The other day, I revisited Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again that tells the story of George Webber who wrote a successful novel about his hometown and the outrage and hatred it met. Family and lifelong friends felt exposed; their fury drove him from his home. When Webber returns to America he discovers that ‘you cannot go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to things that once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time’.
Many Saint Lucians emigrated in the past to Canada, Britain and the USA in search, I assume, of a ‘better’ life.
‘Better’, of course, means different things to different people. Nowadays, it seems that the Saint Lucian diaspora – diaspora originally referred to the dispersion of Jews from Israel, of course – is no longer limited to traditional destinations. Lucians are everywhere, even here, north of the Arctic Circle. A couple of years ago, I was chatting to a Saint Lucian pilot who had taken a job flying among the Eskimos – sorry, the Inuit, if I am to be ‘politically correct,’ in the wastes of Northern Canada. (In the bad old days, as this piece is full of reminiscences, we called them Eskimos until the name was deemed pejorative. By the way, Inuit is a plural noun; the singular is Inuk: one Inuk, many Inuit). And go to any bar frequented by pilots in Lagos, Nigeria (as I to my shame have done on many an occasion), and you’d believe the only pilots in that part of Africa were all West Indians building flying hours before applying to the major airlines.
Again, without any statistics at hand, I get the impression that more and more emigrants, not only the pensioners but also those in the prime of life, are coming home, and I wonder why. Are they fulfilling a promise to themselves that they would return? And when they do return, has everything changed, or are their memories in sync with present day reality? Do the returnees see the world through different eyes, eyes that have seen so much in so many different places, eyes doomed to disappointment?
Some things never change. Webber realizes ‘the voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air – these things will never change.’ He adds: ‘I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.’
Webber ‘learned some of the things that every man must find out for himself through error and trial, through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood and his own foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused. Each thing he learned was so simple and obvious, once he grasped it; he wondered why he had not always known it’.
Webber ‘learned to know and accept his limitations. He realized that much of his torment of the years past had been self-inflicted, and an inevitable part of growing up. And, most important of all for one who had taken so long to grow up, he thought he had learned not to be the slave of his emotions.’ Webber admonishes: ‘Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up … the essence of belief is doubt, the essence of reality is questioning. The essence of Time is Flow, not Fix. The essence of faith is the knowledge that all flows and that everything must change.’
The status quo, so beloved of bureaucrats, is the enemy. “Because this is the way we do things” is the worst of all possible answers to “Why are we doing things this way?” Yes, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, but above all, we must learn to put the past behind us.
Returning to Sweden after almost a quarter of a century’s absence in Saint Lucia I see how amazingly different some things have become while others have remained the same. Sitting by the lakeside in the wan light of the midnight sun and watching the elk and deer meander through the forest I can almost believe that nothing changes, but once inside the house, everything has changed; the house has become a computerized cocoon where the cell phone controls each and every action. And as for society and commerce, well, it’s a brave new world out there.
For all the promises of innovation, modernization, computerization, Saint Lucia continues to lag further and further behind, as anyone seeking a passport, driver’s license or birth certificate will know. Standing with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, will simply give you a hernia! Wake up, Saint Lucia, or you’ll miss the Future!