Making The Connections

To understand the links between themselves and the world,
this family went on the road

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 54
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Victor Nelson, in his article in this issue on hospitality and the family [Hospitable Families]wrote of how the treatment we extend to strangers and guests in the home can serve as a model for strengthening support within the family. The four members of the Collis family, on the other hand, were themselves strangers and guests in the homes of families all over the globe. As you might imagine, there is much to be learned from both ends of the equation.

In 1986-87 the Collises – Roger, Katherine, Lara and Taran – spent 11 months traveling through 16 countries. The complete story of their adventures would fill volumes; here Katherine focuses on why they decided to go around the world, and how it changed them. It seems fitting to end this issue with her account, since families are the "home base" from which we all venture out to meet the world around us.

Roger and Katherine Collis are the founders of the Pacifica Foundation, a non-profit organization working to improve and strengthen human understanding and international cooperation. They sponsor citizen-to-citizen tours in China, the USSR, South Africa, and East Asia – including an upcoming trip to China cosponsored by Context Institute and scheduled for October 1989. Roger is also coordinating the development of programs in international education for Antioch University, Seattle. Their daughters Lara (16) and Taran (10) have returned to school. To contact Pacifica Foundation about their tours or newsletter, write Katherine at 225 Mt. Rainier Place, Issaquah, WA 98027.

Something about our lives was not quite right. As we would sit down at the dinner table – the only meal we managed to eat together, given our four very different schedules – it was apparent that we were not really present to each other or to the moment. Every motion, idea, or bit of conversation was just a running step to the next thing: "Got a call to make," "Can you drive me to Becky’s?", "Have to finish my homework," "The laundry needs doing," "I’ve got to get to this meeting by 7:30." Rush, hurry, scatter. "Not now!"

But this was just normal life; all the busyness was a sign of the creativity and health natural to a family with kids our age. The never-ending carpools, expenditures, tomorrows – we were a normal American family in the 1980s. So why did I feel something wasn’t right?

Our values and our work were worthy: we believed in the "interconnectedness of all life," read "cutting edge" magazines, supported numerous groups and causes. Our lifestyle was relatively simple: we didn’t overspend, we recycled, our activities seemed creative without being excessive or overly ambitious. We certainly weren’t yuppies. We hiked on weekends, ate pancakes on Sunday morning, and watched Bill Cosby every Thursday night. We were a happy family – or so I thought.

Yet there was something about that dinner table. Pineapple from Hawaii. Tea from India. Mugs from Taiwan. Chopsticks from China. Bananas from Costa Rica. Apples from New Zealand. Table mats from Yugoslavia. It got me thinking.

Our car was made in Germany; Taran’s new shoes in Korea; our sheets in Hong Kong. The toilet paper came from Canadian forests. My favorite sweater came from Scotland, Roger’s from Peru, Lara’s from Italy, and Taran’s from the Philippines. Everything electronic, from the TV to the calculator, seemed to come from Japan.

And there were those constant voices in the background: boycott South African investments; send money to famine relief agencies in Ethiopia; don’t buy McDonalds hamburgers. Save the rainforests, the endangered species, the ozone layer. Toxic waste, acid rain, water pollution . . . .

I realized it had do with connections – or with a lack of making them. Lara’s school, which bored her stiff, certainly didn’t help her understand one’s relationship to global warming or nuclear arms buildup. How much did any of us really know about the global economy we were a part of, or about the earth itself? Our ideas and good intentions were coming up short in the face of the actual reality of our daily lives. So how do you make the connections? How do you bridge the gap between suburban life and global concerns?

As we started discussing this, we realized that our discontent was not just personal. No matter how much we prided ourselves on being a unique family, we were part of the culture and subject to its influence. The more we became aware of this, the more discontent we felt, because the culture itself was highly unconscious. How can we make connections when we’re so preoccupied with images, consumerism, television, addictions?

One thing we could do was break the pattern and do something radically different. Something we had always fantasized about. Something "crazy." Something that would allow us to spend more time together, learn together, work together to increase our international awareness and intercultural understanding. Something that would allow us to see the world – together.

Once we had decided as a family to travel for a year (for we each needed to feel good about the decision to make it work), things moved ahead very quickly. We were all four involved from the beginning of our preparations – much of which consisted of discarding apprehensions as we became better informed about where we were going.

The finances, which at first seemed the great obstacle, began to look more manageable as we researched inexpensive air flights and living costs in the countries we planned to visit. Without any great unforeseen expenses, we figured the trip would cost less than many new cars do! So instead of putting our savings into a down payment on a house, we were going to travel around the world.

One of the most interesting by-products of our decision was having to consider the girls’ education while traveling. Taran’s writing and math requirements could easily be met with help from Roger and I. Lara was insistent that she not fall behind a year, so we sat down with the people at our local school district and planned a curriculum for her. As long as she put in the appropriate hours in each subject and submitted her work for review upon our return, she had a good chance of moving on to the 10th grade.

For Lara, this involvement in creating her own curriculum and taking more responsibility for her own learning proved to be one of the most challenging yet most growth-producing aspects of the trip. And any hesitations we had about Taran’s being too young for such an experience were soon dissolved in light of her ability to interact with others and entertain herself. Take away the TV, toys, and structured activities, and what did she have? A lot! An endless imagination and an ability to mimic. She taught Roger and I that kids behave as you expect them to. Widen the boundaries of expectation and you’ll be pleasantly surprised – and this applies to more than just kids.

For all four of us, the world had suddenly become a school room. Every person we met was the teacher. Their stories, homes, ways of life, communities, natural settings and historical sites were our textbooks. Even waiting at airports was a chance to practice patience, or to hold an impromptu math class in conversion between currencies. Indeed the whole trip was a training in attentiveness, and every situation was an opportunity to be patient, observe, and be present to what was going on around us.

Another by-product of traveling was the change that occurred in our family’s structure. Lara and Taran – six and a half years apart – began to interact and play together more than they ever had. (Then again, they were each other’s only source of companionship.) The authority and decision-making roles passed out of the hands of Roger and I and onto the family as a whole, as we held "family meetings" in which each of us had a say. As the trip progressed, we watched the girls grow in their responsibility and confidence.

We often held these family meetings when the going got tough. We also had planning meetings, schoolwork meetings, even what-can-we-eat and what-can-we-buy meetings. The agreement was that any one of us could call a family meeting whenever we felt a need. Likewise, we had agreed that if any one of us was really unhappy with the trip and wanted to return to the U.S., we would support that person’s need and cut the trip short.

Calcutta. Cesspit of the world, the earth’s greatest slum. Our first stop in India after four months in Britain, Europe and Southern Africa. Roger always says that the heart of the trip really began once we got to India; the four months prior had still been preparation as we worked the kinks out, adjusted our suitcases, and shed baggage – literally and figuratively. In Calcutta we would learn what no other place had taught us.

As we made the hour-long drive from Dum Dum Airport to the city center, we saw enough to turn our perceptions of reality inside out. The driving alone was enough to test one’s faith: the fact that there was not complete mayhem on the streets convinces me that there is a greater force which guides the tides of human life, and Indian taxi drivers are so in tune with it that they have no need to stay in the correct lane or watch where they’re going.

The sacred cows in the roads, crowds on bicycles, a stagnant river where people were washing clothes and bathing, the heat, the smells, the dust and exhaust fumes. We had heard or read about all these things, but the intensity of so many people, so many miles of slums, the mountains of garbage stretching as far as we could see were all overwhelming.

We completed our drive in silence and were greatly relieved to check into our room at the Astor Hotel. We unloaded our bags, closed the door, and locked ourselves in. Even though it was mid-morning, we shut the curtains. Roger and I were exhausted, Taran said she felt sick, and Lara began to cry. If we weren’t holding plane tickets to go on to the north in four days we probably would have turned around and headed back to the airport. Instead we all fell asleep.

When we awoke it was mid-afternoon and we were hungry. Both the girls refused to leave the room; there was no way they were going out into the streets of Calcutta to find lunch. "It’s dirty and it smells," said Taran. Lara threw a tantrum and started to sob again. Roger was restless and irritable. I was feeling guilty that I had ever thought of bringing my daughters to such a place and possibly damaging them for life. It was time for a "family meeting."

Lara had called us together. I thought to myself, "Here it comes!" But to my surprise Lara did not mention leaving at all. Instead, she shared what she had been feeling – the pain, the repulsion, the fear and disgust, all the emotions that had been stirred by what she saw from the taxi window. "You know," she said, her face all red and blotchy from crying, "I don’t really know what’s out there. I only know what I think it’s like, and I think it’s terrible. I suppose the only way to find out is to go walk around and see."

"Yeah," chimed in Taran. "There might be one nice thing about Calcutta, and we would never know what it was if we just stayed in here all the time."

In India it seems that life in all its aspects is happening in the streets. Things that in America are contained in institutions or hidden behind closed doors – insanity, deformity, aging, and death – are all out in the open. A body covered with a white cloth, waiting for the undertaker’s truck on the steps of a church or the curb of the street, is not an uncommon sight. Poverty is not concentrated in the slums or inner cities but rather sprinkled throughout this confusing lifescape. We realized that much of our culture shock was from being exposed to things we had seldom encountered before.

Our first outing exposed us to this raw panoply of life, lifting us beyond the immediate negative reactions we’d had earlier. What was black and white before began to take on color. We walked for five hours along streets and through marketplaces, encountering beggars, shop keepers, students, shoppers, street people, artisans. We had tea in a corner stall, met a lovely Indian woman in her 40s who spoke English, and got chaperoned around the city that was her home, the city she loved. She noticed that Taran’s sandal strap was broken, negotiated the price of a new pair with a shop keeper, and asked nothing in return.

As night descended the streets bustled with activity as people began setting up pots and pans along the sidewalks to cook their evening meals. Fires were lit. The smell of food filled the air. Musicians were playing on streetcorners or in the doors of buildings, and through a brilliantly decorated gateway we saw a wedding celebration. There was much laughter. We followed some people who had been picking up garbage into a side street where they dumped their baskets of litter into huge mounds. Women, children, and two cows sorted through each load brought in, leaving nothing to waste.

As we headed to bed that night none of us spoke, though the silence did not signal disturbance. Rather it was a silence of listening – listening to voices and messages and images which we had never heard or seen before. A silence which meant we were opening.

The next morning we began preparing for another adventure. In the bathroom I carefully opened all the ziploc bags that held our precious four-month supply of vitamins, garlic tablets, cayenne pepper capsules, acidophilos pills and other sundry remedies to ward off parasites, bacteria, and viruses. I had spent more time and money on these packets than anything else we brought with us, including camera equipment – not to mention the space they took up in my suitcase. After putting together four little piles, I methodically carried them into the bedroom with a thermos of boiled water and personally saw them delivered down the throat of each family member.

I had just swallowed my own vitamin C when there was a tremendous crash in the bathroom. We all rushed in to see what had happened, and to my horror we found the entire lot of opened ziploc bags face down in the toilet. All our capsules were floating around happily and dissolving into the water of Calcutta’s sewers. To this day I cannot figure out how the wind blew hard enough to swing the window open and knock my full collection of bags not onto the floor below, but out across the room into the toilet.

Roger, Lara and Taran rolled on the floor in hysterics while I stood frozen with my mouth wide open. Yet somewhere in the far reaches of my consciousness, below the threshold of shock, I knew this was somehow connected to being in India, to letting go, to seeing beyond the surface of things, to having faith, to trusting. It was somehow connected to those crazy taxi drivers.

The next three days brought many adventures in the city. We visited the orphanages, soup kitchens and hospices of the Sisters of Mercy (Mother Teresa’s order). We befriended the Sen family, ate in their home, went to temple with them, played games and shared school work with the children. We explored museums and historical sites and even ventured into some of the slum areas written about by Dominique Lapierre in The City of Joy, a book that I highly recommend.

Roger and I often wondered how some of these sights affected Taran. One evening after we had returned to the hotel, Taran disappeared into the bathroom for what seemed like ages. Roger called to her but she assured him she was alright and that she just wanted to be left alone. About fifteen minutes later the door swung open slowly, and out crawled Taran. Her ankles were carefully tied up to her waist and tucked under her pants (a feat possible only because she is double-jointed). She began to mimic word for word, sound for sound one of the beggars we had met on the streets whose legs had been run over by a train when he was a child. Yet her portrayal of him was not gruesome or pitiful. It was accurate to his character as she perceived it, which was friendly and humorous yet also fully realistic about his disability.

She proceeded to mimic each of the people she had observed in the past few days – a street musician, a hotel clerk, and all sorts of beggars. We realized she was quicker at perceiving people’s characters than we were. For her there was as yet no value judgment placed by outward appearance. She reminded us that we were still wrapped up in our reactions to how people looked rather than who they were. She reminded us that the eyes of a child see things with the freshness of seeing for the first time, not with the hardening of the mind produced by memory and the conditioning of experience.

She also had us rolling on the bed in stitches.

On our last evening we were joined by our good friend Marion Nelson, with whom we would travel to Darjeeling the next day. She asked the girls how they liked Calcutta. Taran said she’d had a good time but "it sure was smelly."

Lara was more thoughtful with her response. "You know what I’ve learned here in Calcutta? That things like love and joy and generosity and caring for others have nothing to do with material wealth. I’ve seen some of the poorest people be so giving and kind, and I’ve seen people who have nothing smile as if they were the happiest people on earth. I’ve seen others be so loving, without any thought of getting anything in return. I always thought that the more you had, the happier and friendlier you’d be. Now I know that real wealth has nothing to do with material wealth. Love and joy and generosity come from something else."

Children are great ambassadors. They will open doors that might otherwise be closed to strangers. The world is used to traveling adults, even in remote areas; but to see a family travel is still a rarity that arouses curiosity where there might otherwise have been suspicion or contempt.

We had countless experiences in every country where some person – usually a woman – would come up to us and begin to interact, touching Taran’s hair, pointing to Lara, seeking to find out who was mother, father, daughter. (Lara, though only 14 years old, is much taller than I.) Inevitably we would be invited into a home to be given tea, a snack, or on some occasions a meal. These experiences in the homes of strangers were the most enjoyable of the trip.

One needs no shared words to speak the language of family and of food. The sharing of food is the sharing of the basic communion of life. The sharing of family is where human communication and contact begins. Children open the doors to both. They stir a natural instinct to care for and nourish each other. We had lived with this concept for years, and with the idea that the path of the householder is a spiritual path. But it is not until you are in a situation where you are a stranger experiencing the generosity of others that the concept lives. It is then that blind faith in the goodness of humankind becomes true knowing.

Our trip helped us make the connections we had all felt were missing. We visited the plantations where foods consumed in America are grown, met the people who lived and worked there, learned about their lives, their feelings, their ways of coping. We saw the stark inequities in quality of life between our societies. We had felt a sense of responsibility to know these people and to see their lives because we’re all interconnected. Despite our great diversity, our futures are intertwined. We are, after all, one human family.

Returning home was the hardest part of the whole journey. Having been out of this country for nearly a year, and coming back from the many countries and environments we had traveled through, was truly a shock. "This is a Disneyland country," Lara observed. "I feel like I stepped out of normal life and into Disneyland, only this is normal life."

It took months to reenter. All those things about this culture that had disturbed me prior to the trip were now standing out clearer and larger than ever before. Everything seemed bizarre, excessive and opulent. Nothing had really changed, except that people seemed busier than ever, and children seemed overwhelmingly involved in the latest fads.

The news seldom mentioned any of the places we had been through, even though we knew there were disturbances. On top of that, we were totally out of touch with a whole year’s worth of media images and movie myths – which were referred to surprisingly often in conversations. It was difficult to move back into the hype and the projection of images and information with which things get done in this society. We felt "out of it."

I suppose there is a part of us that will always feel discontent with the way things are; but now we know how to use this discontentment to infuse our work with inspiration and direction. Like a burr under the saddle, it keeps waking us up whenever we slip into sleep. Not only has our understanding of other cultures grown, but we’ve also learned to feel more tolerance and compassion for our own.

We’ve settled in again. In many ways our lives look the same as they did before we left. I still carpool, Roger still goes to meetings, the girls are still active with school and friends. Yet now we do much less "busy stuff," and what we do take on seems to have more quality and meaning. When we come together around the dinner table we take more time to eat, and it’s not uncommon for us to be found there later, just sitting around, doing nothing in particular together.

Throughout our days and nights there is a growing sense of appreciation and gratitude for simple things. The lessons we learned from traveling are quite relevant to us here and now. Listen, observe, respect. Learn from everything and everyone around you. Then you will make the connections you need to make, then you will know the glue which holds everything together.

We have a faith in the world now – in ourselves, in other people different from ourselves, in the earth, in the future. No longer mere participants in Life, we have become Lovers of Life in all her diversity, and complexity, and beauty.

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