Seattle anthropologist Margaret Willson’s story about founding a school for poor girls in a favela in Salvador, Brazil, combines Eat, Pray, Love's romantic self-discoveries with the can-do idealism of Three Cups of Tea.
Weaving threads of personal insight across the analytical cords of her discipline of anthropology, Willson reflects on issues of power, gender, and the politics of development in impoverished regions of the world. And she struggles to understand not only a new culture but her own personal impulses, thrown into relief by the newness of elsewhere.
In one chapter, feeling isolated in rainy Seattle after returning from Salvador, Willson finds humor in her depressive tendencies — so unwelcome in the U.S., but accepted as part of life in Brazil — and makes a momentous decision:
In the United States, one is not supposed to get depressed. If depression approaches, one should immediately do something to get rid of it. Take drugs, perhaps; go into trance. Our separate and individual responsibilities are to achieve and maintain constant states of happiness. Depression is antisocial and perhaps even deviant. The national emotional standard is set by drawings of smiling faces and a ritualized directive to “have a nice day.”…
I never managed to banish my depressions into U.S. mists…. But over the years I had grown to recognize them, even to categorize them by type and color. My first Thanksgiving morning after coming to Seattle, I found myself enmeshed in Depression 24693J, otherwise known as “I Want to Be a Prom Queen.” Its general theme was this: Everyone I know has been invited to exciting parties. I have been invited to none, and those to which I have been invited are not nearly as exciting as those to which I haven’t been invited. What’s wrong with me? …
Arriving home a few nights later, after another one of my walks, I recognized the greeting handshake of Depression 81572P, better known as “I Could Have Been President.” Its theme: everything I try takes an incredible amount of time, and the results are mediocre. Everyone else seems able to do things much faster, and their results — which I could have thought up just as well — are acclaimed as brilliant. What’s wrong with me?
“You know something?” I said to Depression 81572P when I entered my house and saw him darkening a corner of my couch. “I don’t like your style. You are a selfish, low-grade depression. And besides that, you’re boring.” And I sat on him.
Beside the couch on a small table stood the statue Agnaldo had given me. Above it hung the painting of Iemanjá. I took from my neck the turquoise beads I wore and curled them around the base of the statue. I lit a candle.
Then I sat down, picked up the telephone, and called Rita. She had recently acquired a cell phone, much cheaper to set up in Salvador than a land line. It didn’t work most of the time, but to my amazement, the connection went through this time and she answered.
“You know that idea of a nonprofit,” I said. “How we talked about an infrastructure, a group that would really work?”
“Let’s do it.” …
“This won’t be easy, Margaret. Once we start, we can’t back out.”
“You teaching? You get off for a few weeks for Christmas?”
“Well, then I suppose the best thing is for you to come back down here, and we can begin to talk about what we should do.”
I put down the telephone. I passed a slightly squashed Depression 81572P on my way to put water on the stove for tea. He had slid to the other side of the couch and seemed to be trying to transform himself into what looked suspiciously like a small Pacific atoll in the process of being strip-mined.
“Nice try,” I said. “It’s a start.”
I realized I had started to hum a little samba tune.
Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond. UW Press, $18.95. Willson next reads from her book at Powell's Books in Portland on Jan. 7 at 7:30 p.m., and at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, March 17 at 7:30 p.m.