Tuesday, December 7, 2010

sunday, bloody sunday

i've had some bad days here in argentina. in fact, in the moment, i would have told you (and probably did tell my mom) that they were terrible, awful, atrocious and that i just needed to hop on a plane and fly home that instant. however, if you know me, you know that i speak in superlatives, all the time, about everything. (see?) when things are going well, i feel invincible, untouchable, like i have no time for ill will or worries because life is too short and the sun is too bright to waste any time at all.

on the flipside, on my darkest of days, everything in my life is a wreck and nothing will ever go right and things are so irretrievably broken that nothing i do could ever fix the (supposedly) terrible things that have happened. see what i mean about the superlatives?

sometimes, though, i think i get it right. sometimes, my heart breaks and it's not about me, at all, sincerely. and i have found that these really are the worst times, the situations that couldn't be accurately described by the highest superlatives found in any tongue ever spoken, the ones that really might not ever be able to be made right. in these cases, my penchant for speaking in extremes is not at fault for anything except maybe an underestimation of the pain that lies therein.

piled one on top of another, griefs so great, tragedies so unspeakable seem to form an insurmountable summit. sometimes, though, in these dark moments, i remember to look up to the peaks of the the tallest mountains and ask where my help comes from. then, and only then, can i remember that He is our helper. that we can only feel this sadness with our frail bodies. mourn our losses with delicate and fragile hearts. and see the hardships with our short-sighted, human eyes. that He feels and sees and knows us far beyond what we could ever imagine, and that this God of infinities is on our side.

one of my all-time favorite novels is the road by cormac mccarthy. mccarthy is a minimalist in his writing, famed for telling tales about characters with no names, with sparse dialogue and no quotation marks. his novels are dark and tend to make bold statements about human nature in a masterfully subtle manner, without sacrificing the sincerity of his writing. the book tells the story of a man and his young son's quest to survive in a dark and cold post-apocalyptic world. as the two wearily trudge toward an as-yet unknown point, they encounter ruthless cannibals and thieves, witness horrific sights and stubbornly face their own humanity--and finally, at the end of the novel, reach their destination.

the end of the story is a beautiful and heartbreaking one, and i won't ruin it for you if you have good enough sense to go out and buy this book right now. truly, though, the most touching, poignant parts of mccarthy's story lie not in the final pages when they finally reach their journey's end, but within the trek itself--moments so strong and memorable are created despite the scarcity of words that had the ability to reach me and speak to my soul in a way literature never had before. the sweetest, most tender passages, the ones that still stand out to me after all this time are the ones in which the little boy wants to give up. stop walking. and resign himself to whatever fate would befall him after his surrender. the father would remind him, gently, that they had business to take care of, that they had a fire to carry--a load, though burdensome, that could not be given up, no matter what the cost.

we're the good guys, the father would tell him. we have to carry the fire.

days like today, i feel like this is us, the human race, fighting against the world in which we live. though we might want to, we can't give up and give in. the world may be dark, hope may be nowhere to be found, the journey might seem to be more than we can bear...but we have a fire to carry, and it's a load that we must bear until we reach our destination.

earlier today, i listened to a U2 song i used to love but hadn't heard in quite a while. a lyric that had never made much of an impression to me before seemed to scream at me this time:

"the real battle's just begun
to claim the victory Jesus won"

and that is the honest truth. every single day that we are on this earth, we have a battle to fight and a fire to carry. the victory HAS been won--hallelujah!--but our journey is not over yet. we live in the already and the not-yet of the Kingdom--horrible, unmentionably awful things happen every moment, and sometimes, it seems easier to just stop, to give up.

but, like the father in mccarthy's haunting story, we have a Father who wants to gently lead us along, who reminds us of the load that we carry and of the importance of trust and hope and faith. our fragile human bodies inhabit this world for now, but it is not our destination...and, in the midst of seemingly endless sadness and suffering, that is something for which i am truly grateful.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"a dangerous kind of unselfishness", or what i wouldn't give for a gingerbread latte right about now

in case i haven't told you personally what the last seven weeks of my life have been like, i will tell you this much: it's been a strange ride here in buenos aires for many, many reasons. and to write any of these experiences off as being inherently good or inherently bad would be to simplify the people i have met, the shantytowns in which i volunteer, the small and conflict-torn church where i work and live and the intense and eye-opening experiences i've had along the way.

if you know me, you will know that i was pretty unexcited by the idea of leaving one really hot and humid summer season in houston just to head straight into another in buenos aires. while i was greatly resenting the reversal of seasons for this reason, what i wasn't anticipating was really longing for an autumn. an october filled with scarves and light cardigans and the smug awareness that the smothering heat has passed, that days filled with crisp morning runs, boots and crunchy leaves are quickly approaching. and then there's november. once the pumpkins have been carved and the last pair of shorts put away for winter, starbucks' christmas cups come out to play, filled to the top with delicious, warm beverages with hints of cinnamon and cider, begging to be consumed while listening to sufjan's funky rendition of "silent night" or mariah carey's quintessential hit "all i want for christmas is you".

while i am sad that i cannot really partake in any of these activities to their fullest extent, the one thing i truly look forward to every holiday season is watching love actually. i love just about everything about this movie. each vignette tells a different story about the importance of love. what it means to truly be in relationship with your fellow man. and why it is an absolutely fundamental component of life to recognize that we are all really interconnected.

one of my favorite parts of this movie, and one of the true beauties of its script, is that you find out as the movie goes along that all of the characters are linked to one another in some form or fashion.  the intertwining of their stories speaks to the truth of the sentiment that we, as humans, are not rocks. we are not islands. (sorry, art and paul, you two seem to have gotten that one wrong.)  we need each other. interactions and relationships (or the lackthereof) can haunt your thoughts, follow you around from place to place even as you try to bury it forever and move on with your own life and leave the memories and lives of others behind.

i don't need to watch a movie to remind me of this, though. haunting evidence of the importance of interactions, big and small, are all around us, in our own lives and in the stories others share with us.

my older sister is a high school english teacher at a private christian school in houston, where she attempts to enlighten white students with even whiter names about world issues that actually matter. (as it turns out, it's quite a tall task.) we talked earlier this week and she told me that she had shown her students the famous picture of a tiny, emaciated african child resting on her way to a feeding station and a vulture mere feet away, creepily watching his prey of choice. if you are really a human being, and if you see this picture once, i think it has the ability to follow you around for a lifetime. take a second, though. pictures like this don't show up out of thin air...someone took it.

that person was kevin carter, and he snapped the photo on a trip to the sudan in 1993. it was published in the new york times. it caused quite a stir overnight (and rightfully so), with hundreds contacting the paper inquiring as to the fate of the little girl and why carter had only taken the picture, rather than helping her. one writer went so far as to say of carter: "the man adjusting the lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene." in 1994, carter was awarded the pulitzer prize for his unforgettable snapshot of the misery of starvation and lack of resources for at least one little girl, in at least one region of a giant and ever-troubled continent.

carter ended up taking his own life a little over two months after this achievement, at the age of 33. he left a note which spoke of incurable depression, of regret and shame and an inability to shake all of the horrible and unspeakable tragedies he had witnessed in his years as a photographer. one line reads, "i am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain...of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners", another: "the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist."

while alison told me parts of this story in order to highlight the insensitivity of her students' reactions, i have thought of this daily. of the small girl, of a wounded man, of the cruelty and reality of the fragile lives we live that are so easily affected by the actions or inactions of our fellow man. when you read carter's story, you can see so much more than a two-dimensional man who took a fascinatingly terrible picture and got famous. you realize he was a person, too. that he saw so much more in his short 33 years than he ever should have, that he witnessed human beings doing horrible things to one another and that as a child he was exposed to violence so great, so unbearable that it continued to shape him until the sad last day of his life.

kevin carter is not the only person in the world irreversibly touched both by tragic things inflicted upon his own life, and the things he did not do himself that might have spared other lives, in turn possibly erasing the guilt and shame that caused him to take his own. when you look for it, you can see it everywhere. i saw it this summer when i watched the indescribably depressing documentary about people who have committed suicide by jumping off the golden gate bridge. one man told his friend that if even one person smiled at him on his way to the famous landmark, he wouldn't jump...they found his body days later.

i see it in my own life, too. on one particularly lovely sabbath, the girls and i took the afternoon and went out to tigre, a lovely little area outside of the city that boasts unbelievably green grass on the edge of equally lovely and inviting water. on our way back into the city, the train was jam-packed with tourists, locals, and weary-looking backpackers alike. there was a european-looking couple that looked so evenly matched that they made the other girls and i hope that one day, we would be able to find beaus to whom we were so perfectly suited. there was the man who knocked me in the head with his suitcase and didn't apologize, on whom i would have gone all steven slater if i had a) spoken perfect spanish b) had access to an emergency exit and c) not really needed to be on that last train in order to make it back to the church before sundown. but there was one boy on the train i could not figure out, and who unassumingly caught my eye for that very reason. he had piercing green eyes and looked very young and worldly at the same time. as he was preparing to get off at his stop, he commented to one of the people with whom he'd been chatting that he couldn't wait to get home and make himself a couple of burger patties with ketchup and go to bed. my roommate caty overheard and commented on how good that sounded, and a man looked directly at caty and said, "yeah, but you have no idea where this kid lives"--not-so-subtley suggesting that this boy was headed back to a part of town that would surely change our opinions of him. the aforementioned kid, without losing a stride, said "yeah, but we don't know where she lives either." something about this small conversation has continued to affect me in the weeks since it happened. it's true--so often we don't know each other, at all. and making presuppositions about where each other are coming from will only take us further and further from one another, instead of drawing us closer together because we are all humans, because we all have experienced life as broken individuals trying to survive at the hands of an equally broken world.

finally, there was a man i met this summer in africa, early one freezing morning while my team and i handed out food to homeless men on the streets, men addicted to huffing glue and who normally go unnoticed in the eyes of a world that tells them they are less than worthless, worse than trash. when i asked him if i could pray for him about anything specific, he told me anything i could think to pray for him about, he probably needed. his eyes wordlessly spoke of an unbelievably hard life, and as much as it hurt to look at him and think of what every day on the street held in store for him, i couldn't look away. as i was leaving to go back to our nice, warm hotel in the heart of nairobi, he called out after me, "if you even think of me once back in the states, if you pray for me even once years from now, meeting you will have been worth it."

that was on the first day of our trip, and months later it still proves to be the moment that i overwhelmingly remember above all else from my two and a half weeks there.

the other day i read a quote by MLK Jr that said "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. i can never be what i ought to be until you are what you ought to be. this is the interrelated structure of reality." 

the small, starving african child could never be who she was supposed to be until carter was, as well. carter could never be who he was supposed to be until the others in his life were, too, those who had made him so calloused toward pain and suffering early on in life that he was able to be a professional photographer in a war-torn world until he took his very last breath. the man who took his own life off the bridge could never be who he was supposed to be until someone else fulfilled their purpose, too, and gave a sad, lonely man a smile on what would end up being his own death march. the young, probably homeless boy can never be who he is supposed to be until the rest of the train's occupants were as well. until we no longer judge others by their looks, or social status, or what they could do for us. and my friend that lives on the streets in kenya can never be who he is supposed to be, either, until i am who i am supposed to be. until i remember him every day, pray for his sobriety, pray for his friends that suffer the same fate, and pray for whatever hole in the system to be fixed that allows grown men to live on the streets, year after year, without a single hand being lent in a silent offering of empathy and strength.

i want to be a person who never forgets this "interrelated structure of reality". i hope i can always recognize that my own purpose in life is to help others fulfill theirs. and i hope, above all, that one day we can live in a world where living in this way is more natural, less against the tide, one in which we faithfully seek to help each other to be better people above all of our own goals and wants and needs just because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that each of our actions affects our fellow human being.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

journals and journeys

i'm just going to go ahead and add "keeping a blog" to the already ridiculously long list of things i am not good at, including, but not limited to, keeping a straight face in serious situations, not having abnormally large eyes and frizzy hair, not looking like a hobbit, and, as it turns out, speaking spanish.

however, i want you, as my faithful followers and random strangers, to know a little bit about what's been happening here, so i'll just bite the bullet and go for it.

as it turns out, blogging is a lot like journalling (journaling?)...keeping a journal. i have collected countless thoughts in leather-bound notebooks with recycled pages (because, obvs, i love trees and like, the environment) that have continued to haunt me for years on end. my junior high journals are filled with everything from LFO lyrics ("Girl on TV" will always get me, every time...by the way, RIP Rich Cronin) to sad little entries from a heartbroken, 12-year old Claire because the the boy I loved (LOVED!) was too shy to ask me to dance on Valentine's Day.

as i got older, and clearly, more mature (?), the thoughts indelibly scribed on the environmentally-friendly pages evolved as well. i became more concerned with my looks, my friends, if i was cool enough to hang with the in-crowd that sometimes spoke to me and sometimes didn't. there was the boy i loved with the flaming red hair with whom i spent countless hours in a particular fast food restaurant that ended up breaking my heart so badly we didn't speak for almost a year. there was the continual concern for my friends whose hearts became less broken by the things that break God's heart, and more and more broken at the hands of what my dad would call "the bogus world system". and having to decide where to go to college sent me into a whirlwind of despair for almost all of my senior year, causing me to listen to unbelievable amounts of sad indie music such as the songs off of death cab's CD "plans" (the apathy i showed, coincidentally, made me more attractive to the tall indie boy from my stats class, who wrote a poem about me and published it in the yearly CBHS lit-mag. while he had a girlfriend. whom i sat behind at graduation...it was about as fun as it sounds.)

however, none of the self-deprecating and loathsome thoughts i wrote at age 18 could ever compare to the things i wrote my spring semester of senior year of college. all of a sudden, i was face-to-face with my future, and the thought terrified and paralyzed me to no end. if you were fortunate enough to have witnessed one of my many meltdowns (which came in endless forms, such as panic attacks in my mesoamerican studies class about having to retire my ridiculously colorful wardrobe in favor of the ever-unflattering pencil skirt and button-down duo), you probably heard me say six words, over and over again: "i feel weird about my life." normally, i would follow up that sentiment with a run around the bear trail or a baking party with two of my favorite friends and we would sit and chat and eventually...slowly...my stress would melt away and be replaced by the joy of being 22 and surrounded by my best friends at all times.

as it turns out, may 16th (the day after graduation), the date i feared and maligned for so long, came and went...and the world didn't just end. i woke up the next day, sad but alive, and ventured back into the world in the hopes of finding The Place Where I Belonged and The Job I Was Born to Have. an opportunity presented itself, and i became convinced that all i ever wanted was to live in waco and try to convince high school seniors to choose baylor through copious amounts of phone calls, postcards and free stickers given away at college fairs like candy. life became simple again in those few weeks. i had a plan for my future and it was going to be PERFECT, exactly what i wanted and needed and in a place that was as familiar and cozy as your favorite cardigan on the first crisp day of fall.

obviously, as it turns out, i didn't get that job. i woke up one morning to a phone call that kindly informed me that my application was "no longer being considered, thank you"...6 more words that shaped my new outlook and assured me that i would never find what it was that i was looking for and needed the most. it was in this delicate stage that i heard about the pilot team being assembled for mission year argentina. i immediately knew that THIS was the opportunity i had been waiting for, that it was exactly where i belonged and that nothing in the world could ever make me happier than to return to the land of fine wine and cheese, bustling streets and hardcore dance clubs known as boliches.

i prayed, raised support, packed, met my teammates and got on a 12-hour flight that was sure to take me back to the place where all my wildest dreams would come true. i pictured myself in cute dresses teaching english to packed classrooms of the young elite of buenos aires who were dying to learn english from such a fabulous group. i envisioned running through parks on sunny days and wandering downtown with my new best friends, effortlessly speaking spanish and topping off the day with a nice white mocha and a cute argentine by my side.

i knew almost right off the bat, stepping off the airplane, that my visualizations of life in BA were tragically, overwhelmingly wrong. the church is tiny, with a congregation you can count on two hands some sundays, in a part of town where taxis refuse to go past a certain point at night. i got my a terrible cold and had no money to buy myself medicine, and i found that my main position as a volunteer here involved 3-5 year old children and their continuously running noses, in a dirty villa filled with trash and smoke, deeply entrenched in conflict and injustice perpetuated in every direction...even in the places you would least expect to find it.

needless to say, i am finding more and more that my journal entries here revolve around the same themes as the one from this past spring, insecurity about my purpose in life, fear of what the future will bring and the overwhelming urge to stay away from precipices that threaten to drop me off into an even deeper unknown. i feel weird about my life, again (still), and i'm finding it exhausting to constantly re-evaluate my past and present and future in an effort to reconcile them together and find a sense of harmony between the three.

the good news is...i don't have to fit them together at all. someone else has already done that for me, someone who knows infinitely more about me than i will ever know about myself. someone who wants to reassure me, everyday, that He has already read all my journal entries i will ever write and knows my every thought and has a grand plan for me. plans greater than the redhead i thought i loved and the job i'd have killed for and the pesos i need just to survive in a rough part of town. and the rest will be revealed to me, maybe slowly, maybe years from now when i find my small brown leather notebook filled with sad sentiments and lonely words which i will know formed me a little more into a better me. a version of myself that will remember when i had to trust, and pray, and hope all things, one that will look back at the things i'd written during my year of service in argentina and know that it all worked out the way it should, much better than i could have dreamed.

i know i will look back at all of the trials and tears and know they weren't for naught, with the same confidence and security i know now that i would be miserable if i were still in waco. if i had dated the boys i'd loved that turned out to be jerks. and what a fake and meaningless world i would live in if i were never in want or need, if i never had to lean on someone greater than myself and have faith in something unseen.

i know i will be thankful for all of this one day. and i can't wait to eventually re-read my small, cramped handwriting from this year that speaks of brokenness and heartache and know that it was all just preparing me for something greater than i could even know. and maybe one day i will learn to toss even my present worries into the wind along with all of the others i've felt for the last 23 years of my life, taking them to His throne and leaving them there, for good.

through prayer, and time, and patience i know i will get there. until then, i will continue to write down the things that haunt me so that years from now, i can see them again and laugh, confidently placing my journal filled with insecurity and doubts in its rightful place, buried in a drawer with others much like it, similarly filled with graciously unanswered prayers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"how strange it is to be anything at all"

i am a sucker for mixed CDs.

i love the feeling of an unlabeled disc warm in my hands, filled with the promise that it contains songs i do not know, songs i have yet to hear that are just dying to compart new wisdom to me and speak to me in ways that songs i already know have not been able to up to this point in my life. that may sound dramatic, but that is probably only because you are underestimating how much i love music. (blame my parents, it's hereditary. trust me.)

in the last several years, i have had many a mixed CD given to me, some by potential suitors that have come and gone and some by best friends with whom i am convinced i will grow old. a few years ago, someone out of one of those categories sent me a 2-disc set of songs he just knew i would love. i loved those CDs, really. in turn, they each made me feel free, pensive, loved, understood, and a part of the human race--but there was only one that stood out to me. REALLY stood out to me.

it was neutral milk hotel's "in the aeroplane over the sea".

if you have not heard this song, i HIGHLY encourage you to youtube it, buy it on itunes,  download it online (wait, mission year probs doesn't approve of illegal activity...scratch that)--whatever it takes, just listen to it and try to tell me it doesn't, at least in some small way, speak to your soul.

while i love the whole thing (the whole album, really, is ridiculously awesome), one part of the song has always stood out to me--jeff mangum's warbly voice at one part lilts 

"and one day we will die
and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
but for now we are young
let us lay in the sun
and count every beautiful thing we can see"

this became a sort of anthem for me over the last couple years, especially this past spring in waco. i used it literally, as an excuse to skip class on nice days, go to the park and suntan and dream and think of all of the wonderful things i had in my life. i used it metaphorically, a veces, as well, as a reminder to myself to take the time to look around me and recognize beauty everywhere i can find it. sometimes, it has been in the obvious places, where you would look first--my wonderful family, darling friends, nice sunny days when all i needed was a sundress and a rodeo clown from common grounds (it's a drink, don't worry) to feel alive and a part of the world.

but sometimes, the beauty is not where you would expect to find it. and that is what i have found to be true in the last three weeks i have spent in argentina. it's been a bit of a go so far--living in the church has not been the most comfortable of places, and so far, the water and gas have gone out countless times, sometimes for days (once, for an entire week). sometimes, it has been funny...some days, it has not.

but that's the thing about being here. i realize that i am trading some of the comforts that would be easily accessible back in the states for beauty that i can find in other places. and i am so thankful for it.

i want to be someone who counts all of the beautiful things i can see (and i want to be sitting in the sun doing it as often as i can). i want to appreciate the small things, the people here in the community who have welcomed us with open arms, the street vendor who bothers to remember our names and the vagabonds we share a space with in the trains who teach us a little more about what it means to be a human being. to be alive. to share the love of a God who gives us beautiful things to count, and sunny days on which to do so.

i want this blog to be a catalog of the beautiful things i have counted so far, and if you, my four followers and random people who are also reading this, want to tell me about the beautiful things you have found as well, i think that would be just lovely.

peace, amigos. and kiko, if you're out there...thanks for that song. appreciate it, bud.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


if you know me (and i should hope you do, unless you love to lamely check out blogs by people you don't know), you know i have had a longstanding prejudice against blogs/the people that keep them. it's not at all that i hate any/everyone in the blogosphere, but i have always found it a bit strange that people would create a page online, available to the public eye, which had the sole purpose of talking about their own lives/thoughts/activities. like, really? but then, i found blogs that i loved. and i realized that i love reading the blogs of friends far away, whose lives are nothing like my own at this moment so that i can feel a part of their journey as well.

hopefully, as my friends, you know by now that i am living in buenos aires at this moment in time. this is my third week here, and this will be my home until sometime next july or august. if you are a random person reading this, you probably are good enough at stalking that you already know that as well (congratulations on your skills, if strangers like you are out there. i'm not even mad, i'm impressed). i am here with a team from mission year, working and living at a church outside of the city and near several poorer communities and shantytowns. we are just now starting to get settled and figure out where we will be volunteering, so i still can't really say for sure what all we will be doing while we are here...hopefully, all of that will become known at some point in time. :)

this blog will not be anything fancy. i have no idea how any of this works (which is surprising, i know, since i am normally such a whiz with technology) but i want to keep you guys updated on fun/exciting developments here, as well as things you can be praying for as we join in ministries here and eventually create some of our own. i will try to figure out at some point how to add pictures so you can feel a bit more a part of this adventure. 

peace, amigos!