Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Happily Stuck in Mud

Here’s a little confession that won’t surprise anyone who knows me or reads these blogs. There’s some little switch in my mind that turns the simplest little act into a blueprint for future world peace and harmony. It’s the thing that makes me vulnerable to romanticizing cultures and has me wishing that all the world would educate like Finland, would eat three-hour dinners with family and friends like Spain, would create a life filled with meaning and connection through arts, ceremonies and rituals like Bali. (And don’t feel left out, all my friends from different cultures— there’s something from everywhere if I kept going.)

But the danger in such over-generalizations are several:

     1)   Once someone lifts the rug to see what has been swept under or opens the closet door to
reveal the hidden skeletons, it tends to negate all the very real positives.
     2)   Even if a culture created a shadow-free utopia (which it can’t), another culture can’t simply          imitate it. Doesn’t work, never will.
     3)   Most the gifts of culture are invisible to the people living in them, the water in which they          swim, the air which they breathe. Tell them they’re living in paradise and they’ll look at you          puzzled.

Of course, such grand, sweeping appreciations of the big and small gestures of distinct cultures are far better than the historical dismissals and put-downs and condescending charity attitudes and forced conversions, be they economic, political or religious. They probably help inch the world toward better living, but what would be yet more effective?

This is on my mind because once again I’m struck by this extraordinary island of Bali, not only the physical beauty and care in presentation and vibrant and alive arts scene (which isn’t a scene at all, but simply the way the Balinese have always lived), but by the overall lightness and humor and smiles and apparent happiness of the people.

Today Talia and I came upon a fancy hotel in our wanderings and started walking a cinder-block path through the adjoining rice fields that petered out. We adventurously tried walking on the edges of the terraces and close to our destination of the hotel road, got stuck in some mud. A hotel worker on the other side came close with an ear-to-ear smile and suggested that it might be too slippery for us to pass. We were all laughing about it.

I can imagine a long list of cultures and sub-cultures (anonymous for now) where such a man would have yelled at us to get the hell off the property or shout at us and tell us we were idiots or shake his head in disbelief at our stupidity. Instead we shared a laugh, turned around and made our way back.

So back to my question. What makes these people so damn happy? One thing that seems true is that the island is abundant with enough food and there is very little evidence of big disparities in wealth. All the compounds seem similar in size—no McMansions or tin huts that we can see. Probably changing a bit now with the influx of tourism, but in all cultures a well-fed middle class with neither extreme wealth nor extreme poverty makes for a happier social setting all around. (I’ll qualify this by saying none of this is backed up by extensive research, but just our impressions walking in and around town, both now and in my previous two trips).

I know nothing about economics or how to effect change in that realm. But the other realm— of a culture alive with music and dance and sculpture and painting and artful handiwork in everything from folding a banana leaf to hold food to elaborate palm-leaf origami-like decorations for the temples— brings a sense of belonging and cohesion and connectedness and spiritual uplift that simply can’t be achieved through economic means alone. And that is very much in my realm of teaching music in a school. Both directly and indirectly, Bali—and Brazil and the African diaspora and many other cultures— have informed the community and ceremonial life of The San Francisco School. And I believe it has helped increase the happiness of both the children who go there and the staff that teach there.

As for Bali, the geometric rise of tourism could have been the Coke bottle that sent the Gods crazy, but my first impression returning 28 years later is that it hasn’t. But who am I to say? I’m just happy that a man smiled and laughed with us about being stuck in mud. Maybe I should just leave it at that.

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