Blog Post

Report from an Undisclosed Location, Part One

Readers of this blog know I?ve spent the year, my first leave in well over a decade, at an undisclosed location. Really? Isolated and secretive?and yet helped direct the international HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition? Nice trick if you can manage it. Well, I have in two ways. First and foremost, I work with an amazing team. Incredible really. Humbling. Such fabulous, talented, imaginative, dedicated people?Jonathan, Mandy, Mark, Sheryl, Erin (and that?s just on the Duke side; our UCHRI partners, blogged about also on this blog) work just as hard. But, second, my undisclosed location has been mostly mental: finding a way, when not working on the DML Competition, to be mentally away. That?s lots harder than being physically absent.

I resolved to be able to keep this quiet inner space after watching so many of my colleagues on sabbatical (during those twelve years when I was an administrator and not on vacations, let alone leaves!) set deadlines and rules for themselves?and also make so many commitments to do this speaking engagement or that article that frustration and failure were almost inevitable. They sounded so unhappy with themselves, as if a gigantic tock were ticking and they were always losing time, not having it gloriously to spend. A year off is almost unheard of in the capitalist world for those of us who are not independently wealthy or just independent (of will and spirit). So to squander such a precious gift by spending one?s year feeling shortchanged, short of the mark, cheated, and self-punishing felt like something for which Dante must have created a circle in the Academic Inferno (the Dantean Academic Inferno is quite populace, by the way, as we academics have a multitude of odd sins: a blog topic for another day).

So in all those years waiting for a leave, I was able to learn from others. I'm really, really having a leave. A fantastic one. Even with running an international competition. Here's how for anyone who wants to learn from the others who taught me:

 

First, and it is the major rule really: I?ve declined almost all invitations and really only focus on the Competition and on my undisclosed location where I?m writing my book about cognition, about brain biology and learning, a brain-based epistemology (as Edelman would say) situated in cultural specificities in order to understand how ideologies and cultural norms and values are passed on before we are old enough to even articulate what we are receiving.   I argue that only "awe" unsettles our patterns and makes us think anew.  Art is one of the principal sources of awe, the synesthetic reality beyond cognition and mind and right to the heart of the imagination and to the imaginary's deepest fullest soul.

 

Second, I've created an undisclosed location. Wherever I am. Even when it is staring out at my own backyard. It's a mental location as much as a physical space and so it is stable even when I'm traveling or moving or in other places. My undisclosed location is pretty darn nice?a place of books, of long ruminative strolls with my friend Priscilla, a place of automatic writing that, somewhere in April, started forming itself into chapters, into a book. It has felt leisurely and spacious and deep in a way belied by the endless detail, all year long, about the Competition. Again, I feel so lucky to be able to know my teammates are entirely competent. But I know I?ve also learned from my meditation teacher about finding a space, inside and undisclosed. Meditation is one of the ?ways of knowing? I talk about in my book, and I go there a lot.

But this week I happen to be at the ur-undisclosed location. The one in my Facebook picture, the place in my mind where aqua sea turns to azure sky and the sand feels like sugar and the clouds spin gold and rose. You cannot swim in that amazing sea without feeling calm and yet alert because out of one?s element. Gigantic rays, barracudas, sand sharks (I admit I?ve never seen the latter but the others daily): they don?t really care what tourist is paddling about in the water as they glide harmlessly, menacingly by. My theory is that, out of one?s element, one begins to feel the synesthetic world of wonder and awe that is prelingual, a cognition of the senses where everything is enlivened because nothing is in its place (or more accurate, it is in its place but you are not in yours). None of the well-trod earth-based neural pathways work, really, when you are underwater and you?re not sure if that thing just beyond the peripheral vision of your diving mask is a barracuda, watching you.

In my mind no one is here in this undisclosed location and that fiction is necessary to write amid the stirring demands of the DML competition and all the other parts of an academic life. But, in fact, we are with dear friends, long term friends and new, and we are here in a culture that is rich and exciting and populated. An early riser, I?m always looking for that photograph of unspoiled beach but it is the Bahamas, a nation of runners, and I have never once awoken, even at the tiniest crack of dawn, without the beach well footprinted. Runners of every shape and size, some looking like they are ready for the Olympics others, just as industrious, looking like they had never run once in their lives, but they are running in the deep sand and sometimes they have weights on their arms and around their waist and sometimes even rubber exercise bands from waist to feet, and they are running fast. No wonder this nation produces so many world-class track athletes. Our friend Krista told us the other day that there are running clubs here?I see them each morning, impressively, at my undisclosed location.

 

The sea is rich and the light incomparable here, but it is the people, this nation, it's history, that draw me. A few years ago I did extensive research on its history, the politics of emancipation and independence, and on the obeah religion here, especially on Cat Island but throughout. It's as complex as any history of the Caribbean but often overlooked, with far more attention paid to Jamaica and Haiti , but the Bahamas have a fascinating role throughout history and to the present.

 

Yet even with this research, what I hadn't seen before was contemporary Bahamian culture. Until this trip. Our friend Krista Thompson, a brilliant scholar of the Bahamas and the Caribbean more generally, an art historian (author of AN EYE FOR THE TROPICS on early photographs of the Caribbean) introduced us to a number of artists this week and a new Bahamas suddenly opened. There is a rich, important young art community here that we didn't know about before. So exciting to be introduced to this new world.

 

I?ll blog about that later but for now, the sun is about to pop above the horizon, and I am off to greet it, undisclosed.

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