What's the Plan?
Marisa Guerin, PhD – October 5, 2021
Traveling in other countries and cultures is a powerful way to get a new perspective on your own. What a revelation it can be, the first time we realize that our normal ways of navigating the world aren’t universal!
The surprise might be as quirky as discovering that a tomato can appear on your breakfast plate in Northern Europe, or as alarming as recognizing that some places only irregularly respect the international rule of law. That happened to me once, on a country lane in a Latin American country when our car turned a corner and came face to face with a roadblock of teenage militia soldiers who were toting automatic rifles. My Spaniard companions told me to keep my American-accented mouth closed and they would talk us through. They did.
I’ve had many opportunities for cross-cultural learnings, due to having family in Europe and a career that involved a lot of international travel. Today, I am remembering a particularly funny, poignant, and enduring insight into the ingrained American character that came to me when I was twenty years old.
It was early Spring in 1973 – I was spending that semester abroad, living with my relatives in Madrid. My aunts and uncles and cousins were creative about engaging me in whatever experiences they could come up with, which led at times to some really funny moments, like when my aunt decided I should accompany my cousin and her fiancé to a weekend religious retreat for engaged couples. (Yup. What was she thinking? But one did not question Tia Pili. I and the priest had several interesting chats while the respective couples were busy having their assigned conversations about this or that.)
Hands-down the most interesting, life-moving, and eye-opening adventure of that Spring was my trip to Taizé with a group of Spanish young adults. For those who may not know, Taizé is the location of an ecumenical monastery in France that has represented for many years a hope for reconciliation and unity in the world. In those days, many youth had begun showing up at Taizé, and so in 1973 the monks organized a world-wide gathering of young people for Holy Week. My family signed me up, and off I went, the only American in the group. I knew exactly no one. Despite my shyness, I settled into riding the highways to France in a bus-full of Spaniards who sang songs all the time, taught me to play the castanets, and included me as they wove a community among us.
We arrived to an enormous encampment of tents lined with hay on the light green fields surrounding the monastery. There were hundreds (or thousands?) of young people from all over the world. The sky was grey and off-and-on drizzly, the spirit was alive, and the food lines were merrily powered by “Bon Apetit!” as you got your plateful of whatever it was. The nights were cold…I am NOT a country girl. But I learned that it is possible to wear all of your clothes in your sleeping bag and survive without hot showers for a week.
During the day, there were discussion groups in the various tents. Each group was at least bi-lingual and some tri-lingual, with volunteers doing the translating for one another, including even me at moments. Honestly, I don’t remember the topics, but they probably had to do with how to reach across boundaries, what people most have in common, and what we might most hope for in a healed world. The content of the conversations wouldn't have mattered as much as the fact that we were speaking, listening, and reflecting together.
But the spiritual heart of the gathering happened in the daily prayer times, especially in the evening. The monastery had extended a huge canvas outward, like a pavilion, to cover the hundreds of us sitting on the grass. The prayer time was meditative, carried almost exclusively by song. The chants of Taizé are famous for their beauty, weaving Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, all the languages into repetitive and harmonic music that lifts the soul. Throughout the night, the crypt beneath the monastery was open for silent meditation, lit by dozens of candles. The movement of the song, the prayer, and the silence re-awakened in me the kind of affective religious experience that children have…not cognitive, but deeply spiritual and mystical. Altogether, it was a quietly and enduringly transformative time for me, flowing from conversations in Span-Fran-Glish, and heart-felt song, and hay in our hair.
One night that week, I decided to look for Americans. I had observed that in the evening, around their respective campfires, the different busloads sang or talked or passed the time. Since I had not spoken English for any length of time in three months, I was curious to find “my peeps.” Well, I did find them, a fun and energetic group of American guys and gals, a tad younger than the Europeans. And as I introduced myself and we began to talk, I heard them say:
“So, what is the plan?”
I was puzzled. “Plan?”
“Yes, isn’t this a gathering of world youth, to promote unity and reconciliation? What will be the follow-up? How is this supposed to work? What should we be doing?”
As clear as day, there it was! Oh, my country, my country. Of course, we/they would think that way! The Spaniards are busy harmonizing new music, and the Americans are trying to do something, fix something, act on something.
At that moment, I was embedded deeply enough in another culture to see my own in sharp relief: for better or for worse, the active, instrumental, American mindset. Sure of its sensibleness. Oblivious to, or faintly dismissive of, the deep power of beauty, song, relationships. Anxious to make life better, tripping over a real today on the way to an ideal tomorrow. I shook my head, within myself. How much amazing progress we Americans have achieved with that mindset, yet how much we have missed, trampled, and damaged, too.
I don’t remember how the rest of that conversation went, back then, almost fifty years ago. But I do know that I crawled into my sleeping bag that night with a feeling of affectionate sadness and a touch of embarrassment about my own American-ness, and with a new level of awareness about the elusive dream of unity. It can be emerging right in front of you, but you have to be able to see it in another guise.
At that age, I wasn’t busy analyzing my experiences, but they were busy shaping me. The deepening of my critical thinking, especially about my own allegiances, has been important to my adult self.
So now I turn my mind to today. If today’s reflection moves me to wondering how we can solve the problem of an even more polarized world, one that is even more resistant to unity, guess what? I will be performing my fix-it “American-ness” for us all to see! And of course, I do that, often. I do not deny that part of me.
But my recollection of the time in Taizé reminds me to open my attention, to appreciate what is already emerging, to protect the moments of beauty and community, and to be patient with the messy process.
Planning is good. So is singing.