The Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Date: January 13th, 2008
To: Undisclosed recipients
Re: A Year in Review....
"For thought is a bird of space that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly."
--Kahlil Gilbran, The Prophet
In many ways, I feel like a cat that has lived at least nine lifetimes. And although these different lifetimes are all now "over" they have left me with countless reasons to smile...tons of things to philosophize about...trillions of fragmented thoughts...millions of new interests...thousands of lessons to grow from...hundreds of people I'm indebted to...a dozen new hobbies...a handful of extremely close friends...a lot more quirks...a little less naivety...and one final mass-email to write!
You might expect that three months of "nothingness" would have given me sufficient time to craft the perfect conclusion to the Epic Saga that -- to date -- has quite literally consumed more than two full years of my life. But no such luck! And I suppose Calvin & Hobbes speak-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth in saying that, "There is never enough time to do all the nothing you want!"
This email has been slowly simmering on my back burner for quite some time now. But in lieu of bringing it to the point of satisfaction-filled completion ...I've postponed the inevitable by welcoming all distractions...taking numerous diversions...and extending my self-imposed deadline, twice. Many times I've booted-up my computer with the best of intentions...only to find myself incapable of doing anything beyond browsing my photographs while listening to Cat Stevens sing the song, "Oh Baby Baby, It's a Wild World." In sheer disbelief...I have to question, "Did I really see that with my own eyes?" On multiple occasions I've even surfed my own webpage only to feel as if I am reading about someone else's journey...and it makes me wonder, "Has this really been my life?"
Truth be told, the only time this whole thing doesn't feel surreal is when I open one of my three personal journals. There I find words that are candid and frank, pages that are filled with my unrefined thoughts and my incredibly raw emotions. My journals jog my memory and transport me back. They pinch me, confirming that this all wasn't just some dream; that it actually happened and that it was very real. But my internal validation is short-lived seeing as I still can't bring myself to read more than a page or two before having to snap them shut and walk away.
But a new year is upon us all! And in this new year...this little kitty cat is beginning yet another new lifetime! And so...the time has come for me to now "conclude"...for you all and at least for the moment...my previous nine. And the place is right here...in Nashville...in the same coffee shop where I first told my best friend about the Keegan...where I spent countless hours concocting my proposal for my dream trip around the world...where I walked after my interview and where I was when I got the phone call from Vice Chancellor Stahl...and where Amy and I then went that evening for a celebratory cup of tea!
So here I go...once (but probably not) and for all. And here it is...For me, so I can finally complete the circle and then begin again, on a new trajectory. And for you...for you to proceed with now or later...for you to love or loathe...for you to concur or disagree...for you...for whatever it may be worth.
I suppose I could "concisely" and "precisely" summate my year by saying that it was, "A Pretty Sweet Gig." Beyond that...well...I could probably offer you a million different sentiments about a million different things. But instead of being like that song that never ends...and just going on and on my friend...I've mulled over the big picture to unearth what I think is the moral of the story...to bid you adieu with...
It has been brought to my attention -- on multiple occasions by many people -- that environmentalists are extremely good at complaining about a problem but horrible when it comes to actually proposing a solution. But in the midst of our on-going national environmental debate -- I do hear answers fluttering around the arena. And aside from 'innovative new technologies'...the answers to our many ailments seem to all share a strikingly similar format: The solution to the problem with resource X is to NOT to do Y. And in NOT doing Y -- you are conserving X -- thus solving the problem with resource X (i.e. Water issues can be solved by NOT watering your lawn, the rainforest in South America can be saved by NOT eating McDonalds, the fossil fuel crisis will be solved by NOT driving SUVs!).
And these abounding answers all sound similar because they all stem from a 'problem' that is presented to (and conceived by) the vast majority to be as follows: Our lifestyles are fundamentally incompatible with the environment. And the accompanying 'solution' that is then presented to (and conceived by) the vast majority is consequently: To achieve a better world, we must make better personal choices.
Since getting home, I've had a number of people ask me how I reconcile the fact that I got on so many airplanes. And if you too are wondering whether or not I offset my travel-fellowship-carbon-emissions by planting trees or if I gave some non-profit organization money to do so on my behalf...well...the answer is no! I love these sorts of questions because they insinuate that...regardless of whatever I say...my actions demonstrate that I am insincere in my concern. And depending on by whom and how they are posed...it can honestly be a challenge for me to not take them as personal affronts. And I think that this is the dangerous trouble with the entire frame-work of the public debate right now. Environmentalists have done a great job of establishing this direct link between YOU and the world's environmental problems.
For example, the "ecological-footprint quiz" is an educational tool that has been developed so that people can "measure" their personal "impact" on our planet. And so...given the fact that I did do more than my fair share of jet-setting while simultaneously advocating planetary stewardship...I thought that it was important to put myself up to this test...to ask...what impact did I have on our planet this year?
My results: Even if everything else I did over the course of my year was the most environmentally friendly thing possible (i.e. I was a vegan...I only ate food that was ate was unprocessed, unpackaged and locally grown...I lived in a 500 square foot green-design residence without electricity with 7 other people...and covered no over-land distance except by on-foot)...and the only thing I did was fly...it told me that,"If everyone lived like you, we would need 2.8 planets!"
So this calculator is basically telling me...that my travel-fellowship...has actually helped me help destroy the planet?! Hmm...very interesting...
Right now, the overarching message seems to be: You are either part of the solution or part of the problem. And before leaving home...I suppose I more-or-less identified with this school of thought. But here and now...nearly two-years and many miles later...oh how I only wish it were that black and white; oh how I only wish you (and I) were that important...
Don't misunderstand me...I am not discounting the importance of each and every one of us re-thinking our personal daily decisions. But here and now...I honestly don't believe that addressing our problems...by picking this battle...is the best way forward. Such an intense focus on helping other people re-think their personal daily choices...is an approach that more often that not...employs middle-school tactics: finger-pointing, soap-box preaching, and name-calling antics. But we all live in glass-houses! And if you are championing/listening to this sort of rhetoric, then awesome; you are part of the choir! But not everyone is there yet. And I think that scrutinizing someone else is quite possibly the world's worst way to engage them constructively...because it's the world's quickest way to irreversibly turn them (who we need the most) off.
When I titled my project....I had absolutely no idea what I would then get myself into. At the time...all of these complex concepts were very abstract to me. All that I knew...I knew mainly because I had read a lot about these issues. And in the beginning...I honestly did conceieve a world where ecosystems were disappearing and life was rapidly vanishing...and hence, "Our Living World is Dying" seemed very appropriate.
Along the way...I slowly began to realize that by focusing on this topic...I had also inadvertently taken on the largest planetary issue that we face; the one of change. And more than anything, my travels have made me keenly aware and profoundly appreciative of the transitive nature of everything. For the longest time, I had a very hard time coping with the idea that things change. But sometime over the course of my year...I noticed myself actually appreciating things precisely because they wouldn't last forever. The things that I was finding the most alluring...like the sunset...were the fleeting ones. They were the ones that I could chase...but the things that I never could quite capture.
Spending some of my nothing-filled post-fellowship hours...I roamed around the Smithsonian in DC and stumbled upon the 2007 Nature's Best Photography Exhibit. Admiring all of those photographs...and I think to myself, "What a Wonderful World!"
Mid-way through the exhibit...I came to an underwater picture of a whale. I immediately gazed into its eye and recognized it as a Dwarf Minke. Then I looked at the title to see that it was taken on the Great Barrier Reef ! I was numb-struck, "I have literally been inside this photo!" After a minute...I looked at the caption...and then I furiously fumbled around my backpack for my journal so I could scribble it down... it read, "It was an unforgettable experience to be so close to these highly intelligent marine mammals." It hit me like a train and I had to sit down. I plopped myself on the nearest bench...and there I sat for quite sometime...arms and legs crossed...one hand over my mouth.
Just like whoever took that particular picture...I can show you my pictures...and I can try communicate such a moment in words...but you will never truly understand what swimming with a Dwarf Minke Whale on the Great Barrier Reef is like...unless you actually go there and do it yourself. Sorry...I can't give you my experiences.
We have long passed the era of oral tradition. Today -- we are incredibly talented photographers and incredibly articulate writers. We have concrete documentation which will forever immortalize what is/was. And I don't want to pass on just marvelous pictures. And I don't want to pass on just descriptive words. What I do want to pass on, is the ability for people to have such experiences themselves.
We live in a world where we are incessantly trying to capture everything. And I think this...more than our lifestyles...is what makes our human world incompatible with our natural one. Perhaps the objective shouldn't be to change ourselves so that our world won't change. Because we cannot capture anything...and while we are busily pursuing the impossible...what we aren't chasing is slipping away...
And so getting back where this all began...I find the idea that 'you can help save the world'...'by not going anywhere' to be a particularly frightening proposition. Our experience of the world is already incredibly mediated. As was said this summer at IHS, 'We don't go drill glaciers, we read about it.'
"So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that."
-- Good Will Hunting (Thanks Dad)
I realize that I wasn't out there in the world discovering anything novel or profound...but I was discovering things for myself. And my fellowship brought me to some of the most breathtaking places on this planet and I was able to see some of the most spectacular things imaginable. And the most powerful thing that I discovered was that...by choosing to make environmental issues a life long pursuit...I certainly will not be able to freeze time nor capture anything...but at least...it will allow me to chase beauty in a world that many people too often say is so incredibly ugly.
When people ask me what I've been up to since I graduated... I am not quick to reveal my fellowship. I usually just say, "I did some traveling" so I can then monitor their response. Every once in a while...someone's eyes will light up. But more often than not...people are utterly unimpressed. They lack any ounce of enthusiasm and often flash a fake smile. They conclude: I've been irresponsibly avoiding the real world. Then suddenly if I mention the fellowship...well...what I did suddenly becomes the most amazing thing ever. Through my experiment...I have been dually horrified to learn how culturally (a) undervalued travel is and (b) hard it is to justify just doing things for their own sake.
And much more than $15,000...this fellowship gave me time. And that priceless gift allowed me to enjoy my youth and it has helped me grow. I was given time off the clock and off the grid; I was excused from doing anything myself so that I could instead just observe other people doing their thing. I had time to pursue the context. I had time to listen to the stories of strangers, to hear from people of all ages and walks of life. I had time to accept invitations. I had time walk in the direction that other people pointed me and time to read that which they put in my hand. I was given time to see things as they are, not as how they aren't or how I wanted them to be. I had time to comprehend just how much is beyond me and time to then figure out what actually is within my reach. I had time to realize that nothing needs saving, but that everything could use a little nurturing. I had time to gaze at the clouds, stare at the stars, and smell the flowers. I had time to look outwards, forwards, backwards, and inwards. I had time to explore parts of the world, and myself, that I didn't even know existed. I had time to relish the road, to treat motion itself as the end. I had time to dream...time to kill...time to wander. I had time to challenge and be challenged....to question and be questioned. I had time to laugh and to understand why it really is the shortest distance between two people. I had time to fall in love with the world...to become disenchanted with it...and then to fall harder a second time. I had time to realize that the world won't ever end, but that everday it unfortunately does fall apart for far too many people. I had time to do the things that are timely. And I had time to operate on a different wavelength; to live for the 'here and now' instead of the 'then and there'.
But we live in a society where time is of the essence...and one in which it is very hard to justify (to the bank, to your parents, to your peers, to your employers, and even to yourself) taking it for yourself. Apparently this notion is just plain 'absurd'. And as I said above...I was given time. Deciding to take it...or to make it...for yourself....just for its own sake...is indeed a much rougher...but nonetheless valuable...road.
"It's a beautiful day, don't let it get away"--U2.
And it's a beautiful world, don't let it get away either. So if you really want to do something...I personally think you should start by doing nothing! Because time has the power to trivialize many of the things you do anyway, but it certainly will only enhance the time you took to do the no-things. So throw out everything you think you know...get on a plane...and go on your own wild-goose hunt. Our planet is more spectacular than anything our mind could even bein to imagine...and when more people actually start chasing its' beauty...well...I think that's when really cool things are going to happen... (regardless of whatever the "ecological footprint quiz" might lead you to believe).
So you see...I don't want to just show you my pictures. I don't want to just tell you about it. What I really want...is for you to get out there and experience it for yourself...because the world is so incredibly cool. And because if the answer requires "thinking outside of the box"...well...then as they say...being aware that the box even exists is indeed a pretty good first-step...
Last week began with me having to be somewhere at a certain time for the first time in nearly 20 months (Yes, it was yikes!). Held at Vanderbilt, it was a Symposium and Celebration honoring Frank L. Parker, Distinguished Professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering. It was titled, "Uncertainty in Long-Term Planning; Nuclear Waste Management, a Case Study." One of the lectures began with the presenter asking the question, "What does stewardship look like? What is our responsibility to future generations?" And he said something to the effect of, 'The answer is simple, it looks like Frank's career; it's relentlessly devoting your energy and talent to advancing knowledge and then transferring it.'
"According to the economics Nobel laureate Robert Solow, the questions of how much we can allow ourselves to use of this or that resource is a "damagingly narrow way to pose the question." The issue is not that we should secure all specific resources for all future generations -- for this is indeed impossible -- but that we should leave the future generations with knowledge and capital, such that they can obtain a quality of life at least as good as ours, all in all."
-- Bjorn Lombord, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (p. 119)
No one is shouting this from the moutain top...but after my expedition...this is that which I conclude...since it is perhaps the only notion with which I can utterly and completely concur.
So this joe, this bule, this gringa will leave you with that...
But not before disagreeing with Cat Stevens...and telling you that it's easier than you may think to get by on a smile...
And offering her bottoms-up toast to all her friends around the blue planet, especially the crew of the Heraclitus...
And then...after her 9 lifetimes lived...on what should have been the 8th day of January...with 7 swans-a-swimming...
She will sign over and out to her epic saga with three French hens...
She will seal her final two-cents with two big smooches...
And upon delivery...she'll meow and make-a-wish...of synergizing it all into one; one lifetime of giving her time to doing something in light of the time she was given to do nothing...(Details: TBD)
That she & (her aesthetically pleasing wingman) B are...
Sincerely...indebtedly...and still incredibly mal-adjustedly,
"You have given me my deeper thirsting after life. Surely there is no greater gift to man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain."
-- Kahlil Gilbran, The Prophet