"'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. 

1 comment:

  1. love it! love the final paragraph and of course, the mention of a 1 month to go mark. may i selfishly shout, "Hooray!!"