Six strings to be played by five fingers…

What we do defines who we are.        – Across the Universe

Six strings to be played by
Five fingers
For me to express myself
Three chances to get it right, that’s
Too many when you’ve only got
One life to live …                               – Jens Olsgaard, 2006.8

It feels odd to be writing again, casting my personal thoughts out over the mysterious pathways of the interwebs for all to see. Or none – that’s the beautiful thing about the interwebs. You can be as vital and true or as mysterious and anonymous as you wish. I prefer my vitality, for the moment. It hurts me deeply to think that anonymity allows people to be their true selves, for the anonymity of this media seems to bring out the worst in people. Ask any journalist whose newspaper Web site allows comments without names or registration. It seems this could be more of a Skinner invention than an Al Gore funded-initiative. Maybe it’s embarressingly naive, but I still maintain that people are basically good. I think when I lose that belief, I may well lose the fragile remains of my will to live in moments of inner darkness.

The innate goodness or badness or nothingness of humanity is a painfully thoughtful subject, or so I have been told, but I think it relates deeply to who we are. Does anyone really see themselves as a bad person? Or see themselves as a bad person without intense desire to be better? Is owning some set of characteristics that make us good or bad part of who we are, or is our place on the spectrum of humanity determined by our actions?

When I was listening to Across the Universe this morning as I was grinding glass, the foremost sentiment expressed above was barked in a dispute over university education – what are you going to do with your life? In fact, that seems to be the underlying understanding in the U.S. – you are defined by what you do. Think of how we introduce ourselves: “Nice to meet you; what do you do?” Why is it not “what do you enjoy?” or “what encompasses your life,” or even simply “who are you?” I suppose most Americans would find that line of questioning somewhat discomfitting. I know direct inquiries into things like my salary and my health in China were disconcerting to me. It took me all of two years to adapt to: “What’s wrong with you?” despite the fact that I knew full well it was nothing but an earnest inquiry after my health and a literal translation.

China was not one of them, but I think there must be places in the world where who you are is not defined by your profession. Who you are may very well be defined by what you do … but that is not necessarily synonymous with profession. It’s an issue of identity, which was a huge matter on the forefront of many PCV minds in China, but not one I’m sure occurs often to most of our countrymen. When I ask people questions concerning identity, the nearly comprehensive reaction is discombobulation or wariness. My heart spreads a little each time someone considers the question thoughtfully, and answers with their version of truth. Version, I think, because minute changes occur constantly that forge us into our future versions. When asked to label my identity by three categories in university (sophomore year), I responded that I was a woman, was an educator, and was Roman Catholic.

My, what a difference a few years can make.

When I asked my students in China – a select few, mind you – who they were, they told me that they were daughters, students, Chinese.

Perhaps there isn’t such a difference after all, but that placement in a family structure, in a national forum, seemed foreign to me.

I think I’ve gotten a bit muddied tonight. I noted earlier those things upon which I wanted to muse, and found myself swerving into an entirely new path.

Six strings to be played by five fingers for me to express myself.
Three chances to get it right, that’s too many when you’ve only got one life to live …

If only I could remember more than Jens’ chorus, sung and played at our PCV farewell at one of those odd little Americanesque cafes in Chengdu. I don’t remember much of that night. They served bratwurst, and Mat and Daniel did some hysterically funny and accurate rap about the PCV China experience, and Tom wore a yellow polo shirt, and Jessica gave Lindsey Peter Hessler’s card with some ceremony. And Jens sang. Once, before a hideously long train ride, Jens’ wife Tina made us french toast. Jon Darrah, Country Director #5 for us, headed one table with his Thai wife. Our first Country Director, Helen something-or-other Thomas?, was an absolute fruit distressed by the fact that the Chinese were interested in the produce she bought.

Who cares?

I think one of the reasons Jens’ lyrics keep appearing in my mind is that they seem so very profound, yet utterly apt and relatable. And clever. Cleverness is always to be appreciated. It’s true though – we really only do get one chance to live life – this life, anyway. And it leaves me with a couple of questions:

Why chance, or risk anything?     &     Why not risk everything? What have we got to lose?




1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Amanda
    Mar 13, 2009 @ 12:17:12

    dearest, i am so glad that i saw this link today! your questions are quite poignant! and though i find that i live at times with hesitation, i echo your question– why not risk it?


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