports, and return to the post office. We wait in line again, return to CAJA 2, hand baldy our passports, and have the package put through a drawer between the bald man´s side of the plate glass and ours.
It is the wrong package.
I call Correos Argentinos again, and speak with a lady who has a voice like a newborn seal, although I am sure it cannot be the same seal I spoke with before. She informs me that the package from my parents is still in customs, we will have to wait until we recieve a slip of paper in the mail to pick it up at Correos Internacionales. She gives me a new tracking number.
Two days later, we receive another slip of paper under the doormat. That sneaky post man again, avoiding confrontation. It directs us to Correos Internationales, an enormous industrial building on the other side of town, across the highway from the rancid bus station and the grey hustle of the planks where the trains come in. This post office is fifteen times the size of the local branch, and packed, like letters are packed in bundles, with people waiting for their mail.
Wait in line to take a number. Take a number. 42. Wait for an hour and a half. Let the fans hum above you. Watch the other people. Crack the gum in your mouth. Wait.
Get called to the front desk. Get another number. 785564. Move to the other waiting room where they call out the numbers on a microphone attached to two tall speakers. Sit in a blue plastic chair. Watch the woman in the heels click her heels on the linoleum. Watch her boyfriend who is much younger than her fondle her hair. Watch the man with his son give his son bad advice and notice how he has given him bad genes. Crack your gum. Listen to the fans hum. Listen to the numbers called over the speakers. 677784. 277648. 309000. Watch those other lucky souls disappear behind the door (you imagine a room behind that door that is filled to the ceiling with brightly colored, beautiful packages, dreamy stacks of letters, perfect works of postal art!) and come out again with their brown paper loot...
Another hour later, 785564 cracks from the tall speaker. It sounds like a song. We rush to the golden door of Correos Internacionales and into the room where we are sure our package is floating around somewhere, full of gadgets and love from California. There is a conveyor belt set up, and packages cruise along it like blind sheep, white and brown mounds waiting to be led to their homes. There is another line of people waiting in front of the conveyor belt. We wait.
We supply the postal worker at the conveyor belt with our ticket. In the spirit of transaction (finally someone with the Christmas spirit inside of him!) Conveyor Belt man hands us our package with a smile. A big, darling white box. Our names written on the middle. The clear, sturdy tape that my mother uses for clear, sturdy matters on all edges of the box. An old label for the box (¨Dia De Los Muertos Stuff¨) crossed out on its side...
Twenty pesos, please, says Conveyor Belt Man. We look at him blankly.
We don´t have any money.
Luckily, we´re quite charming, and we finagle our way out of the fee. We had finally gotten our package, and a Cranberry Apple Cherry Cliff Bar never tasted so fucking good. Thanks, Mom.
It was only a couple days ago when I realized that everything was backwards. No, maybe not backwards, but upside down. Yes, everything in my life was upside down. Warm, pleasant, and even, but up-turned. Flipped over. Reversed.
I understood that I was upside-down on a bus ride from Mendoza, Argentina, to Bariloche, in Patagonia, 20 hours further South. As the bus slided South, the landscape changed from the endless, flat plains of Central Argentina to a fresher, icier crop of high rocks and distant mountains; the snowy tips of Patagonia framing cold lakes and covered in triangular trees.
I was heading South and it was getting colder.
I understand that this is an obvious fact of nature: the Southern Hemisphere is arranged in opposition to that of it´s brother Mr. North. Their bulging bellies meet at the equator, where there is a fat mass of eternal heat, and then they fan out to the North and South, cooling themselves, ending in icy poles on opposite ends of the earth. But regardless of how much sense this makes, how many science classes I have taken that have explained to me the rotations of the earth and the way the sun circles, I could just not get over my fascination with my new, up-turned existence. South was, literally, the new North.
This means much more than one would think. Yes, of course, it gets colder the further South you go in South America. And yes, it is Summer here, instead of winter; people are wearing sandals and dresses, laying in parks, taking their beach vacations and throwing notebook papers out the windows of tall buildings in celebration of the last day of school. Yes, the days are longer (in fact it has not been getting dark until around 10:30pm), the nights shorter (this is especially true if one lives according to the Argentine custom of staying out ALL NIGHT, having coffee at 7am, and only then, as the light comes, going to sleep). And yes, of course, Christmas and New Years are sweaty rather than snowy holidays in this wild, Southern exisitence. But there is more.
Did you know that shadows in the Southern Hemisphere turn anti-clockwise instead of clockwise, due to the sun and its right-left trajectory here, meaning sun dials actually move backwards? And did you know that hurricanes spin clockwise here instead of anti-clockwise in the North? Did you know that you can see more stars here, and more clearly, than you can in the Northern hemisphere because you are oriented directly towards the galactic center? And the whirlpools: backwards. The way a toilet flushes: reversed.
This means that your shadow, your wristwatch, your orientation with the entire mass of universe and light, is reversed. You are living upside-down.
These things astound me. They astound me the way a hummingbird astounds me keeping himself still only by frantic movement, or the reflection of a perfect boulder the mirror of a lake. They are natural phenomenons that we can understand, make graphs of, explain, but never ceased to be amazed by. They are dramatic simplicities. They are beautiful facts.
As I moved towards frigid Patagonia from the hotter, dryer lands in the North, a strange sensation came over me. It was the realization that this year, although I would see white on the tips of those far-off mountatins and perhaps eat a Christmas cookie for spirit´s sake, I would not feel winter. The months would come, the dates of the holidays and the champagne on New Years. The time would pass and the calendar would move and the seasons would eventually change. But this year, living upside down, I would not feel the way your bones feel in the winter: thinner and colder and more vulnerable. I would not remember how the sweater hangs or the branches become naked as they releive themselves of their leaves. This year I would not feel the heaviness of the outdoors, or be reminded of the importance of the indoors. I would not eat potatoes. I would not make fires or use ribbons.
It does not make me sad to think of skipping winter. I have hated winters when I have lived in cold places, and I do not long to reenact the depression I have felt from being kept indoors by sleet or snow or even a California shiver. I am simply intrigued by the fact that I am walking around in the Southern Hemisphere with a backwards shadow, while the people in the North do not have enough sun to make one.