Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Road Not Taken

This is a reprint of a letter I wrote to friends at the end of my first semester of teaching in India in spring 2008. 

I lived in South East Asia for four years in the 60's. I returned to the States in 1979 with the intention of clearing up college debts before becoming a permanent expatriate in Asia. I liked Asia. I was a guest professor of art in Thailand and The Philippines. I was a student at Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi.  For a girl from Iowa that life was exotic.  I felt liberated to live outside the limitations of my culture.

But when I returned to the States, I met Bill and Sally Thonson who helped me get a house and a teaching position at HSU. Instead of going back to India, I settled into life in Humboldt County.  That life gradually filled up with friends, children, and a design practice.  Still I wondered sometimes if I made the best choice.  Asia, especially India, continued to tug at my spirit.

Last December I accepted a teaching position at Aayojan College of Architecture in Jaipur, India.  This was my opportunity to walk along the road I didn't take in the 60's.  In the past six months the
colors, tastes, smells, and festivals of India have taken me back forty years.  I would find myself with sensations so similar to my life in India as a young woman that I would be surprised that the person in the mirror was no longer a sweet girl..

Life at Aayojan School of Architecture turned out to be much more challenging than I had  anticipated. My fantasy life of a vibrant architecture community that discussed interesting concepts over afternoon tea did not materialize. Instead I found myself isolated in a light deprived, noisy room in the girls dormitory, a forty five minute auto rickshaw ride to almost anywhere.

I got to know some of my students and a few faculty members. The Hindi I learned forty years earlier began to reappear.  Names like Kaushal, Shalini, Swastika, and Ravinder became familiar.  With some of my students we explored hill forts, bird sanctuaries, and villages specializing in beautiful block printing, but I came to understand that studying architecture was far from the first choice  for many of these young people.

Sadly, India's education system sorts out students according to marks on national exams.  A love of learning ,creativity, intellectual curiosity, and an interest in making a difference in the world were
largely lacking.  The road I took in the early seventies in Arcata led to deep involvement in alternative education and an appreciation of student activism.  CCAT at HSU is in my mind the best kind of education.  The students who have kept it alive for thirty years have been consistently  energetic in their ongoing effort to make the world a better place.

My ecology course at Aayojan did not spark campaigns to get organic food in the mess or encourage recycling  at the college like similar courses have at HSU.  Several students did tell me as I was getting ready to leave that they do now turn off lights and were careful to not waste water. These are small steps but they are heading in a more positive direction

About half way through the semester the paperwork, lack of enthusiasm, hierarchical social structure and patriarchy led me to write a letter saying I had decided to leave after only one semester.  Then almost immediately life began to get better.  Students started stopping by my room to chat and urge me to return. Fellow art faculty looked at the paintings I had been doing and suggested arranging a show for next spring.  An expedition proposal  to the Thar Desert to study architectural embellishment met with a lot of enthusiasm among faculty and administration.  India has a way of being miserable one moment and fantastic the next. All this made returning next year a good choice for me.

My friend Peggy Dickinson  has a message mounted in her studio that says "you never know what is happening till later".  As I reflect back over the experiences of the past six months, I feel fortunate to have Arcata as a home base. From Humboldt County  I can venture out to the rest of the world and walk along many roads I didn't take in the past. It feels good to have resolved an old conflict about roads not takes and be pleased with the life I did choose.

My present opportunity to spend the next six months in Humboldt County then return to do research documenting desert artwork that is so beautiful it makes my heart jump. It seems to me that the road not taken forty years ago has merged with the one I did take. Now, I get the best of both worlds.

I look forward to having really good coffee at Brio, checking out the farmers market, reconnecting with friends and doing some design work as well. I have missed the challenge of designing buildings and look forward to getting back to work.

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