Mississippi

the death of abstraction

Mississippi was a culture shock both coming and going. Returning to Champaign from Clarksdale yesterday was almost as strange an experience as heading south was last Sunday. I’m sitting here, still tired and a little bemused after a enlightening, confusing, and frustrating week. I’m still sorting through my thoughts, trying to organize them into something coherent, but it’s difficult. The entire experience can be approached from so many different angles and perspectives that it’s hard to even know how to look at things, much less know what to make of what I see. But you’ve got to try.

Mississippi was largely a lesson in the concretion of abstractions. Yes, I know that there are hosts of destitute people living in shitty houses; yes, I know what these areas roughly look like; yes, I know the people who live in many of them in the area we were are black; yes, I have a preconceived notion of the face of this culture – but they are only concepts only, not realities. Driving through Clarksdale, though, and looking at something very, very real changes the way you have to think about these things. Most of the filters are removed – what you’re seeing is no longer presented through a television or a radio but instead a rolled down car window and fifteen feet of air.

Without the safety of conceptualization, then, I am forced to try to come up with explanations. Why are there $1,000 dollar rims on a shitty old station wagon in front a dilapidated old house? Why are people paying $400 a month for that house? Why is the unemployment rate nearly 75% here? Why are elected officials mostly white in a state that’s mostly black? I think of answers, but they’re rarely convincing.

Seeing all that is wrong in this area really makes you want to do something about it. Habitat does do something, and it feels good. I tend to focus on system change – what we need to fix in order for people to not be faced with these problem in the future. Such idealism, however, does not do much to help the people suffering right now. Sometimes you’ve got to knuckle down and dig in, fix as much as you can and hope it’s doing some good.

Going down for a week was a lot of fun, and I certainly feel as if we accomplished something. But coming home, now, makes me feel like I’m living a life that isn’t real at all. Some people said they felt selfish, since their lives are centered around their self-betterment and education. I feel some of that, but don’t really feel selfish so much as just misdirected and ineffectual. I want to start doing something practical, real, and immediate. I’ve been feeling like I’m wasting the present hoping it’ll make a better future a lot lately, and in the past week that feeling has grown even more acute. A part of me wants to take a year off and spend it in Mississippi with Habitat, where I can actually see that what I’m doing is useful, rather than rushing off to college and trying to fill my head with more things I barely even want to know. Hell, these days I sometimes feel like I’d rather take a year off and just spend it working 9 to 5, making money and hopefully doing some work I kind of like, instead of going to college right away. I’d rather bury the abstraction and live in any kind of reality for a while because my diet of living for the future is starting to starve me.

Seeing the Uni alumnae working in Mississippi now only reaffirms my desire to spend a year working. Nathalie, Kathleen, and Kate all struck me as so adult, so competent, and so well adapted to the radically alien culture they were immersed in that I couldn’t help but be a bit inspired. Perception of age is all relative, but it’s hard to believe they’re roughly as old as I am. As I get older I don’t really feel much like it. The people in the grades below me always seem a little young and the people who were in school above me seem like they’ve always been more mature, even when they were doing the things I’m doing now. But I digress.

More to come later, as I organize my thoughts further (perhaps in a more coherent manner than this time around).

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