There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
David Foster Wallace used this humorous parable at the opening of his 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College to illustrate his argument that the real value of an education comes not in imbuing knowledge but in increasing awareness. He cautions the new graduates that one of the hardest things to do in life is “to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out,” a warning that I didn’t fully start to appreciate until I myself began forging ahead in the murky waters of postgraduate life.
I’m reminded of how easily I can lapse into and out of consciousness as I adjust to being back in my village after spending nine days at the provincial house submitting my Volunteer Report Form, participating in an Appropriate Technology workshop with Sebastian, and attending a planning meeting for Camp GLOW. It was nine days of living in a temporary portal to America, complete with American news, American music, American movies, and American people.
Nine days of reverting effortlessly, unconsciously back to being an American for whom this brief period of time means he doesn’t have to actively think about his Americanness.
But as I wedged myself onto a hot, sticky bus and we barrelled north into the oncoming dusk, I felt a heightened state of awareness, dormant for the past week and a half, swiftly begin to return. I found myself attuned to the smallest movements around me: a woman’s hand moving to cover her baby’s head with a tiny knitted cap in the seat across from me, a boy waving a tray of sausages beckoning and grinning in my direction from the ground below, a crow rising dustily off the ground thirty feet away. It was as if a switch had been flipped somewhere within me. I suddenly became conscious again of the fact that I was swimming.
And this constant vigilance, this hypersensitivity, hasn’t abated since I’ve returned to site. It’s simultaneously one of the most wonderful and most terrifying parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer, especially at first – you are at all times a stranger in a strange land, in an unfamiliar place, where every sight and sound and smell is new and larger than life and perpetually interesting. It’s kind of hard not to notice the water when you first jump in.
But I know there will come a time when the cultural differences begin to become norms. When the oddities start to be accepted as uncontested fact, when I no longer crane my neck out the window staring at the mud huts whizzing by along the tarmac, when I no longer instinctively reach out to touch the fabric of my everyday world. And this is when the work of living will begin anew.
Because if I don’t want to lose consciousness of the life spread out before me, I’ll need to keep reminding myself over and over again throughout my service:
This is water. This is water.
And see how far the current carries me.