FedEx has a box, sized 24″ x 24″ x 24″, which, I discovered, is a box that is both a logistical unit, uniquely identified for transportation purposes by logistics companies, as well as a type of box design that FedEx has copyrighted. As this exhibit at Rhode Island’s School of Design’s Museum pointed out, designating a volume of space for corporate purposes can have disconcerting philosophical consequences (though I would point out that there is much that is not clear in his explanation and when I investigated further, it appears that these logistical unit numbers, called SSCC numbers, are distributed by an international non-profit, so it is unclear to me that FedEx actually “owns” that volume of space as opposed to having bought a block of numbers designating logistical shipping units, all of which is probably more than you want to know). The point, however, for me, was, what does it mean to designate the purpose and ownership of a piece of space in any way, corporate or otherwise and what does that designation mean to anything that enters that space? In the case of the FedEx boxes, is what is contained within the space, ipso facto, a kind of morphed, “Federally Expressed,” object, a sort of chimera, both itself and this other, FedEx, thing, which upon unpacking from the designated logistical unit, loses its “FedEx” quality? Or, is it not touched by its association with FedEx at all? Or, does it maintain a trace of “FedEx-ness” even after is has disembarked from its FedEx container?
Of course, all of these questions can be seen as absurdly academic, with no real point. However, as I have traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, I have noticed how each place I have been has its own distinct boundaries and features, much like those carefully defined FedEx boxes. Richmond, VA has its own character, quite separate from New York City’s, much less northern Maine’s, or Martha’s Vineyard’s. In Richmond, the southern dictums of politeness still clearly held sway. I had to greet everyone I passed on the sidewalk. When meeting friends, when we touched upon a subject upon which we disagreed, both sides quickly veered away from the topic, without ever openly acknowledging what had just occurred. By contrast, in New York, if I had dared to greet passersby as I walked the streets, I would have been greeted with silent suspicion. When having dinner with friends, when we disagreed upon a point of discussion, there was a friendly argument. To avoid the subject would have been puzzling and frustrating to those at the table.
Then there is Maine, so unlike Richmond or New York. In Maine, I usually feel like I am surrounded by thick-necked, burly, silently disapproving people, who have no interest in discussing anything more than the state of their respective gardens or how the lumber business is going or who shot a moose or a deer most recently. They are suspicious of outsiders, much like small towns throughout Appalachia, which means that if I am alone, I routinely expect to have to begin any conversation with an explanation of how my husband’s family is connected to the area, even if all I want to do is purchase some milk.
To travel from such relative isolation to a place like Martha’s Vineyard is to undergo yet another transformation. Not only is the environment entirely different, ocean, beach and scrubby trees versus mile after mile of Maine’s woods, filled with pines, maples, beeches, oaks, and birches, but never have I seen a place so filled with people intent upon vigorously playing. It was exhausting, in its way, watching all those people swimming in the ocean or in pools, tanning on the beach, or fishing, or biking, or running, or eating, or sailing, or playing tennis or golf, or sitting with friends on their porches, or shopping. It was an entire island filled with well-educated people from all over the world determinedly resting. Moreover, there I was too, suddenly part of the relaxing hoards, strolling along the boardwalks and eating my ice cream, whereas two days before, I had been carefully navigating the social mores of Maine, whilst keeping an eye out for a stray moose, and before that, I had been charging through the rough and tumble of New York City streets, and before that, I had been politely strolling the streets of Richmond. It was as if I were running through a department store, trying on wildly different sets of clothes to see how I felt about them. Let’s grab the designer dress for a Southern ball (coercion). Let’s try ripped jeans with a black, punk leather jacket for the big city (relief). How about going for worn jeans and an old t-shirt for work in a home in Maine (oppressed)? How are shorts, a bathing suit and flip-flops for the beach and bright sun (enjoyment)? It was becoming a vertiginous experience wherein my identity seemed to be constantly shifting, bringing me to the question, am I living my life or being lived by my location?
It’s not an experience which our language easily handles, these moments when one feels that subject and object should perhaps flip locations. The linguistic constructions tend to become awkward, I suspect because we like to pretend that we are acting upon our environment and our language supports this belief, but as I traveled through such disparent locales, and watched my behavior change over and over again, I began to wonder what was acting upon what. Was I vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard or being vacationed? Was I strolling the streets of Richmond or was Richmond strolling me?
All of these musings are philosophical ground that others have tread, and written about, much more eloquently than I. However, when one has a visceral experience of one’s shifting personhood, suddenly certain questions become ridiculously clear. For instance, why do we always insist, after every mass shooting, on knowing why he did it as if the locus of control is so clearly confined within the limits of the shooter’s skin. Coming back to our FedEx boxes, why don’t we ask instead, what box (metaphorically speaking) is he in and why does that box produce a certain number of people who are willing to shoot as many people as they can? How can we improve the environment within the boundaries of that box?
Why are we wasting so much time and energy yelling at each other when it would probably be more effective to plant some flowers next to a sidewalk or road, especially in any place of human habitation that we have neglected. An economically depressed environment where all the industry has left and where people have few resources to leave or to improve, either themselves or their surroundings, will not produce the same kind of people as a place surrounded by an ocean and filled with beautiful homes. We are not islands of individuality and our destinies, both individual and collective, do not end at the boundary of our skin.