Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"What on earth are Ex-Pat Birds?!"

From elsewhere, on the topic of the peculiar name of this journal:

"Expat Birds" -- That is, I think, what the section of my blog that will be dedicated to the preparation and consummation of my month in Asia will be called. Wandering around town today, I was toying with different reflections and expressions, and this one stuck, largely because it's such a contradiction in terms: Birds are native anywhere their wings can take them; even when they are taken out of their natural habitat, their allegiance is to the sky, not to any country -- the only place they are truly expatriate is when put in a cage.

I love birds, and I envy them. I've longed to fly since I was very young, and the childlike vision of soaring with outstretched arms is still near and dear to my heart. "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will forever long to return." Da Vinci said it, and I believe and affirm it. More than that, though, I despise feeling caged. My relationship with place, with stability and mobility, has always been an ambivalent one: Growing up rootless in a deeply rooted culture, appreciating -- always in theory, sometimes in action -- the value of settling into country, a city, a home, but being never free of the call to wander and explore and pioneer. There now is the truly America spirit in this European! ;)

Lately I've been reading about an area of theology that speaks to this very tension -- a spirituality of place. While the 'big names" in this area are apparently Philip Sheldrake and Belden Lane (... whose "Solace of Fierce Landscapes" I eagerly await -- I mean, seriously, does this book have my name written all over it or what? ;), I've so far enjoyed Doug Burton-Christie's writings the most, no doubt in part because of the sympathy he evinces for wandering ones like myself: "The passion for place and the power of journey appear to be so closely bound up together that they cannot be untangled. ... This paradoxical tension signals, I would suggest, the kind of exquisite balance we must maintain in learning to respond to the touch of God upon the soul, in learning how to live in this world." We must be, in short, at home and on the journey simultaneously. If this sounds mighty zen and just a smidgen impractical -- well, join the club. I am still pondering, thinking converging circles around this issue, the call of forth and the call homeward, and likely will for some time to come. There is blessing, though, in simply having someone else speak aloud or write about this beautiful paradox.

Finally, here is another take on the matter, from the fiction corner of the literary world, a quote from Penelope Lively's recent novel Spiderweb, from the inner narrative of her protagonist, a retired -- but not quite retired -- cultural anthropologist seeking to settle down in an English village: "I am part of the landscape like everyone else. And some of us are more tenuously placed within that landscape. Some are entrenched; others merely perch."

Expat birds, perched in the landscape of life -- there are, I think, worse ways to be."


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