Monday, May 21, 2012

On Unexpected Change: A Spring 2012 Life Update

Most children live incredibly structured lives. Even if a kid’s home life is in disarray, structure can be found in school. After preschool, there is kindergarten. After kindergarten, there are all the other elementary grades. After all those elementary grades, there is middle school. After middle school, there’s high school. After high school, for many people, there’s college. The next step is usually known.

After that is where it starts to get dicey. Contemporary children are living increasingly structured lives and facing an increasingly unstructured world when they become adults. Many struggle to navigate the transition. All eventually come to realize that life is full of unexpected changes, and that our own plans for our lives are often too big, too small, or just not right when compared to our ultimate destinies.

I can now add myself to their ranks. In my life, I always knew what the next step was. Leaving college, it’s easy to see why I was attracted to a program like MTR. If I joined, I’d know exactly what I was doing for the next four, maybe even forty, years- I’d be living out my life dream of being a teacher in a high-need school, in the really cool and awesome city that is Memphis.

As the earlier posts to this blog reveal, I had every intention of doing just that, and with MTR. But, life is messy, and complicated. This blog is not the appropriate place to get into specifics (but I’d be happy to share them with you personally, if you want to know), but for various reasons my time with MTR ended with my graduation two days ago.

As hard as the process leading up to this decision has been, I know that it is the right move and I feel a sense of peace about it. While I have learned much this year and believe that my time in Memphis has not been wasted, sometimes it is just time to move on.

Later this week, I will be moving back to Western New York and facing an uncertain future from there. Maybe I’ll road trip this summer, and maybe I won’t; maybe I’ll teach next year, and maybe I won’t; maybe my new destiny is teaching at an independent school or going the PhD-and-try-to-find-a-job-in-academia route, as so many have encouraged me to do. Or, maybe not. For the first significant time in my life, I don’t know what is going to come next.

I don’t know.

What a beautiful and terrifying sentence that is! I’ve never faced this much uncertainty before and, I have to admit, it’s kind of exciting, not having to live within a pre-ordained structure and plan. A literal world of options awaits me! The thought is at once freeing and overwhelming.

Out of this bittersweet transition comes what I recognize now to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The seemingly inconsequential choices I make now could determine how the rest of my life pans out. Right now, the only thing I really feel like a “master” at is being a student- which could turn out well if I do end up pursuing that PhD path. I’m not at a point where I’m able to enter into that completely wholeheartedly, though, and I need a break from school in any case. And in everything else…I’m still an enthusiastic amateur.  I’m an enthusiastic amateur pianist and composer. I’m an enthusiastic amateur writer and aspiring novelist. I’m an enthusiastic amateur teacher. There are various other things I enjoy a little. There are many things I have still to learn and explore and discover.

I pray that I would make the right choices and use my time well.

I envision the next several years of my life being filled with a lot of uncertainty and hopefully a lot of adventures. There will be a lot of challenges, and hopefully some triumphs. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do much learning, living, laughing, and loving- wherever I am and whatever I am doing.

Whatever I am doing in this next, unexpected but right, season of my life, it will not be chronicled here. There is no reason for me to keep up a blog called “Mateo in Memphis” when I’m no longer living in Memphis. When it comes time to publicly chronicle some more of my adventures, I’ll let you all know.

To anyone out there who might be reading this- thank you for following my year. Thank you for your love and your support and your encouragement, even and especially during the darker, harder times. Thank you for giving me a place other than Twitter and Facebook to flesh out my thoughts and this year’s adventures. I appreciate and love you all. Memphians, I’ll miss you but you will still be in my heart and the relationships we have developed will continue. Californians, I hope to make it home soon. Northerners, I’m excited about returning to your part of the world and seeing you all very, very soon.

I wish I had a more profound way to end this blog post, but I can’t think of any, so…for now, Tilford out.

Peace, love, and history. :)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

On the Road

Wanderlust (n.)- A strong or irresistible impulse to travel.

For various reasons, I recently decided that it was high time for me to jump in the car and go on a little unplanned adventure for a couple days. I figured I’d share some thoughts and observations from my sojourn here.

First, a summary. This adventure ended up taking me South out of Memphis down U.S. Highway 61 into “the land of the Delta Blues,” and then to Vicksburg National Military Park. From there, I crossed over the Mighty Mississippi into Northern Louisiana, and turned northward again at Tallulah up U.S. Highway 65. I paused for the night in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and then traveled the next day on to Hot Springs and the National Park there. Finally, I turned east and made my way back to Memphis, by way of Little Rock.

The first thing I was reminded of on the way out of town is that Memphis is actually quite a sprawling city. It feels like a bunch of small towns that decided to get together and call themselves a city. I spend so much of my time in Midtown and East Memphis that sometimes it’s all too easy to forget about the rest of the city. And, the rest of the city is where the real need is. Besides the obvious poverty, much of the landscape isn’t all that visually appealing. There was a great example of this that I didn’t get a picture of, so a written description will have to do. On the outskirts of the city, I drove past a Shell gas station that was now literally a boarded up, abandoned shell. In the parking lot there was an African-American guy grilling away on a huge barbeque next to his pickup truck. Classic Memphis.

A common observation along the trip was that there are subtle differences between states. I first felt this when I thought, “this feels like Mississippi now,” and, sure enough, around the next bend there was a “Welcome to Mississippi” sign. Some of this can be explained by differences in road signs. Mississippi welcomes you to each new town with a sign noting the “Corp. Limit.” Louisiana somehow decided it would be a good idea to post mile markers along the interstate every .2 miles, rather than the customary 1 (your tax dollars at work). Arkansas notes the population on each town’s sign, while the other states do not.

It seems to me, though, that there is a more intangible difference between the states that goes beyond street signs and reaches into the realm of the historical and spiritual. When I pulled off U.S. 61 into Clarksdale, Mississippi I felt like I was taking a step back in time, and not in a good way. From the old-school, but apparently still open, Greyhound station, to the lone police car circling the deserted streets, the place reeked of a racist past and possibly corrupt present. The place creeped me out and I couldn’t wait to leave, although I paused long enough to see the Delta Blues Museum before doing so. It was worth a visit, but just barely.

Much of the rest of the country looks down on Mississippi with barely disguised disdain. It is one of the, if not the, poorest, unhealthiest, and least educated states in the country, and its brutal racist past certainly doesn’t help its image any. Unfortunately, my limited time in the Mississippi Delta didn’t do much to change these perceptions for me. I stopped at a gas station in some random place and felt painfully aware that I was the only white person in visible proximity. Last semester I worked at a school that was 99% African-American, and never once did I feel so uncomfortable there as I did at that little gas station. The woman working the cash register inside gave me what might well be the worst costumer service, if you could call it that, which I have ever experienced. She treated me as though I clearly did not belong and as if she had half a mind not to serve me at all. Some of the African-American teens loitering around outside were shouting what sounded as if they could have been racial slurs. Once again, I felt creeped out and couldn’t wait to move on.

I don’t think I’d ever want to live in the Mississippi Delta. And yet, the place has a certain seductiveness beneath its darkness that is undeniable. I understand why people would want to go there, and stay there. And I certainly recognize the region’s undeniably prodigious contributions to our nation’s history, literature, and music. Maybe my perceptions were colored by my knowledge of its dark past and my solitary mind playing tricks on me. I don’t know, but I am glad to have spent a bit of time in the region, even if I won’t be running back anytime soon.

Vicksburg National Military Park was great. If Gettysburg marked the turning point of the U.S. Civil War in the North, Vicksburg surely was the turning point in the South. One of the highlights for me was the Cairo, the first ship sunk by a torpedo during the battle, and which has since been raised and restored (photo below).

I can see why the Confederacy chose the city as a major defense point. The city sits atop a high bluff, and the terrain is quite rugged. Honestly, I am surprised that the Union was able to capture it at all. Surely their victory is a testament to raw courage and perseverance, and possibly to just being on the right side of history. Such victory came at quite a cost, as the cemetery filled with unmarked graves reminded me.