I started my trip north last Friday. I’m planning to head up the east coast to Montreal (making a detour to Boston) and then heading west to Toronto and back down south through Pittsburgh.
One thing that has stuck with me so far, is how different my life could have been with only a very small change. I was biking past a high school and had a thought that while it was just a building to me, to thousands of students, and hundreds of staff members, it was a building that they knew intimately. It was a building where they had lives, where they grew up, where they had life changing moments. It’s weird to think about what my life would have been like if I had grown up just 20 miles away. How different it would have been, but of course how similar as well.
But there were starker potentials of course. I went through Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is known for its Mennonite population. The Mennonites think that happiness in life comes from hard work and sacrifice, and they think that its bad to draw too much attention to oneself, and for this reason they eschew most technology invented less than 200 years ago and they all dress essentially the same (there are other beliefs, some of which are indefensible, but these are the ones that make them so recognizable). There are many things to admire in that. But also most of the things that I think make up my core identity don’t exist in Mennonite culture. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Mennonite nerd.
I’m drawn to intellectual pursuits, I’m not very socially adept (and was much worse as a child), I like puzzles. I think those things would have made me a nerd in most cultures. Almost certainly every developed nation. But how could I be a thing, if that thing doesn’t exist in the culture that I grow up in. We like to think that there is some fundamental part of us that is unchanging. But is that true? How much do circumstances affect us?
And that brings me to the last place I’ll talk about: West Philly. I spent very little time in West Philly overall, and my impression of it could have been influenced by any number of things. But my impression was bad. It felt old in the worst way possible. Not old like art, or old like wine, or even old like a t-shirt that you outgrew. It felt old like a tractor that is rusted over, just barely able to run, but with a wracking cough as it starts, and the feeble pace of a geriatric using a walker.
West Philly made me feel depressed. I felt that it was unfair that anyone had to try and live in a place that had no life, in a place that felt like it was just waiting to die. It is, I think, the only place I have traveled where I literally could not live. I think I would kill myself if I tried, and I don’t mean that as hyperbole. I think whatever instinct I have to keep moving would be unable to maintain me against the onslaught from my environment telling me just how little I matter. I am in awe of everyone who is able to rise above it.
What would I have been if I had been born in West Philly? Would I have been a nerd? Would I have been hardened? Would I have been dead? Would I have been me?
I don’t know.
I didn’t have to go to a foreign country to find something alien. I hope that continues to be true.