Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest blog #21: Matthew Mejia on the power of shared experience

Matthew is a student who accompanied me and others to Detroit in May for the class that was focusing on sustainability and social justice issues in Detroit. I have written at length about this experience - see the posts under the thene "Sustainable Neighbourhoods in Detroit."

"I have been thinking a lot lately about the power of shared experience. There is beauty in solitude but comfort in company. In my mind, the greatest experience is a shared experience, where all involved are of the same mind, all experiencing as a single entity. The example that comes to mind is a concert experience. All go in knowing what the music is, how they will act (to a degree), and have a general outline of expectations for the event. Because of this, the audience can experience the surprises and let downs and emotions invoked by the music together, as one – a shared experience. What it means to be there at that concert requires no explanation to fellow concert-goers. That is what our time in Detroit felt like: two weeks of inexplicable shared experience.

When I am asked what my time in Detroit entailed, I just smile, laugh lightly, and say, “I did some community work and checked out the bar scene.” In reality, that is all most care to hear about the trip, and to try to explain beyond that is futile. I blame either my lack of poetry and vocabulary or the limits of the English language. I do not know how to convey what it meant to spend every moment with these thirty people for two weeks in a totally different environment. And the fact that the different environment was Detroit makes it all the more difficult. It is not an East Asian spiritual journey or an escape to nature, but rather a trip to urban sprawl and failed industry.

People often already have their minds made up on what “Detroit” means, and they don’t always care to hear me tell them of the city’s character and the citizen’s spirit. Those two weeks changed me, fundamentally, for the better. Since being back in Ann Arbor, I enjoy its luxuries and hidden treasures more than ever – something I did not think to be possible. I am suddenly dissatisfied with my custodial job in South Quad. I want to be back in Detroit, out helping people. I know I am not doing all that I can to that end right now. I could be doing so much more. Perhaps that is okay for the time being.

If my time in Detroit was my experience alone, I would not have lasted through twelve-hour days, bar hopping most nights, and averaging four hours of sleep per night. I made life-long friends. I met an amazing girl. I discovered a land known as Detroit. For two weeks, the world was ours, and the world consisted of a city; our new home town, the Wayne State dorms; our houses, shared quads. To no one else can I relate the greatness of lilacs in my face, of giving other people’s food to the homeless and hungry, of assessing the entire DIA in a French accent, of taking Avalon bread from an alleyway dumpster full of freshly tossed loaves. I miss rotating people through the kitchen and trying whatever the next person was cooking that night. I went days without needing to cook or find food because my friends took care of me. And when I had food, it was everyone’s food. It was a shared experience, through and through. I grew accustomed to the lifestyle, sights, and sounds (and smells) of Detroit.

As we drove in to Ann Arbor upon our return, we were shocked to see the extravagance and wonder that we left just two weeks earlier. Everyone just kept saying, “Who lives here? This is ridiculous.” It is ridiculous that such different worlds are only a short drive apart. Life in The D is real living. You gotta make it. It is the “everyday struggle” that Biggie talks about. And although I haven't truly lived the struggle day in and day out, my classmates and I did struggle.

I miss the struggle."

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