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 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 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 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.