By susannah hansen ’04
After spending 16 years studying and speaking Spanish, I decided to branch out linguistically this year and find a Portuguese class. So, for much of last year, my Saturday mornings were occupied with trying to imitate nasally õe’s and breathy rr’s instead of deciphering slang-laced Chilean speech patterns.
In a recent lesson on the future tense, we were introduced to Jorge, an extremely inquisitive Brazilian fellow (perhaps a Macalester graduate?) who was contemplating his future. He asked himself, where will I be five years from now? Will I be working? Will I still be in the same city? Will I have children? Will my life be easier or harder? How will my health be? Will my siblings still be far away? Will I study more? Will I specialize? Will I speak more languages? Will the world have resolved its big problems? Will the environment be better?
My classmates burst out laughing at this string of seemingly unrelated questions and the strong doubts Jorge expressed. I chuckled, too, but mostly in sympathy. I can relate to Jorge, having asked myself nearly all of these questions sometime in the past week. Although my cynical self recognizes that the world will probably not have resolved its big problems in the next five years, those other questions continue to hover, especially as I contemplate my impending departure from Chile and my transition home. I am approaching, in the words of poet Shel Silverstein, “the place where the sidewalk ends/but before the street begins.” In a few weeks I will pack up my suitcases, sweep out my apartment, and board a plane heading north.
I will return to a colder climate, excited to see family and catch up with friends. But I will also arrive in Boston, a city I’ve seen little of in the past 10 years, having bounced around the Western hemisphere studying, teaching, working, and exploring unfamiliar places and ways to live. At the end of this month, I’ll also be unemployed and homeless. Just how much have the GREs changed in the past five years?
Contemplating my time in Chile, I realize that I’m staring down the same lesson I should have learned back in February, when a giant earthquake delayed my move to this country. The enormous shifting of tectonic plates in southern Chile disrupted life for much of the country, and residents in the South continue to pick up the pieces while also dealing with the uncertainty that comes from living in an earthquake-prone area.
Meanwhile, I’ve gotten used to the aftershocks that occasionally rattle Santiago, but find it harder to leave so many of life’s bigger questions unanswered. Despite my recent migratory tendencies, I still haven’t learned to be comfortable with uncertainty, with the inevitable tremors and aftershocks that we all experience in life. I prefer to plan and make backup plans and maybe worry too much about the future rather than the here and now.
If anything, this year has given me the chance to relinquish some control, even if just a little. And in those moments when I’m not successful, I’ll worry about my carbon footprint, or potential graduate school programs, or perhaps I’ll study French with my imaginary friend, Jorge. I’ll also do my best to invoke the Chilean sensibility for living in the moment and having the patience to let the future unfold. I will try, as Shel Silverstein wrote, to “walk with a walk that is measured and slow/and go where the chalk white arrows go”—wherever that may be.
Susannah Hansen ’04, a sociology and Spanish major at Macalester, wrote this essay in December 2010 as her year as a Fulbright Scholar in Santiago, Chile, was drawing to a close. She is still in the place where the sidewalk ends, living in the Boston area, teaching, and contemplating the GREs.