Monday, July 28, 2008

A Tribute to Alice

After a few days of orientation and vaccinations in Philadelphia, I have arrived safely in Mali where I will be working for the next two years constructing water sanitation pumps, digging wells, soak pits and irrigation ditches. I am now writing from Tubaniso; the Peace Corps training compound outside Bamako. Though I have spent so much time writing essays and conducting interviews and getting my fingerprints taken and collecting gear preparing to do this, and after so many months of waiting I am finally here, there is very little for me to say about my own life for there are far more important things on my mind right now. Namely, one of my dear friends and one of the most special people to ever grace this planet has just been killed in a tragic accident, crushed by a garbage truck as she rode her bicycle to work.

Anyone who knew Alice Swanson would agree that she was perhaps the kindest, gentlest and most determined soul whom they had ever met. She had that effect on everybody for good reason – because it was true. Perhaps it was her grin which showed off every last one of her pearly white teeth, perhaps it was her flowing locks of Nordic blonde hair which left every passerby in sheer rapture of this cutest of souls. Alice was a petite woman and almost childlike in some of her features, such as her unabashed love of animals which she wore on her sleeve – or rather, her dress which she had embroidered with the likeness of a wizened owl. But her small stature and innocent looks belied a great sophisticated woman who sure as hell knew about and did a whole lot in the world around her.

When Alice Swanson came from Worcester to Amherst her first year, in violation of school policy she brought her pet hamster to keep her company, wandering the hallways of her dormitory in its plastic ball. Out of love for all creatures great and small she naturally found her way to the Zü – Amherst’s vegetarian cooperative house – so that she could refrain from contributing to the mistreatment of a single Holstein cow by adhering to a strict vegan diet. That same year she also took charge of the Progressive Student Alliance which she used to organize her friends into simple acts of kindhearted activism from working at the farm to grow vegetables for a local food bank to raking leaves for the homeless. All sorts of animals, especially humans, were direct beneficiaries of Alice’s selfless nature.

Alice was no merely cute young woman, however – I think that was signified by the nose ring which signified that she was a badass rebel to the nth degree. Alice Swanson was possessed by that rare spark which convinces earnest young idealists that they too can change the world. She was an anarchist in the fully romantic sense of the word, with boundless faith in humanity and our capacity to take charge of our own destiny. She studied Spanish and Arabic to fluency, but majored in history; her stated intention was to be that world-historical individual in the Hegelian sense who was going to liberate all of the Middle East and Latin America from autocracy and neocolonialism. Alice cared quite earnestly about the plight of the Palestinians and under occupation, the exploited workers at Mexico’s maquiladoras, not to mention the poor and disenfranchised of Western Massachusetts. If couldn’t get others to join her, she would continue plying away on her movement for peace and justice even if she had to change society all by herself. And she did.

The first time I met Alice Swanson was naturally on a trip to Washington for an antiwar demonstration that she had organized. At the time I was a freshman who had a very difficult time making friends– and I couldn’t find anybody on campus who was interested in conversing with me about my monomaniacal obsession on Iraq, not a single person – that is, until I met Alice. Not only was she patient enough to engage this troubled soul, but she was kind enough to befriend me and invite me to the Zü and eat curry and teach me all about the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan environmentalist movement. Whenever I had a burning gripe about all of the violence in the world and needed a sympathetic soul to help sort out my anxieties, Alice acted as an older sister-type figure of sorts, a mentor and role model as she opened her revolutionary literature-strewn dorm room into a refuge for the angst-ridden and alienated of Amherst College. She was an oracle of the possible, an ever-smiling beacon of hope.

During a typical solace session I would burst in Alice’s room shouting about whatever it was that had outraged me that day – usually unannounced, and she would tell me to have a seat, hand me a plate of oatmeal-raisin cookies, and deftly transform my grief into more healthy sentiments. At one memorable exchange I was so distraught by recent events in Fallujah that I woke her up from a nap in search of sympathy, and Alice put me in my place with one of the best pieces of advice that I ever received: “No matter how concerned you are about the war, there’s no use in moping around and feeling sorry for yourself. Why don’t you do something constructive instead?”

Alice’s optimistic turnaround made an impression on my malleable psyche. Doing something constructive was then beyond the stretch of my imagination, so I asked her what she had in mind. Her preferred method of establishing peace was working in education; organizing lectures, helping local immigrants study for their citizenship exams, and going to Egypt to study Arabic and teach schoolchildren English. Alice’s deeds made quite an impression on my tender mind; she persuaded me to start Arabic lessons myself so that maybe one day I too could go do great things like her.

Alice was supposed to have lived to be 100 and lived a long, full life of tending to the poor and downtrodden. Quoted in a local newspaper, her father said, “Alice wanted to help people, but now that’s not going to happen.”

… Yet I would not speak too soon. Because of Alice Swanson, there are now immigrants in who were able to become United States citizens, schoolchildren who can now speak English, and a few less people who went to bed hungry at night. And as trite as this may sound, Alice’s spirit lives on in every life that she touched – from Worcester to Washington, from Amherst to Managua and Cairo and everywhere in between, there are now countless souls are possessed by that crazy notion that we can make a difference, that we too can change the world. As I write from the flickering computer at Tubaniso, I can say with confidence that Alice’s radiant example is why I am in Mali today. Instead of moping around, I am learning how to dig wells for people without potable water. Those pieces of Alice’s courage, grit and passion which rubbed off on me will always be an integral part of who I am. And I know that I am not the only one.

I’m going to miss you, Alice.

1 comment:

Champagne Socialist said...

all i can say, zach, is that I am with you in all of these sentiments. I know I am one of the many people who will try harder because of alice, to be a fraction as selfless as she was.