"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" -- J.R.R. Tolkien

Friday, April 27, 2012

One Month

It’s more than a little crazy to think that in one month I’ll be home. 

Has the time gone by quickly?  Well, there have been more than a few occasions where I’ve said to myself, “This is never going to END,” and an equal number of times where I’ve thought, “Man, I need more TIME.”  But 9 months is what I’ve got and, as Fr. Iván told me once, I have to stick to what I decided.  He told me that some people come to Bolivia for a matter of weeks and others for a number of years.  But regardless of the time spent here, you never really leave finished; there is always more to be done, more work that God wants to do within and through you.  But God also waits for me en el otro lado, he told me.  The other side.  Back home.  And so that is where I need to go on May 25th.  That is where I will find God, where I will find whatever the next step is for me.

But here I am at the one month mark, and to commemorate the occasion I thought, “I should make a list of things to accomplish in these final days.”  So I started:

1. Finish another chapter of my story
2. Try to write another blog post
3. Run through the Rosetta Stone program
            (really, just another way to say GET BETTER AT SPANISH)
4. Buy a hammock
5. Go running
            (I’ve told myself that every week since I got here)

I put the pencil down, reviewed my list.  “Well,” I said to myself.  “Somewhat weak.”  I decided to nix the list.  After all, I said to myself, I’ve already been operating under the expectation of so many goals throughout these past 8 months; I should just stick to those and see them through to the best of my ability: pray, be present to people, be open to each moment, be my best self for others, read, write.  Harder things to accomplish, a bit vague, but certainly things that deserve continued attention.

Really, as I come to the end of my time, I find myself returning to those original reasons why I set out in the first place.  Certainly, I was seeking after God, but there are a lot of ways to do that which don’t involve the country of Bolivia, an interval of 9 months, a new language, and a host of other things integral to this particular experience.  It seems to me that the first thing we think of -- the first thing I thought of, at least -- when discerning some type of service is an encounter with poverty, whether that poverty be at home or abroad.  And so perhaps it is within this idea of poverty that I find my original intentions for leaving home 8 months ago.  Here are a few snapshots… 

I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty the past few weeks.  It’s hard not to.  On a rainy day like today, I’m reminded of those of my neighbors’ homes that are most likely flooded because they have little more than leaves and branches for roofs, little more than mud and wood for walls.  I am, in fact, surrounded by poverty, being in the poorest South American country, living in a little town that only the best of dart throwers could pinpoint on a map.  Few roads are paved, houses are small and constructed out of what people have on hand, families are much too large for the house in which they live, the few clothes people have are usually hand-me-downs, and kids make do playing with torn and tattered soccer balls.  I am still embarrassed to answer people when they ask me how much my computer cost or even the old sneakers I wear.  Our friends and neighbors work so hard -- multiple jobs, at times -- and can hardly make due.  Martha, for example, who cleans the school, who works diligently every day, who has four of the cutest little girls ever, doesn’t have enough money to replace the phone she dropped in a puddle and so can’t receive calls from her son in Santa Cruz who has recently been released from something like a juvenile detention center. 

And yet, everyone gives a few pesos to the collection at mass (except for the cheap American who has again forgotten his pile of coins in his room).  Whenever we visit a neighbor’s house, a liter or two of Coca-Cola appears on the table.  We’ve gone to a handful of inaugurations that involves dances and plays and I’ve never seen such elaborate, beautiful costumes and intricate sets.  And all the kids in my classes have a nicer cell phone than I do.

In the eighth grade class in the Japanese school a week or so ago we were discussing an article about fast-food in the U.S. and how bad it is for a person’s health.  That got us talking about how it’s often the poorest of the poor who are stuck in cycles of bad health because they can only afford the cheap, unhealthy food.  And I kept thinking, “Wait -- aren’t these the poorest of the poor?”  But still, we were talking about how they needed to be mindful of food prices and how that might affect a developing country like this one when it comes to health and globalization.  (We have INTENSE eighth grade English classes.)     

We’ve begun meeting with a group of 7th and 8th grade girls who are going to start coming with us on our community visits to help us ‘animate’ the kids with songs, dances, stories, and plays.  One of the goals here is that these girls learn what it means to serve others, especially the poor.  “But wait,” I thought.  “Aren’t they the poor?”  Yet, just because you’re with poor people doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still be encouraging others to help the less fortunate, even if that is the person next door.  Sor Nora has often said to us how important it is to work for and with the poor of the world -- a woman who herself is no stranger to poverty. 

We were invited to the Yungas by Sor Nora mid-March to see the town where she grew up and meet her mother.  A 19-hour bus ride from Santa Cruz to La Paz turned into a 39-hour one when we got stuck in a 20-hour blockade.  (Saint Patrick’s Day was something of a bust.)  Blockades aren’t unusual in Bolivia,  though, and so we walked up and down the road, talking to our fellow frustrated travelers, shaking our heads in sadness at the amount of livestock forced to remain upright in the burning sun within their mobile cages, trying to scrounge up a bit of food (there wasn’t much), and swimming in the nearby river.  It was quite a sight, and it wasn’t until the 16th hour of the blockade that the police finally marched through to (we hoped) put an end to the nonsense.  About two hours later the men and women who were responsible for the blockade passed through to the unhappy snarls and unpleasant words of their fellow citizens.  And we started moving.  It was an experience, to say the least, foreign to my own sense of what it means to participate in politics, but was it one of poverty?  Blockades are one way in which things get done in Bolivia; it’s just another way of doing things and it’s a relatively effective one. 

We often comment on the tiny stores that line the street here in Okinawa.  There are a handful of them and they all sell exactly the same things.  And we say, “If they just diversified or advertised or put in a little more effort, they’d make so much more money!”  But really what we’re saying is, “If they just did capitalism our way, it would make more sense to us.”  Sure, they might make more money.  Maybe they wouldn’t.  But I think what’s worth noting is that just because they’re doing it differently doesn’t mean they’re doomed to poverty.  It means they’re doing it differently, their own way, and we have to learn to respect that no matter how frustrating it at times is. 

Just because there are cows and goats and pigs and chickens and dogs that roam the streets without a care in the world doesn’t mean I’m in a poor place.  It means I’m in a place where cows and goats and pigs and chickens and dogs roam the streets.

And the people: We’ve been taught how to make a cake, been provided with ingredients and instructions free of charge by Mary, a mom of one of our students.  Sor Nora’s mom made lunch and dinner for us when we were in her house, shared stories and showed us Incan artifacts that they happened to stumble upon one day (they’re now holding plants).  Paulina showed us the hammock she’s making and walked us through a few of the steps.  And when I was in Ecuador visiting Alli (it was a great time; ask me about it!), I was constantly the guest of one neighbor or the other, receiving food and stories and anything else they had to give.  Not only are people willing to give what they have, but I am constantly reminded of what I don’t know, what I don’t have. 

We all have our skills and gifts and little things to share. 

I’m not sure what my point is in saying all of this.  Of course, the people here are poor, and it is good and right and necessary that we -- the more privileged members of the global society -- do all we can to fight the evils of poverty.  But I’m poor, too.  Certainly, after this year my checking account is running a little low, but there’s a spiritual poverty to be fought as well.  There’s something that runs deeper within us all that says, “Yes, we must look to our fellow human and meet them where we are, try to fill in the holes in their lives as best we can.”  That might mean making a cake.  That might mean teaching poor young women to go out and work with those who are even poorer than they are.  Or it might simply mean being a presence to a neighbor. 

I don’t know if it’s right to say I came to Bolivia to see poverty.  Yes, it’s important, but you can see poverty on National Geographic or read about it in a book.  I think I came to Bolivia to encounter a dignity full of hope, and here that dignity lies within poverty.  It’s a dignity that says, “Yes, we’re poor, but we still live.”  It’s a dignity that reminds me that I’m poor, too.  That we’re all poor in one way or another.  That I can merely step outside on 119 Regency Drive in Pennsylvania and meet a poor person.  The essential piece is the encounter.  An encounter implies a meeting of people, of souls on the journey.  Poverty is an evil, one that we should all be fighting at every juncture of our lives, in whatever ways we can.  But poverty is not a people, and I think that’s what I needed to be reminded of.

I used to get hung up on that part in the Gospel where the woman anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive oil and the disciples get irritated at her.  “Why not sell that and give it to the poor?” they say.  A good question!  But Jesus says that the poor are always with us, that the woman has chosen the better part because Jesus will not always be.  What?  Jesus IS always with us, and every little bit counts for alleviating poverty, right?  Perhaps.  But the woman in this story has reminded us of the importance of the encounter, of having the opportunity to display that hopeful dignity.  Throwing money at some nameless face -- “the poor” -- is a far cry from a real human encounter, a real human relationship. 

We don’t see that woman again in the Bible, or if we do, I don’t know about it.  Does she even have a name?  But look at how important that one encounter was, that simple moment of presence.  Some relationships last a long time; others may be a mere glance or smile.  But shouldn’t we make each relationship count, no matter the duration?  Shouldn’t we use each of our relationships, each of our daily encounters to try and alleviate a bit of the poverty we see around us, to try to fill the holes that we find in each one of us?  I’m only here one month more, and I’m still meeting new people.  How long will I know them, will we be in each others lives?  Perhaps no more than a few moments, a dinner, a week.  It can’t matter.  Each moment, each relationship, each encounter is an opportunity to affirm the dignity of another, to allow them to affirm my own dignity, and together to hope for something more.

In a few weeks we’ll celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.  Jesus does leave us; his earthly ministry does have an end.  It is in leaving that he gives his disciples the strength to continue his work.  It’s an exercise in saying goodbye, in forward motion, in love and hope and prayer.  We can’t cling to the things around us; everything has its end.  All we can do is keep moving forward, keep meeting those other travelers on the road, keep smiling. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crossroads of Culture

It’s good to be busy again.

Classes are in full swing, and I’m helping to teach English at two different schools.  I spend Mondays and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the Japanese school.  These are the kids of the wealthier Japanese immigrants, the ones who own massive amounts of farm land and incredibly beautiful homes, even by U.S. standards.  The school is small, and the kids, in general, are eager to learn.  The spend their mornings in classes taught in Spanish and their afternoons learning in Japanese, minus the handful of times each week Veronica—the English teacher—and I come by to throw a third language in the mix.  It’s a relaxed atmosphere: the kids, more or less, pay attention and so Veronica and I can split the classes to work on different exercises or devote a good amount of time to pronunciation or individual activities.  But working in this school—still a Bolivian school—is perhaps just the most obvious reminder of the fascinating crossroad of cultures at which I find myself standing.  Although the Japanese immigrants first came to Bolivia and various other parts of South America after World War II—a direct result of the damage done to the Japanese island of Okinawa—there is still a tremendous cultural divide.  The Japanese worked hard when they arrived here; they turned immense tracts of forest into useable farmlands with the permission of the then-current Bolivian government.  Thus, they found themselves in possession of important economic and natural resources, and soon Bolivians from all over were coming to Okinawa, finding themselves working for Japanese bosses.  Today the divide is dramatically apparent, as the native Bolivians go home to wooden shacks, to bathrooms that flood when the river rises to high, to roofs that do next to nothing when it rains.  The Japanese go home to things very much resembling mansions.  The Bolivians speak Spanish and in many cases a handful of indigenous languages.  The Japanese speak Japanese, and when necessary, enough Spanish to get by.  And, as Katie and I discovered first hand this past weekend what we probably could have guessed at, the two cultures don’t necessarily promote intermingling—we were invited to a Japanese ‘hang-out’, surrounded by Japanese descendants near our age, listening to far more conversations in Japanese than Spanish, and were told that Bolivians weren’t invited, only Japanese were, and we’d only managed to find our way inside because we’d been brought in as guests. 

As you can imagine, the Wednesday and Friday afternoons I spend team-teaching with Katie in the nuns’ school, Saint Francis Xavier (S.F.X.), is a slightly different experience.  Much fuller classes, kids of varying commitments to learning, and everyone coming from much poorer backgrounds.  We don’t have books or a curriculum to use in the classroom aside from what we devise ourselves.  And if it rains, kids just don’t show up—if they live too far away, it gets pretty tricky to walk to school along the muddy roads.        

It’s been a crazy experience, working in the Bolivian school system, navigating what to me seems obvious inefficiency but to others is just the way things are done.  I’m called “teacher” by anyone and everyone who passes me—not because I have any qualifications but because that’s the English word everyone feels they should use to address anyone with white skin.  I’ve had to step in to teach three classes of religion, substituting for the teacher on the very first day of class.  I’ve had to cover for Veronica, adlibbing English lessons for first, third, and eighth graders because she couldn’t get from Santa Cruz to Okinawa on account of blockades.  I’ve gotten to know a handful of internas—girls from nearby communities who live here at the convent so that they can attend S.F.X. and get a good education despite their poor upbringing.  I’ve had to use the little Japanese I’ve learned to communicate with students in class who don’t speak Spanish, although once I ask them their name and verify that they are in fact doing fine, there’s not a whole lot more I know to ask. 

It’s an exciting thing, standing at the crossroads of so many cultures.  I’ve made some Japanese friends, and they’re teaching me a little Japanese.  Katie and I have found a sensei he teaches us karate three nights a week on the side of the road in the dark, barefoot.  I’ve found a new mandolin instructor, and though the going is slow—I’m not sure my hands are made right—I’m back to learning some traditional Bolivian songs.  I’m still downloading and playing U.S. songs for kids to help them learn English.  And, just this week, we came in contact with two really cool South American traditions: Carnaval and Challa.          

Carnaval I’m sure isn’t a new name, but for me it was something I always associated with Brazil.  I guess it’s celebrated all over South America, or at least in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brasil.  Here in Okinawa, it went from the Saturday night until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.  The nuns here were unanimous in telling us horror stories: everyone is drunk; it’s so dangerous; people throw mud and clay at you; you have to go into hiding, especially on Tuesday.  I, at the very least, was a little concerned.  But Saturday night we went out with our Japanese friends to join in the dancing and celebrating in the plaza.  And then Monday we went out ‘to carnaval’—it happens to be a verb in Bolivian Spanish.  We armed ourselves with the tiniest squirt guns you’ve ever seen and water balloons filled with a paint-water mixture.  We hardly started walking down the streets when a car drove by and blasted us with purple paint.  It’s like a three day war: kids are armed with water balloons, paint, buckets of mud, and even oil, running around in gangs and attacking anyone who passes by.  Motorcycles are bombarded; people toss things out of car windows; kids are literally picked up and buried in sludge.  Fascinating.  The trick, we learned, was to look nonchalant.  People might start throwing things at the “teachers,” but always with a bit of hesitancy—they never really knew what to make of us.  Until we started bombing them with water balloons.  Our students, too, were very trusting.  They might come running up at us to attack and then I’d yell, “Wait, we’re on a team.”  That’s how we amassed our gang.  The pictures will tell the story better once I get them off Katie’s camera, but let’s just say we were all sorts of colors and smells when we finally found our way back to the convent.  And I definitely don’t think we were on the losing end of the war.

Challa was another interesting experience.  It’s an indigenous religious tradition that invokes Pachamama, the Mother of the Earth.  The sisters had a colorful argument about it over Sunday’s lunch, and it was clear that the discussion was drawn along regional lines.  The sisters from the more ‘advanced’ Eastern departments saw the event as a pagan holiday.  (The Eastern departments, including Santa Cruz, are known for being somewhat anti-indigenous, economically more advanced, and, at least in generalities, against Evo Morales, the first indigenous president.)  The sisters of the Western departments enjoyed the religious holiday, seeing it as a syncretism of their Catholic beliefs with the indigenous traditions of their homelands.  They went out of their way to assure Katie and me numerous times that they weren’t superstitious, that they saw Pachamama as a manifestation of the one, true God.  On Tuesday morning, when I accidentally found myself in the middle of their ceremony, I found that to be true.  After we decorated the convent with colorful paper, (“Why?”  “Oh, that’s just how people do it.”), we processed through the school sprinkling alcohol in the sign of the cross, asking Pachamama for blessings in the coming year—more internas, health for the secretaries, no kids smoking in the bathroom.  We finished the ceremony by drinking a bit of wine and pouring some into the dirt for Pachamama.  Sor Nora poured a drop in the four corners of the garden to represent the four corners of the earth (I think?).  It was an awesome thing to be a part of, a great experience of religious syncretism, regional clashes, and indigenous culture.    

But I think what has had the most profound impact on me in the past few weeks, probably in all of my time here in Bolivia, was the visit we had by a U.S. nurse and the opportunities she brought with her.  Lynn, a retired nurse from Maine, came for her fourth visit to Okinawa about two weeks ago.  She came as the representative of a parish that has been giving money to the people of Okinawa for several years, helping them to pay for operations, medicine, glasses, transportation to the hospital—whatever they might need for their own health.  Before Lynn arrived, Katie and I worked on translating the ‘thank-you’ letters from the people to the parish.  At times comical, at times moving, it was a chance to gain a deeper insight into the plight of so many of our neighbors, as well as work on my Spanish translation skills.  But when Lynn arrived, everything became glaringly more real.  Katie and I took turns going with Lynn and Sor Nora into the communities—both those just a few minutes away and those far out in the fields.  Once there, we served as translators, helping bridge the communication gap between Lynn and the Bolivian people who were so grateful for her presence and for the gifts of her parish.  I heard stories of children who had urinary blockages for months, of old men who had problems breathing, of women who didn’t have enough milk to breastfeed their children, of a girl who had been born with mangled feet and, after falling into a fire pit, had a wound on her foot that had poisoned her bones.  I found myself sitting in shacks, in the mud, surrounded by mosquitoes, looking at bathrooms that were little more than four pieces of wood leaning against each other, under roofs that were riddled with holes, in homes that hardly had room for a bed and yet fit a family of six.  I was tackled by giggling, adorable little girls who I’ve played with at school but never realized the sheer poverty they lived in.  I begrudgingly accepted glasses of soda from people I wasn’t sure had the resources to drink water each day.  I hear Sor Nora grumble about the early pregnancy of a girl we met, a girl who had been an interna at S.F.X. not so many years ago and had had great promise.  I discussed with Lynn the merits of where the parish’s money was going, that perhaps spending $7,000 on an operation for the girl with the mangled feet that might work wasn’t at all practical in the current reality of her life, that spending far less on a wheelchair to help her live her final days with dignity made more sense.  And all the while I was the one working back and forth with the languages, trying to decipher what people were saying, trying to communicate needs and love and wishes back and forth from English to Spanish, from Spanish to English, and I had only myself to rely on. 

Lynn’s visit and the very jarring encounters it brought with it opened up a whole new dimension, Katie and I discussed later.  It made glaringly obvious the lack of any social net; these people were at the bottom of things and if they fell any further, that would be the end.  While I pass my time in a pretty nice room, assured of some sort of food, and at least a toilet that flushes, the lady who cleans the parish is not, the lady who prepares our food is not, the little girls that drag be to the ground any time I pass by are not.  I got to see their lives in a new light, and the lives of many others.  I was forced to realize that, even those who work and work hard, who hold multiple jobs and show up for mass on Sunday don’t necessarily find some secret trick to navigating life.  These people are on the margins in their own country, and really, how far do those margins extend?  I’ve experienced first hand the inefficiency of Bolivian policies; I’ve experienced the tremendous difficulty of simple transportation.  Who looks out for these people?  Can Evo Morales really enact policies to help the families in the fields outside of Okinawa?  I don’t know.  It seems pretty hard to me.  And if these people are that far away from the center of their own country, how much farther are they from international law and policy?  How far do the margins of our international community extend?  And how far can people fall?

What I did experience was the amount of good a very little bit of time and money can do.  Lynn brought with her somewhere around $100; we filled 12 first-aid kits.  A pocket full of change paid for hospital transportation, for new glasses, for orthopedic shoes—and these things literally altered people’s lives.  Imagine the difference in your life if for as long as you could remember, you walked with a severe and painful limp and one day you were given shoes that changed that.  How would your life be different? 

The appreciation and gratitude in the eyes and hearts of the people we encountered—despite their profound poverty and at times hopeless situations—was incredible as well.  One lady spent the entire hour of our time fanning Lynn, making sure mosquitoes didn’t bite her.  Another recounted a terrible story of rape simply because she trusted Lynn, Katie, and I because of the good we were trying to do.  And Sor Nora always served as a beacon for us, her never-ending energy, her constant smile and encouragement, her sharp word for someone who had stepped out of line.  (Her trusting me to drive stick-shift down the Bolivian highway in the only means of transportation the convent owns even though I’ve only practiced once or twice before.)  In the time I’ve known her, she’s been able to transition from ooing and aaing over a cup of peppermint coffee to leading a group of woman down the road in the blistering sun to a prayer meeting (because missionaries can’t drive when you’re going to pray—that’s a rule I won’t be following) to pulling out the metal cutters to free the dog who got his head stuck in the fence.  That might all have happened in the same afternoon. 

In reflecting on these recent experiences, Katie and I recognized a great deal of Jesus’ mission in Sor Nora and in the work we had done while Lynn was with us.  So often we see Jesus healing the sick, helping the blind to see, curing the lame, and these are the miracles that distinguish him as something more than an average guy.  Yet, he didn’t have to use these very materialistic, physical, earthly means to reveal himself—he could’ve shot carrots from his fingers and that would’ve designated him as something more than just human.  But he didn’t, and what’s more, as Katie pointed out, he never healed en-masse; all of his healings were personal.  There’s something at work here: Jesus went personally to heal individual people through both ministry of presence and miraculous moments.  It didn’t matter to him that, while he was curing one person in Galilee, there were thousands of others dying of the same thing all over the world.  There was something about that personal encounter that was meant to bring hope.  Those miracles went beyond designating Jesus as the Son of God; they were real moments of encounter between Jesus and another, despite whatever hopelessness might exist in the larger world.  What, then, does that say about what we’re called to do? 

Certainly something to think about as we begin Lent.  And certainly something I’ve been thinking about as I begin the final stage of my time in Bolivia—in just three months, I’ll be home.  But it’s exciting—if a bit frustrating—to be starting anew here, to be learning more about myself and meeting new people and experiencing new things.  And who knows what more might happen in the coming days?  I pray to be present to these moments.       

Karate Class: Me, Sensei, Jorge (from Ecuador), Darwin (a student)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Star of the Magi

Well, it’s been over two months since my last post—a time of great discernment, critical reflection and self-evaluation, and change.  I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking, praying, and being with people: the young of Bolivia, fellow volunteers, and the Salesian sisters who oversee the daily operations at my new service site in Okinawa (a two hour drive from Santa Cruz).  Most of all, I continue to muddle through this ‘Bolivian Experience,’ one that has proven to be full of unforeseen challenges and hidden blessings, an experience far different than I had imagined.  But, as I’ve constantly been called to remember since that first day, this is God’s project, and while God may at times have a funny way of going about things, God never leads me down the wrong path.

More on all that later. 

An example of the ‘surprises’ God has had in store for me throughout this journey is the amount of traveling I’ve been doing.  I certainly didn’t anticipate such a tremendous amount of travel—the fact that I packed only warm-weather clothes, left my camping backpack at home, and didn’t even think to bring a jacket can attest to that.  When I went abroad to Spain during my third year of college, I packed with the intention to travel; when I came to Bolivia, I came with the intention to work hard and come to know a new community.  And yet, in the past three weeks, I’ve hiked through the mountains and valleys of Samaipata—a nearby destination in the Santa Cruz department—explored Cusco, Peru and Macchu Picchu, flew to the highest capital in the world, La Paz, and crossed Lake Titicaca—the highest altitude lake in the world—to hike across the Isle of the Sun.  Now I find myself on retreat in Cochabamba, wearing, most likely, dirty clothes because I haven’t had time to wash them—again, a testament to the fact that I hadn’t planned on traveling.  Don’t worry—I’m sure I have the same question for myself that you are all probably thinking: “Do you ever do any work, Eric?  Didn’t you go to Bolivia to volunteer?”  Believe me; I thought I did!  And I know I will—once the school year begins in Okinawa, I will be teaching a handful of classes, most of the English-speaking variety.  And certainly I have accomplishments from my time in Santa Cruz to look back on.  But what have I done to earn all of this travel?  Is this really why I flew across a continent, gave up nine months of my life? 

The answer, quite frankly, has to be ‘yes.’  Because I know this is where God wants me to be.

And so, as I hiked through the mountains of Samaipata, I thought and I thought and I looked at all the beauty around me.  What am I doing in the jungle?  What am I doing walking through these mountains?  Sure, hiking is fun—I really enjoy it.  But why am I here?  To meet God, I realized.  Why do I go anywhere?  Why do I travel?  Why do I leave home?  Well, I have to assume it’s to strip myself of all my ‘Eric-ness’, to get down to the bare bones of it all, and to meet God as I am.  As I’ve noted many times throughout this journey, I’m out of my element in a very big way; the outward, material ‘things’ that made me ‘me’ at Fairfield, on Regency Drive, at Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, or at Archbishop Wood don’t always shine through or even prove to be relevant.  But that’s okay, because God wants to meet me where I am, as I am, and a lot of times those outward ‘things’ might get in the way.  So, here I am, trudging through the jungle, following a path I’m not sure exists, emerging onto valleys that I’m pretty sure belong in Middle Earth, passing cows and donkeys, and looking out at a never-ending range of mountains, each one brimming with greenery.  And what am I to do with all of that?  Take a picture?

Sure, that’s something.  But I couldn’t help recalling the story of the Transfiguration, of Peter and Jesus and the sights the Apostles witnessed.  I had to stop trying to ‘do;’ I had to stop trying to figure it out.  I had to merely be.  Because God was in Samaipata with me, showing me Godself, beauty, peace, serenity.  God was inviting me—reminding me—to strip myself of all my ‘Eric-ness’.  Quite frankly, it’s impossible to go to God as I want to be or as I think I should be.  I can only go to God as I am.  The story of the Transfiguration isn’t one that notes some particular movement within the Apostles, some profound moment of brilliance or great act of social justice.  It’s merely an experience of God, of the Divine, of whatever we may want to call that Spark from Beyond.  And that experience is a gift.

I left for Peru only a few days after returning from Samaipata with three of the volunteers from Santa Cruz.  I was tired, I felt guilty for traveling again, and I assumed myself to be horribly under-prepared for the trip.  But God felt it just to dazzle my senses again with sights I can hardly do justice to by word or image.  Just the city of Cusco itself—a fantastic combination of European and Latino sensations, relaxed but bristling with people and culture and life.  We biked down some of the mountains near Cusco and back into the city itself, stopping at ruins, an animal refuge, and at overlook points that demanded wonder and awe.  And then Macchu Picchu itself: waking up at 4 AM to start trekking alongside the chattering river with nothing but a few slivers of sunrise to light our way, trudging up a winding path and gradually rising higher than the clouds, seeing the puffs of white clouds slithering between and above and below the grand peaks and valleys of the mountains all around, nearly tip-toeing through the early morning air of the ruins of Macchu Picchu, catching mere glimpses among the cloud coverage, climbing nearby Wayna Picchu, sweating and stopping and smiling and laughing at the sheer amount of climbing we had to do, getting to the top and sitting on top of a mountain gazing down at everything, lost amidst the white of the clouds that were below us and around us and above us, catching glimpses of the ruins below, and then, finally, walking amongst Macchu Picchu itself.  What do I do with that?  Take a picture?  Come on. 

How difficult it is for me to be present to moments like that.  Weird, right?  But I’m always so anxious to scoop up whatever new tidbits of experience I can and then hustle home so I can process and reflect and share with others.  What am I doing in the moment?  Worrying about taking advantage of everything, making sure I have enough money to pay for food, trying to figure out what the best route here or there is, etc, etc.  So much for that Transfiguration moment, right?  Rather, I say, “Those mountains are beautiful; now I want to climb them.”  Or, “This culture is fascinating; I need to buy BOOKS.”  So much for the expert traveler. 

Throughout Advent I found myself particularly drawn to the story of the Three Magi, especially as I continued to remind myself of why I had come to Bolivia, that ‘star’ I myself was following.  The star is important; for me, it’s that encounter with God, that desire to come to know who and what God is for me and where God desires me to go next.  This is the ‘star’ that brought me, in a big way, to Bolivia, to Santa Cruz, and eventually to Okinawa.  But as I found myself traveling more and more, the story of the Wise Men spoke to me in a different way.  The story broke itself down into three parts: seeking God, encountering God, and returning with God.  I jump too quickly to the ‘return’ stage, so anxious to go back to the comforts and controlled life I lead at ‘home’—wherever that may be at the moment.  Rather than stressing over the ‘seeking’ stage—what to pack, or what am I going to actually do, or I really need to focus on this other thing—I should armor myself in the light of the star God has given me, specifically.  How will this new step in the journey bring me closer to the star?  Rather than jumping up and down like a fool once I finally reach the ‘encounter,’ trying to fit it all in, take the best pictures, remember every moment, talk to every person, I need to just be.  What could the Magi do in the presence of God?  Sure, they offered gifts, but I’ll bet they were much more struck by the wonder of it all, much more engulfed in the presence of the moment.  And finally, though I so quickly rush to the ‘return’ stage, I have to remember myself, especially in light of humility.  I may have learned a thing or two but I can never know it all, and I have to be aware of that.                

And sometimes, when you’re ready to return, say, from the Isle of the Sun, and you’ve spent all day crossing the island and you’ve arrived at the dock for your boat with an hour to spare, a lady says, “Oh, you’re boat isn’t docking here, it’s docking on el otro lado.”  And sometimes el otro lado means the other side of the mountain and so you off and go climb the damn thing all over again only to find that in fact your boat isn’t there and you have to haggle with another boat captain to ensure that you get off the island before night fall. 

That’s a more extreme example. 

And so I now find myself in Okinawa, a post-WWII Japanese immigrant colony that now has a colorful cultural mix just a few hours outside of Santa Cruz.  Yes, I am STILL in Bolivia; no, I’m NOT in Japan.  (Maybe one day?)  Which moment do I find myself in?  Like I said, this ‘Bolivian Experience’ has been a doozy so far, but God is very much at work.  I am still ‘seeking;’ that’s what guides the decisions I make, from the day-to-day to whether or not to go on retreat.  I am certainly ‘encountering;’ how else can I justify so much seemingly ‘useless’ time?  For God, no time is useless; it’s just me who can’t always figure it out.  God is present in each moment, in each person, and I think those moments of ‘success’ may be ones I never fully recognize.  And ‘returning?’  Well, I’m doing that too, in a sense, because every experience brings with it lessons and morals and things to think about.  But as I go forward, it’s the story of the Transfiguration that I try to keep foremost in mind—where is God manifesting Godself to me in this moment?  Do I have the eyes to see it?  Do I have the will to accept it?  Most importantly, am I able to go to God as I am, or do I continue to hide behind who I want to be? 

I have four more months to figure it out.  At least, in Bolivia.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Out and About

It was a rather ordinary Thursday afternoon in Santa Cruz de la Sierra when the three foreigners—two girls, one from Peru, the other from Italy, and a guy from the U.S.—climbed up the short, narrow stairway of the bus that would take them halfway across the country.  The itinerary was far from definite, though they had a general idea of where they wanted to go—“general ideas” were about the best one could hope for as far as planning goes in a country like Bolivia.  Yet, despite the uncertainty and the sweltering heat, the sweatshirts and coats and hats stuffed in the bottom of their backpacks signaled, at the very least, a definite intention to seek out cooler climates.  It was to Sucre they meant to go first and, after 14 hours or so and a handful of pesky on-bus sales pitches, they arrived in Bolivia’s cultural capital, the colonial, tranquil city that, as it so happened, was hosting a ‘Night of Museums’ that very evening.


The funny thing about Sucre is that the mere mention of the name sets off a series of confused and puzzled responses regarding the status of Bolivia’s capital.  For the record, Sucre was in the past the capital, but now is only the ‘cultural’ capital—the government rests in La Paz, though Santa Cruz is unarguably the economic capital. 

Sucre was indeed our initial stop, but first a bit of background on the trip, because I, at least, was surprised to be traveling only 2 months into my Bolivia excursion.  My two traveling companions:  Karina from Peru and Diana from Italy.  Karina, wanting to travel a bit before leaving Bolivia, invited me along on what was initially her trip, justified as a sort of ‘grand finale’ to our time together working on the research project.  Diana wanted to come along as well—the more the merrier.  Traveling with a native of the continent makes a world of difference:  throughout the journey, Karina haggled over nearly every price we met and probably saved us hundreds of Bolivianos, not to mention some confusion navigating what could be at times a ‘spontaneous’ bus system.  I’m not quite sure how one goes about purchasing an ‘aisle’ seat on the bus, but for a good deal of the ride to Sucre, I had an ancient indigenous woman who only spoke Quechua resting on my knee.  Between her and the various men who climbed on board to pitch various ‘new’ and ‘novel’ substances that cured everything from bed wetting to aching bones, it was a comical voyage.

But back to Sucre—an absolutely beautiful city.  The streets wound up and down the mountain, and, in order to catch a glimpse of the city in its entirety, we climbed to the summit—quite the trek, to say the least.  It’s a peaceful, quiet city, and the majority of the walls are white-washed with stucco roofing.  We happened to arrive in the city for the ‘Night of Museums’ which meant after 6pm everything was free.  We killed some time looking at dinosaur footprints—not sure why so many dinosaurs passed through Sucre, but in a quarry just outside the city there’s a collection of over 500 prints from 8 species of dinosaurs.  We found ourselves in the Folkloric Museum that night learning about indigenous culture, confronted by some pretty awesome traditional masks, and watching a video about that exploitation of indigenous resources.  We also wandered over to the Cathedral museum—kind of lame; just a lot of gold and silver and a weird candle ceremony.  We didn’t even get to see the inside of the Cathedral!  Then Diana and I took a rather lengthy cab ride to a rather odd ‘castle’ just outside city.  Empty, poorly labeled, and full of people.  (“How much to get to the castle?”  “Which castle?”  “How many castles do you have in this city?”)

It was the Salar de Uyuni that originally inspired their voyage—its promise of otherworldly sights and grand adventures was too much to pass up.  An expanse of white as far as the eye could see?  Flamingos nesting in red lagoons?  Buildings made entirely of salt?  The Salar de Uyuni—in reality, the entire southwestern circuit—was said to be one of Bolivia’s most intriguing attractions, something not to be missed.  And so, rested from their peaceful stay in Sucre, our travelers set out for Uyuni by way of Potosí.  Rolling hills of green dotted by the occasional llama sped past the bus as it climbed through the Bolivian wilderness, up and over mountain passes, across seemingly dessert-like terrain, winding around otherwise treacherous dirt and dust roads, passing rock and brick buildings long abandoned to the elements. 


The city of Uyuni looks like it could be aptly placed the end of the world—chilly, with short, random, colorless buildings placed on either side of wide streets.  The first thing to do in Uyuni was find a suitable tour agency to make the trek into the ‘wild’ and, while we did at one time have 4 possibilities, our minds were made up when, in our first choice, we encountered angry Israelis raving about the injustices done them on their journey and, in our second choice and ultimate agency of preference, we met pleasant, contented Austrians who just returned from a lovely experience.  The next day we set out, joined by Raul our driver and 3 Canadians who were exploring South America

Words lack in describing what we saw.  We drove through small, dusty villages that were settled in and around magnificent natural phenomenons.  The Salar itself was an endless array of white—the largest salt flat in the world, we saw trucks coming and going transporting salt and building mini mountains to be collected on future voyages.  We climbed the Isle of the Incas, a patch of rock and cacti (the largest and oldest in the world) in the center of an otherwise blank landscape.  Two llamas greeted us.  We slept that night in a hotel of salt; literally everything was made from salt.  The next morning we rose with the sun.  The following two days were full of crazy rock formations, towering mountains, steaming volcanoes (though we were assured only the Chilean side was active), lagoons of green, blue, and red full of 3 species of flamingos, geysers, hot springs, and other wonders.  Our jeep only popped a tire once, though we did have to stop several times to check the engine.  And we made it to the Chilean border to drop off the Canadians.  An outrageously awesome adventure!

Tupiza had been an uncertain addition to the itinerary, though the promised beauty of ‘Bolivia’s Wild West’ and the potential for a horseback riding adventure drew the travelers to the mountainous terrain.  Only a short ride from Uyuni, the bus deposited the weary wanderers in a town that had yet to see the rising sun.  An old, nearly deaf man offered them cold bread and hot drinks for breakfast, and, with the little light provided at 6am, they walked the silent streets, feeling as though they’d stumbled into an old western film. 


We had originally given up hope on riding horses after being told they cost nearly Bs. 300, but as luck would have it we found an agency offering 5 hours of horsebacking riding through the canyons of Tupiza for only Bs. 150, lunch included.  Whoa.  There is no other way to see the terrain of Tupiza—rolling mountains, dessert like landscape, sandy terrain dotted with scraggly trees and bushes, and as many colors imbedded in the rock and stone as in an art museum.  Again, pictures are really necessary here, especially if you want to see me in a cowboy hat.  Turns out horses are a little more uncomfortable than I thought, and maybe saying, “Yeah, I’ve ridden before,” referring to lesson I’d taken when I was 5 was a bad idea.  Maybe then they’d have given me more instructions then “left, right, stop.”  But we rode up sandy hills, descended steep terrain, passed under rocky alcoves, and crossed the Canyon of the Duende, where apparently a witch once lived collected sacrifices to fulfill a pact with the devil. 

Though Potosí was originally a question mark on the itinerary, the tragic mark the city has left on Bolivian history elevated the impoverished community to an essential stop, especially since it was along the way back to Santa Cruz.  Cursed by mines full of silver, legend says that an indigenous llama herder stumbled upon the riches and soon the Spanish conquerors followed.  It is commonly said that a bridge could be built from Potosí to Spain with the silver found within those mines; it is not so commonly said that a similar bridge could be built using the bones of the those who lost their lives in the exploitation that followed. 


It turns out we arrived in Potosí on the 201st anniversary of the city.  The city was alive with parades and music, and we got to watch some folk bands perform and dance in the afternoon.  The mines were what drew our attention, and, though we had little money for another guided tour, we found our way to the Cerro Rico and Karina found a miner willing to talk to us.  It was a day of contradictions: the celebratory atmosphere of the city, proud of their history and culture against the bleak, devastating work of the miners.  We saw many men and children at work in and about the mines, and many woman sitting outside houses that were built right on top of the mountain.  Though we didn’t enter the mines, we did get to wander briefly through a dark, dank tunnel.  The miner encouraged us to climb to the summit, and we did, following a little boy named Ernando who, when he wasn’t in school, gave tours of the mines.  He was ten years old.  He told me the legend of the llama herder and mentioned the commonly held belief that the devil, “Tío,” lurked in the mines.  We reached the summit in time to be greeted by a lightning storm and so quickly climbed back down.  Back in the city, amidst the parties and music, we caught a film—La Tentación de Potosí (The Temptation of Potosí)—which was a documentary inquiring into this idea that the devil hid in the mine.  Certainly anything that was able to turn such apparent riches into so much death, destruction, and sustained exploitation must be demonic at the roots. 

And so the journey came to an end and, after two police searches and a much delayed bus, the weary travelers found themselves once again in Santa Cruz, the heat an unwelcome old friend.

The funny thing about being back is that now everything changes: Karina leaves, and so the research project is more or less over, a few lingering pieces left; with the commencement of ‘summer’ vacation at the end of November, English classes will end and Barrio Juvenil will close and most of the kids will go home, wherever that might be.  Even my mandolin lessons are ending, though I’m trying to find a new place to continue.  I find myself rather impatiently waiting for the next stage, whatever that might be.  Sitting idly has never been a strong point in my personality, though perhaps it will be when all is said and done? 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Main Characters

I’ve felt at times in the past that I’m not the main character in my own story.  There might have been so much going on or so many other people in my life busying themselves with one task or goal or another, that I often felt like I was playing a supporting role, a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan Kenobi type of character, perhaps.  At times, I would find that type of role intriguing—after all, who wouldn’t want to be the wizened old wizard or the Jedi master, the one who could supply answers and advice at precisely that moment of crisis?  But there were other times, too, when I felt robbed of ‘my story,’ when I felt as though all I was good for was a helpful word here and there, and otherwise other people were off living the adventures.

It seems to me that one of the biggest challenges for anyone who goes abroad for any period of time—or probably for anyone who steps outside what they know to be good and comfortable—is that suddenly they’re not just the main character; they’re the only character, and they seem to be surrounded by a handful of ‘extras’.  For me, this continues to be a tempting and dangerous reality.  It’s obvious that it’s hard to build strong relationships with or find support from people you consider as ‘extras’ in the great story of your life.  And yet, a constant question when encountering anybody new is, how long will this person be in my life?  An inability to answer this question often leads to uncertainty about how to proceed in the relationship, how much to give, how much to receive.  And certainly this conundrum is only compounded across language barriers. 

But most dangerous of all, I’ve found, is that when you relegate people to the role of ‘extras’, it becomes increasingly simple to separate yourself from them, to build a line of division which you justify yourself in not crossing.  “I don’t need to learn the names of all the kids in Hogar Don Bosco,” I might tell myself.  “After May, I’ll never see them again.”  Or, “If I want to hide in my room and read instead of sitting and talking with other community members, I can; after all, they probably can’t understand me anyway and I don’t need to try to make them—it’s not that important in the long run.”   

Certainly, I’ve found I need to take time for myself.  I think one of the most mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining aspects of living and working in Bolivia is an overwhelming lack of ‘safe spaces.’  What do I mean by this?  Nearly every moment of every day, I need to be ‘on.’  When I’m eating lunch or dinner, I need to be engaging the kids I’m surrounded by (or perhaps the other volunteers) in a language and culture to which I remain a foreigner.  At breakfast or when I’m just lounging around in the common room writing or reading, I need to be ready to meet and greet another volunteer and carry on a conversation.  When I help with the research project, I’m often surrounded by teachers or administrators who constantly look over my shoulder, peppering me with comments and questions, or I have to constantly be on the lookout for Karina’s next instruction—again, all in Spanish, all clouded with frustration.  When I go to Barrio, I need to be ready to play games that I might not know or be good at and have conversations that I might not understand, all while fighting off an overwhelming feeling of uselessness.  And when I teach English, I have to be ready to meet with failure.  All of this I have to do while constantly afraid that I might miss that key word in the sentence or that all-important cultural cue, and the meaning of what might be happening all around will elude me.  And even when I have time in my room alone, I constantly feel as though there is more I should be doing, that my schedule is too light, or that I should be “out there” helping.  Even when I sleep I’m not safe—the phone might ring, someone might come to the door, and when I sleep at Barrio, I have to ward off bugs and be ready to greet the boys in the morning.     

It only seems natural that I should need some moments to recharge, but where can I go to get them?  Writing and reading, learning to play the mandolin, journaling, prayer—these are all good and viable outlets.  But I still can’t help feeling the lack of ‘safe space’ pressing in around me, and most troubling of all, in each moment of ‘safety’ I suffer from a fear of what is to come next—I may have had a great conversation with Mauricio on the bus from Barrio this morning, but I doubt I’ll be able to do that again; English class went great today, but how will I ever mirror such a productive lesson next time?  And so on. 

If you’ve read to this point and are thinking, “Man, Eric is talking a LOT about himself,” there’s a good reason for that—this is the perspective of someone who is the only character in the story. 
Did the kids learn something from that ‘failed’ English class?  I don’t care; I felt terrible afterwards. 
Was it encouraging to the Barrio boys to see me at dinner tonight?  Doesn’t matter to me; I felt useless. 

I think these are the kinds of sentiments that hide between the lines of my thoughts and feelings, and it is against these sentiments that I must in every moment exercise caution.  But it’s hard—I want to feel useful; I want to feel safe.  I want to know that I can repeat the successes tomorrow that I’ve enjoyed today. 

As she often does, Alli provided two essential pieces of insight to help me process what I’ve been grappling with above.  First, in reflecting on a book that literally everyone has told me I must read, Tatoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle, Alli reminded me that, rather than being called to be ‘men and women for others’—an oft quoted Jesuit mantra—we are called to be ‘men and women with others.’  Is this really that big of a difference?  YES.  Instead of me doing for Bolivia, I can simply be with Bolivia.  As much as I might like to convince myself otherwise, I haven’t brought any pearls of wisdom or magic beans to this country; I’ve brought a college grad who likes to read and write, isn’t very good at sports, and has something of an obsession with reflection.  As Fr. Ivan reminded me in confession last Sunday (which, as you might imagine, was something of an adventure in Spanish), volunteers don’t come to Proyecto Don Bosco as ‘experts’ in something, though they certainly bring particular gifts.  Rather, volunteers come for the singular purpose of accompanying the youth in whatever manner that volunteer is most capable. 

Second, Alli reminded me—in grappling with her own Ecuadorian experience—that the people here existed before I arrived and will continue to do so once I leave.  She noted that, while it may be frustrating to sit in awkward silence with a Bolivian or an Ecuadorian, it’s okay—if I wasn’t here, they’d be in silence anyway.  What’s most important is my simple presence, that persistent, “I’m here with you, and even if I can’t articulate it, know I’m here out of love and solidarity.”

Most of all, these bits of insight remind me that I’m not the only character in this Bolivian experience, and, in fact, I’m not even the main character.  I’m one of a cast of hundreds, thousands, and I’m called to play my role, simple as it might be, though most likely always in a state of flux.  My role, as one member of a rather large cast, is to respond with joy and flexibility, to recognize and embrace my own limitations and respond in love where I can.  This role says that it’s okay to go to Barrio and just have dinner with the young people I encounter and play a few rounds of cards; I don’t have to infuse the minds of the youth with profound wisdom.  This role says that it’s okay to teach the kids how to sing “Hey, Soul Sister” in English class because I don’t need to turn out perfect little English-speaking citizens; I need only meet the kids where they are, and where they are is in a place that desires to sing the songs they hear on the radio just a little bit better.  And yes, this role says that when I’m tired or worn down or simply desire to sit and read in the quiet of my own room, I can—after all, the Bolivian world isn’t relying on me to keep things moving forward, and so I can retreat now and again —I can try to turn myself ‘off’—and be okay with that.

But there is a deeper invitation buried within these reflections, and God, I think, has been quietly nudging me in a frightening direction.  I’m not the main character—I might not even be a supporting character!—and the fate of Bolivia does not rest on my shoulders.  I am called merely to struggle humbly and joyfully, to succeed where I can and to learn from those moments of failure.  I am called to simply be.  What does this mean?  It means that I am being offered a great moment of liberation, that I can step outside those ‘safe spaces’ and still feel ‘safe.’  It means, essentially, that despite all appearances, there are no successes and failures, only moments of grace, moments of community, moments of love.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks doing a rather tedious bit of data entry for the research project.  I’ve been traveling to the various schools in the two neighborhoods we’re researching and collecting pieces of information on nearly each and every student—where they live, where they were born, etc.  When I began this part of the project, my pride flared up:  “This is the kind of work you give an intern who is trying to claw his way to the top!  I didn’t fly across two continents for this!”  And so my spirit suffered, and I became rather irritable.  But then a new avenue appeared:  while it’s true that this is the kind of work one might do to climb the ladder of success, I don’t have to worry about that here.  I need only work quietly and humbly and see what there is to see.  My frustrations abated somewhat, and suddenly I saw another side of Bolivia:  I glimpsed a bit of the inner workings of Bolivian schools; I enjoyed minor moments of hospitality—a soda here, a smile there; I got to practice my Spanish in new settings where I had only myself to rely on; and so on.

Embracing this form of liberation, seeking to step outside my ‘safe spaces’ to meet God in the challenge, the ugly, the troubling, and the frustrating, allows me to be more present to the moment.  If there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, why bother myself with assumed expectations, both my own and others?  If all I can do is my best, if all I can do is be present to the moment, what the moment needs, and allow myself to both succeed and fail, then that has to be enough. 

It seems as though the other volunteers and workers with whom I live find me funny.  Not my jokes, so much (no surprise there), but my general approach to life, my mistakes, my attitude.  This can be fun—it allows me to do goofy things, to tune my mandolin while cooking dinner, to walk around with a handful of half-eaten crackers, to wear blue and yellow shorts with a lime green t-shirt—another opportunity for liberation, stepping beyond expectations and allowing myself to be present to the good and bad.  As Henri Nouwen noted in the book I just finished, Gracias!, I am being afforded the opportunity to be child-like, to ask silly questions and make silly mistakes.  But this can be disheartening as well, especially when it seems everyone is laughing at my Spanish or my accent or my inability to understand.  Yet, again, I must smile and allow that failure to be—I am not being tested; there’s no final exam.  I just have to keep moving forward.  Difficult?  Incredibly.  But with a constant call to humility, I am learning much.

Henri Nouwen noted that there are countless moments of extreme joy and extreme depression, that we find these moments in both those things we thought we’d love doing and those that we thought we’d hate.  The only constant thing we can rely on is the fact that these moments exist.  And so we have a choice—we can live for those moments of extreme, or we can seek to live in a state of spiritual continuity, to exist in the in-between.  I think this latter option allows us a better spontaneity to be open to the demands of the present moment.  Certainly, it is difficult for me to come away from a moment of great joy and satisfaction—will I be able to find such success in the next moment?  Will I be able to hold such a fulfilling conversation in Spanish with the next person I encounter?  But this form of liberation to which I feel called says not to worry, to put myself in all moments, challenging and enjoyable, and allow what will be to be. 

I’ve thought not a few times about last semester and how busy I was in comparison to my time so far in Bolivia.  I definitely saw myself as a main character—I was integral to the Communion Services, to the Eucharistic Ministers, to my residents in the Ignatian Residential College; I had to work hard at KPMG for my own benefit.  Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps in the end it’s better not to be the main character but to merely be part of a larger cast, all working together to create a grand saga of stories.  Perhaps that is the attitude I would have done better to adopt last semester; who knows what graces could have come from that?  Perhaps that is what we’re all called to.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see in the coming days, months, and when I return home.

During my VIDES training this past July, I was introduced to the Mission Mysteries of the Rosary while at Maryknoll headquarters.  One of the mysteries offers a reflection on the Roman Centurion who sought out Jesus in the hopes that he would heal a sick servant.  This story was important to my prayer this week:  here we see a man who leaves his home to meet God in a foreign place, to ask a simple question in the hopes that this journey will result in a new grace back in his own home.  Why is it we must leave our home—what is known and comfortable—to meet God so far away?  Certainly, this ‘distance’ doesn’t just mean a physical journey; God invites us ‘far away’ in many different ways.  But for me, what was most important about this story was the faith of this man…what kind of faith motivates a person to such an adventure, an adventure grounded in an extreme form of trust?  This Centurion was no ‘main character’—we hardly see him at all, in fact.  But his simple action—or perhaps not-so-simple action—challenges me to seek out this kind of faith in my own life, to base my own actions on a trust that I can’t quite comprehend.  It is through this trust, I think, that I will be able to move from moment to moment, from joy to sorrow, without falling into uncertainty and depression.  In faith and trust—and of course, constant gratitude and humility—perhaps I can better embrace this idea of liberation, this opportunity to simply be with people, allowing myself to endure the bumps and bruises, the joys and wonders that God provides along the way.   

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sacraments of Humility

I’ve been saying a lot lately that I often feel as though, since coming to Bolivia, I’ve learned more about what I can’t do and what I’m not good at than anything else.  But, like I’ve said in early posts, I came to Bolivia with the prayer that I would encounter humility, that I would be humbled and made to see the experiences of each day with new eyes.  I think it’s safe to say that I am on that path now, and there doesn’t seem to be an end (or opportunity to make a U-turn) in sight.  But that’s fine—this is an important part of my experience, perhaps the important part of my experience, and it’s something I mean to stick to, no matter how difficult.  Am I looking for pity or sympathy or an “Aw, Eric; it’ll be okay.”  No.  (Well, maybe!)  There are lessons to learn during every step of life—some that last longer than others—and this happens to be the one I’m working on now.  So, what I am looking for, what I hope to grapple with in this post as well as in the coming months, is a way of looking at these humbling experiences, to transform them from moments of embarrassment and frustration to graces through which God can move and mold my heart and mind. 

Has my Spanish improved?  Yes, but that doesn’t mean I understand everything people say to me.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t still countless moments each week where I am stuck, dumbfounded, repeating “Como?” or “Qué?” while the other person shakes their head and tries to choose words I might understand.  That doesn’t mean that the kids at Barrio can’t still snicker and laugh at me when I miss a joke or an insult or when they ask me to translate dirty words that I don’t know in Spanish to English.  That doesn’t mean that my community-mates don’t at times simply give up trying to explain something to me because they themselves grow frustrated with my slow improvement. 

I’m no star athlete, yet, that’s expected of me too.  I guess I have a physique that says to the boys I encounter: “He’d be a great addition to the team; get him to play.”  Plus I’m a guy, and all guys are naturally good at soccer and basketball and any other sport, right?  All guys love to play sports; in fact, any moment that can be used for running around with a ball, should be, if you’re a guy, right?  (It wouldn’t be hard to insert an observation or two on gender studies here, although I think you get my point.)  And so, when it turns out I’m not so good or I don’t want to play, the boys (and occasionally girls) are horribly confused and disappointed—but you’re a guy, you’re tall, you’re American; why don’t you want to play?  Why aren’t you any good?  You do play sports, don’t you?  I let down the kids; I let down myself. 

And what about those rather average moments of every day life, some tinted by cross-cultural exchange, some mirroring ordinary happenings from the U.S.?  For example, how many times did I show up at Barrio and Bismark—one of the educatores—tried to find something I’d be good at.  “You can help paint this mural,” he said, and then I did a less-than extraordinary job painting the soccer player’s face.  “You can cut out these letters for a poster,” he said, and then he had to correct me on what size letters he meant.  “You can help in the kitchen,” he said, and then proceeded to catch me as I was walking in the wrong direction and nearly held my hand as he showed me how to turn the meat over on the grill.  “Help me change the lock on the broken door”—no, this screw; no, do it this way….no, no, no.  And, as it turns out, I’m not that good at chess either.  “Want to play chess, Eric?” Francisco, one of the Barrio boys, asked me.  After a bit of trying to decipher the word for chess, I figured, I know the game; let’s do it.  Embarrassed three times, with ten boys watching. 

What am I good at? I ask myself often.  What was it I used to be so successful at?  Whatever it was, was it important?  Was it a real thing?  Because here in Bolivia, my skills and talents have a hard time manifesting themselves.  Talent seems so often to be something that can be easily seen here—you’re good at fútbol or dancing or you can play an instrument, things people can see.  “What are you good at?” kids have asked me, and what am I supposed to say?  I’m good at reading and writing?  I can lead conversation in community?  I can discuss theology?  I’m good at thinking through problems?  How would those things sound to a 12-year-old Bolivian boy?  And so instead, I try to hold onto those things I know I’m good at, keep them in mind to provide a bit of affirmation when I’m being embarrassed by Bolivia.

And yet, even those things I think I’m good at don’t quite translate in Bolivia.  Karina asked me to help her design and then proofread and offer suggestions for a questionnaire she’s going to use in her research.  Normally, I would have little problem with such a task; in fact, I’d enjoy it.  But my writing in Spanish is far, FAR from perfect, and my ability to offer suggestions on someone else’s writing is limited at best.  And to think, not so many months ago I worked in a center where that’s exactly what I did: helped others improve and think through their writing.  But here, I can’t do that; I have to allow myself to be humbled and face the fact that even that skill—my writing, my love of words and sentences—can’t be used here.
And what about those conversations I love to have?  How many times have I tried to guide people into thinking and talking about those “deeper” realities of life?  And yet, can I do that here?  At Campo Bosco, we had small groups where we were asked to talk about our lives, our hopes, our relationships with God—things I love to discuss and hear about.  And yet, I could hardly find the words to accurately describe myself, let alone my prayer life.  I had to be called on by the group leader to give my thoughts when I’d normally be one of the first to volunteer.  And I remember thinking: “Even this has been taken from me.”

It seems as though coming to Bolivia has stripped me of nearly everything I am, as though I’ve lost those things I’m good at and am forced to build from the ground up.  I feel like a child, in some regards, which can be good and bad—I’m justified in asking a lot of questions at least.  And I’m forced to come face to face with who I am at the core—though I won’t pretend that I’ve finished that task; perhaps I’ve hardly started.  But I’ve begun to think about those character traits, those frustrations, those little quirks of mine that exist not just as a result of my struggles here in Bolivia but that are actual parts of who I am—for example, at Campo Bosco I had to often remind myself that I take a long time to feel comfortable and myself when I’m in a large group of people; I don’t usually jump right into conversation when I’m with a bunch of teenage boys—these aren’t results of my language barriers; these are facts of my person that I have to face in English or in Spanish.  And so, while I feel stripped of everything that makes me an ‘impressive’ individual, that makes me feel confident and myself, I am also still me at the core.  I have myself to give—my broken self, as Henri Nouwen writes in a book I’ve just started reading; and isn’t it our ‘broken selves’ that we have to give to others, isn’t that all we really can give or all that is really expected?  Everyone feels broken, is broken, has cracks and scars and weaknesses, and it is in and through our brokenness that we can enter into solidarity, across culture, time, space, whatever.  Is it that brokenness that holds us together as human?

And so my prayer at Campo Bosco centered on this humility, on these feelings of helplessness and self-stripping, and I found myself wondering if I was being given an opportunity to glimpse a unique aspect of Christ’s mission.  Didn’t God empty Godself of what it meant to be God in order to become human?  Didn’t God give up everything that made God ‘impressive’ to become a weak, broken, ordinary human being?  Didn’t Jesus have to build ‘from the ground up’ in discovering who he was and could be as a human being?  He didn’t enter the world with a bang, working miracles and moving mountains; rather, he entered the world in one of the most humble ways possible:  stripped of everything he was; forced to seek out and build what he would become. 

Isn’t that what we’re called to each time we approach the Eucharist, whether at mass or adoration or whenever?  We come forward to meet Jesus in a great sacrament of humility: the Eucharist is that real presence, that real self-emptying of God to become human and an invitation to us to empty ourselves of “me, me, me” to come into communion with both God’s will and the realities of each and every person in the human family, past, present, and future, united in the Eucharistic sacrifice, that sacramental reality of God’s moving grace within the fabric of creation.  Perhaps what I am experiencing now—this ‘forced’ stripping of self—is what I should always seek in prayer, and the Eucharist stands as a reality of what I should want to become.  Here, maybe, is that ‘Daily Bread’ in a much grander form, much more literal form.  Here, too, is that foundation upon which I should be building myself, seeking those ‘real’ skills and talents, offering my brokenness to others. 

Fine; all well and good.  Have I learned my lesson, then?  Hardly.  I caught myself just the other night while working with Karina trying to exercise my own pride and foolishness.  Karina has saintly patience; I don’t know how she puts up with me (my usual annoying self in English) and my inabilities with the language we work in.  Often, I don’t understand a part of the project or some element of my task, and Karina diligently attempts to explain to me what I’m doing and how it contributes to the larger picture.  She even offers me insights into the research method and project formations—things I should be more than grateful to receive from someone so well-versed.  And yet, I often shun her help and advice, saying something to the effect of, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it; I don’t need to know all this extra info—this is your project, not mine.”  Humble, huh?  Not at all.  But, room for improvement, yes.

Another tricky example:  I was at Barrio the other night and, to my great discomfort, it was a night to play sports.  “Do you want to play basketball or soccer, Eric?”  Neither, was my response, but I couldn’t say that.  “Basketball,” I tried, thinking perhaps my height would make a difference.  It might have, if we hadn’t played in the dark.  Instead, I missed passes, got hit in the face, and quickly became exhausted—I literally couldn’t see anything in the pitch black!  But more importantly, here I was embarrassing myself at a sport I never pretended to like to play.  Is that something I need to keep doing?  Is that what humility calls me to, to continue to do something I dislike, that frustrates me and brings me down, that causes me to lose respect in the eyes of the kids I serve?  I’ve tried it, right?  It’s not like I turned it all down outright; isn’t that enough?  Or am I required to do more?  Where does humility come into play here?  What is demanded of me?

I don’t have answers.  I probably don’t have all the questions, either.  But I do have this:  my prayer this morning was born out of frustration; I’m often a little anxious on the weekends when there’s little to do.  Many people have left me comments that highlight that seeming lack of organization and order in my schedule—it’s very true; there isn’t much order and there’s hardly a schedule.  And there’s a good chance it’ll all change at the end of November when the kids go on ‘summer’ vacation.  Such disorder is hardly my preferred lifestyle, and I get very anxious when there are large gaps of free time or when I feel like I haven’t done any real ‘service’ in the day.  Yesterday I submitted my application for my Bolivian visa (FINALLY), hung out with some Salesian Lay Missioners, and had an awesome BBQ with my community—all great stuff, but what ‘service’ did I do?  And yet, my prayer this morning reminded me of something I have often told other people:  service doesn’t just mean holding a hammer in one hand and an orphan in the other; service goes deeper than that.  An easy reality to accept, especially when I so want to end each day feeling as though I’ve done something, closing my eyes with a sense of satisfaction?  Not at all.  But I needed to be reminded of this reality anyway.  I needed to be confronted by my pride, my desire to have what I want done, what I think is good and necessary and appropriate, shattered and cast aside.  I needed to be reminded that God is at work in the day, in each moment, providing those graces and instances of ‘Daily Bread’—and, most importantly, that God has already proven this fact to me over and over again.  But, I need to relinquish my own expectations and open myself to God’s will, God’s plan, God’s project.  Not an easy task at all, but a humbling one. 
So, does any of this come easily?  No.  Does any of this mean I’m ready to just open myself up and let go?  No.  Do I still face disappointment and anxiety that I’m not doing enough, that I’m on the wrong track or have gone in the wrong direction?  Yes.  But who is to say that a conversation I had yesterday during the visa process or simply my presence at the grill fanning the flames last night wasn’t ‘service’?  Maybe it was.  Not what I expected, but what I expect might not be important.  Perhaps I need to allow myself to be stripped of expectations as well. 
Perhaps it is only when I have emptied myself completely that I can partake most fully in these sacraments of humility that I encounter each day.