It’s easier for Maria to name the countries she has not been to than those she has. Born and raised in Africa, with a Japanese mother and African father who worked for ADRA, English professor Maria Rankin-Brown became acquainted with diverse cultures early on. The family was always on the move and traveled to different spots on the globe for vacations; when Maria came to PUC as a student, she had a hard time forcing herself to stay put for three years. It was the longest time she had ever stayed in one place!
When it comes to visiting, Maria is partial to India — the bright colors, the delicious food (especially samosas)… But being in India is also humbling and painful: “People come up and try to give you their babies or use kids to steal or for prostitution,” she says. It makes Maria rethink what gives meaning to her life. “There is so much poverty, but in this poverty people seem to be happy, happier than we seem to be.”
Maria’s love of henna painting was discovered in India and brought with her to the states. In fact, when she lived in Chico, she painted designs on people’s skin at the farmers market every week.
These world journeys are about a kind of individual freedom. When Maria travels, she enjoys feeling like a different person in different environments. “Everyone slows down in Africa, and they all speed up in Japan,” she says. She enjoys not knowing anyone but her travel partner and finds that being unknown gives her the freedom to be who she is at that moment.
“Travel was a big part of who I was until I became a teacher and couldn’t afford it anymore!” Maria confesses. But she’s still managing to dash off to distant lands. One summer, for instance, Maria and her husband, Morris Brown, went to Japan. Maria had received a Herber Grant to look at literary artifacts in Japan, and Morris is interested in Samurai culture.
Meanwhile, at home in Angwin, Maria still explores. If for some reason she was suddenly handed an absolutely empty week, for example, she would “read, read, read. I’m addicted to it.” The authors she loves range from Amy Tan to Isabelle Allende to C.S. Lewis to R.K. Narayan (which goes to show that she is in the right field as an English professor!).
Maria also explores with the unique habit of taking memory pictures. She says she doesn’t do photography to share with others: “I didn’t do very well in Tom Turner’s photography class because I have no concept of composition,” she says, laughing. “It’s more for me to remember moods I was in.” She takes pictures with her digital camera in poignant moments and returns to them later. These pictures often spark ideas for poems, short stories, and journal entries. “It’s a healing thing,” she says. “Very personal.”
She returns frequently to a picture she took in India after her dad died. She took the picture while lying on her back and looking up at the sun shining through a tree. This picture makes her think about how God sees her in that position. “Can He see me or only the trees?” she asks. She takes this thought further, asking herself how she sees her students. Does she see only the surface of students’ actions or think about life from their perspective? “There’s obviously something beyond being rude, or upset, or stressed,” she says.
So whether she’s experiencing the culture of some distant point on the globe or considering the interplay of sunlight and life through a photograph, Maria is an explorer at heart.
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