Category Archives: Beauty

Do not go silently into that good night

A friend asked me recently about the concert I attended for 30 Seconds to Mars and I suppose I summed it up with, “It was loud.”

Jared Leto is the leading front man of the band, and by most accounts of the American Dream he is successful. In addition to being accomplished actor and rock star, he still looks good as a 42 year old. I’m amazed at what he’s been able to do in the life he’s been given, and how he continues to make it new and real with his stage presence like in Lima, Peru the other evening. There are thousands and thousands who’ve joined the official “Echelon” fan club and feel uniquely attached to him. I don’t know if any of that has to do with that with his current hair style he looks like Jesus, but that night it seemed like his love for them was mutual.

I first began to listen to 30 Seconds to Mars because my brother let me borrow an album. Their 2005 album “A Beautiful Lie” marks a trip to the Southwest 30-seconds-to-mars-concert-1desert I made with my brother in 2007, of which a picture hangs in my room. I remember most of those songs as a soundtrack to the strange and alien-like territory of the Arizona desert. They all sound like freedom, of a wide expanse of sky and tanned earth, of new possibility, and I know that the trip, my brother, and those songs are the landmark of a time period that set in motion the dramatic changes I would make in the years to come.

I had always wanted to see 30 Seconds to Mars in concert for their music and for experiences like the desert, and it took almost seven  years after that first listen for me to finally see them live. I carry with me certain desires that I just can’t let go, especially if I know they are possible. Seeing 30 Seconds to Mars for their music, for the mark they helped make seven years ago, for the completion of a goal was why I went to see the show that night, and it was everything I needed it to be.

My thoughts were illuminated by the army of synchronized stage lights as Jared sprinted like a boy out of school for the summer. It felt and sounded like a hundred explosions, and part of me thinks that’s part of the energy released by the fans who waited years for the band to come. (They had never visited Peru, up until this date.) I thought about all the waiting, and the excitement and the fact that in approximately an hour and a half the concert would finish. I thought about what I’ve done (and not been able to do) in Peru and it all just seemed to make me a bit sad that someday it’ll be over.

What an injustice. We spend so much time waiting for something important to arrive, and when it does, it touches lightly on our stop, and speeds on to it’s next destination. It feels so disconnected: the time waiting, and the time experiencing. Maybe that’s my problem, that it seems to be related, but really it’s so callously independent. I hope that’s what Jared recognizes too. That we, like him, wait for something, and that we know, ashamedly, that it will end quickly. Are we ashamed that we were bound by something we had to wait for, or because we felt we had no choice in the matter?

I remember reading Dylan Thomas in college. My English professor enjoyed him and T.S. Elliot, so that’s how I got introduced, but for most of America we know of his famous poetry because a stanza was once paraphrased in Independence Day. It’s from the same poem I remembered in college, and the one I drifted towards this concert night, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Dylan wrote it about his experience of his dying father, but the words, so brilliantly infused with emotion, have been used by coaches, leaders and politicians for decades:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

(source: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night)

I returned to the thought about the magnificence of a person like Jared with this notion of things ending much sooner than we think they should. I think consciously or unconsciously he knows that; like many people great and 30-seconds-to-mars-concert-2popular, and others great and still unsung, they realize that life indeed is so very short, and ends before we’re comfortable with it. Indeed, we are not the masters of our time.

For that reason, I believe that when Jared and his brother, Shannon, arrived for their first concert in Lima they did it in such a fashion of extravagance of sound and energy to prove to us that even though an end will eventually cap the evening, and the thousands of miles and mountains of hours, indeed the years waiting for their arrival, will all feel like the brush of the wind from the passing of an express bus, they will stand before the multitude of eager and spellbound fans and will not go quietly into that good night.

Because if death marks its end with silence then we must be loud to mark the time we were alive.

The concert, then, was very loud. It was loud for the thousands of fans who waited for their first arrival to the country, it was loud for the band to see the love and Echelon banners flown in the multitudes, and it was loud for me to bring completion to something I wanted to be a part of for so long.

Most importantly, it is yet another reminder that there is still too much silence in my life. That there will be a time to be quiet, but that time is not now.

“A Parachute for All” – (July ’12)

   Aaron Roth – HOPE International – “A Parachute for All” – July 2012

Hi everyone, this newsletter is about the Esperanza-Edify family camp we had in a school called “Colegio Bethesda” in La Romana, Dominican Republic in July. As I mentioned earlier, I’m planning to stay here in the DR until October 11th to help out with a HOPE event here before returning to the States this fall. Do please continue to support me through the fall if you feel led.

My first experience with a parachute, thankfully, was not when I had to jump out of a plane. My mother had found an old Army parachute at a yard sale, and my siblings and neighbors and I played with it for hours during a summer in the early ‘90’s. I distinctly remember talking with our resident engineer, my brother, how much time (in milliseconds) I would have to deploy the old, tattered, white parachute if I were to jump off the roof of our house. Luckily, our mother caught wind of our plans, and disabled access to the roof and scolded us enough to dissuade us from taking such a leap.

What was your first experience with a parachute? My guess it was some form of summer camp when you and your friends stretched out around the edges of the colorful fabric and breathed life into the beast as you launched beach balls, water balloons, or maybe, just maybe, some young, lucky aspiring July-12-News-02astronauts that your youth leaders deemed rugged enough to survive a few test orbit missions from your summer camp launch pad.

Two weeks ago was yet another reminder to me that kids are kids, and that all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in His sight.

In Microfinance, we don’t usually do summer camps for kids. We stress the importance in giving July-12-News-03people a hand up, not a hand out. We make loans to those who live in economic poverty to help them start sustainable businesses to help them improve their economic situation on their own.

In the partnership with Esperanza-Edify, we make loans to small, low-cost private schools to build more classrooms and computer labs; initiatives that increase a school’s income and improve the quality of teaching at an institution. We believe the best way to launch a child into success is with a solid education, but yes, for fun, on this particular occasion we did let the kids play with the parachute (but not physically launching them, don’t worry).

Colegio Bethesda is the economically poorest school of the 33 schools in our lending program in Esperanza-Edify. In the past 18 months we have lent over US $300,000 to projects relating to construction of new classrooms, infrastructure improvements, and computer labs. (Note: Microloans July-12-News-04are actively being paid back so that we can use this capital to lend to other schools. I love this aspect of how microfinance works!) We make loans with good interest rates and terms to projects that will help a school in providing a better education for the children of their community, and right now we have almost 7,000 children in our program of 33 schools.

Colegio Bethesda is a school that I’ve spoken about before in my newsletters and blogs; it’s a largely Haitian community, and this community is considered the economically poorest in La Romana, a large city in the east of the Dominican Republic. It’s a community where there is no regular access to water, July-12-News-08electricity, and just 2 months ago, they got their first paved road.

So to celebrate the progress over the past 12 months of Colegio Bethesda with Pastor Wisley Denis and his school administration team, and their three new classrooms they built from the loan we made last summer, we wanted to do something special. Something that we don’t normally do.

With the 90 students, their parents and their community, we brought a summer camp full of activities of arts & crafts, English classes, and games. Within HOPE, Esperanza, and Edify, when we find an appropriate project to assist a school in a manner that is more donation based, we try to do it in a July-12-News-04way that empowers the community, instead of just a group of Americans coming and giving away large gifts. Pastor Denis found workers from his congregation that wanted to make an impact in the school in the community. He was looking for parents and workers that were invested in the importance of education, so local Haitian workers from the community finished the three classrooms during the camp.

Pastor Wisley Denis said,

“We are all very excited about this summer camp. For these children, they know that other kids get to go to camp, but they know they could never go. They simply cannot afford it. By showing up, by being present here, we are showing them they deserve to be special.”

I was the leader of the older kids, “Los Campeones,” (The Champions), pictured in the yellow shirts in various pictures above. Like most older kids, they were reserved, and a bit timid, just waiting for an excuse to run off some of their energy. So we passed from English and then onto crafts and finally to recreation. The chance to run and play had finally arrived. They were desperate to blow off some steam.

July-12-News-07Sometimes I have a moment where it all clicks for me, and when I find myself in an economically poor community, with parents struggling to make ends meet, the temptation of drugs, prostitution and crime, the sickness, grief and the pain, the need and the desire of the innocent trying to just be children, and then comes something that just covers the entire situation with a new face, a new hope:

outstretched in the courtyard of the church was displayed the color-filled canvas pulled taut by the joyous hands of 30 screaming Haitian children.

How beautiful.

The photo I captured here to the right reminds me of the spirit of joy found in children, no matter where they are from, or what color their skin is. They all just want an opportunity to play.

I believe that children deserve access to good education, a teacher that encourages them and cares about their future, an administration that promotes values and discipline, adequate facilities that promote their development, and an opportunity for higher education. July-12-News-05

And there, under the parachute was a common ground, a place where we could all laugh at the majesty of the colors of our make-shift tent. We all fit, we all deserved to be there, we were all special in the way we were made.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in His sight.

I think most of the time in America, we worry about how much resources we have to make sure that all children are covered in the schools, lamenting that we only have room for so many. We cut programs that engender the creative prowess of our youth to make way for standardized tests and programs. Many times the kids that need it the most, don’t fit under the parachute, and sit against the wall . . . and learn that their only place is by the wall while the rest of the world gets to be underneath the glowing tent of colors.

I’ve got an idea, let’s find a way to make a bigger parachute.

Let’s find ways to make solid education available for more children and youth in our communities locally and internationally. It doesn’t have to be in a public school classroom, or a private school for that matter, it can take form in a church, even the courtyard of a church that’s covered in dirt and rocks. It just matters that we show up, that we make ourselves present, and that we make our youth know they too deserve to be there.  By making the investment in youth, we will see our communities grow and flourish, just like Colegio Bethesda in Villa Hermosa of La Romana.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Blessings to you and your family,

-Aaron

A Cold Breath of Reality, the Death of a Soul?

Sierra does not enjoy the cold or the snow.

As I kid, my friends told me you couldn’t see the air. They lied. One day when the weather turned cold, a strange thing happened. I could see the air that I breathed. I was fascinated to realize that a thing not seen suddenly took form and became real.

Especially after living in a very hot and humid country, seeing your breath is a bit of a wonder, so stepping off the airplane onto the jet way in Milwaukee last week I was again surprised by seeing my own breath.

It’s a blatant reminder of the change in temperature, and for me, the cold snap of the reality of the passing of a loved one. First, it’s the shock of the chilly air, and the realization that I’m in Milwaukee because of the passing of my grandmother, and second, it again was that recognition of a breath of air manifested into a physical form that took me by surprise as a kid.

I was always confused by the idea of a soul as a child. How exactly could a thing exist that we can’t see, that I couldn’t touch with my hands, that I couldn’t stuff in my Dukes of Hazard lunchbox, or cram under my bunk bed? And if it did exist, was it in the heart, or was it in the mind?

I did know one thing though as kid. When our dog was killed running across the street in Iowa and my dad took my brother and I to a barn to see where he was laid to rest, something hurt deep inside. It wasn’t just my heart, it wasn’t just my mind, something ached for something lost.

I came across a poem by Robert Frost last week when I was home. It’s the same poem I read six years ago, and committed the last stanza to memory.

Robert Frost “Reluctance” written in 1915 (4th Stanza)

“Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?”

I encourage you to read “Reluctance” in its entirety.

To me, the biting cold of winter is like the pain of loss, a reminder of a warmth that has left us. But do we only ever see our breath when the temperature drops below 32 degrees? Is a thing unseen only manifested in the absence of warmth, only in pain or loss?

It is true, the soul is a mysterious thing, as is the nature of life, as is the reality of death, as is every element of the design of the Creator. There are two things that bring me closer to understanding the things of life and death and breath –  first, this video below:

And second, that the dead leaves scraping across the ground of winter came from the trees that proudly displayed their brilliant colors in the fall, leaves that matured during the summer from the heat and rains of summer, a delivery from the bloom and growth of spring.

If winter is the death of warmth, then why does spring come?

If a breath is only visible in the exhale, from where do we draw it in?

If a soul is extinguished in death, then where did it begin?

. . .

I believe less in beginnings and ends, and more in the simple movement of things. Maybe the soul in its journey of life and death is just a change in address.

Last week we passed by 415 Staver Street, but I don’t believe grandma and grandpa live there anymore.

Grandpa’s Handkerchief of a Thousand Miles

Albert always carried a handkerchief with him in his back pocket that he used to wipe his forehead when he worked doing construction. He didn’t understand why people didn’t carry handkerchiefs with them anymore. They were so useful he’d say, and I remember him wanting to give each of his grandchildren one of these practical gifts – new ones of course. He didn’t like how we would throw Kleenex tissues away so easily, it seemed like such a waste to him. He was a man of reason, a practical thinker, a “I can probably fix-it so don’t throw it away” kind of guy.

Six years ago after his funeral we spent some time cleaning out his old home office. To me, it was fascinating to see how he arranged his work, and his specific manner of workflow. There were folders for business, for school, for family, for woodworking projects, and for church. Everything had its proper place and purpose, and he had a daily routine that he kept to. I even remember the date had been updated in the morning on the last day he was alive.

Even until his last days he stuck to the discipline with all the matters and materials of daily life. One thing that sticks with me is that he never took anything with him when he passed on, all his possessions stayed there at the house. Keeping track of my own possessions the past two years has been mediated by baggage requirements: one carry one, and one checked baggage, and yet, I still realize, you can’t take anything with you traveling heavenwards.

I took a handkerchief from Grandpa’s desk six years ago, and I put it on my desk at home. Two years ago when I left the States, I put it in my backpack. It was a simple reminder of the practicality of my grandpa, and of my grandmother, both lived through the days of rationing during the Second World War. It was hot and humid in every single country I’ve visited, perfect for wiping the brow just like grandpa did in construction, but I know the reason I kept that handkerchief with me is that it reminded me of home, of a solid family, of grandparents that cared about me and loved to hear from me.

Next to grandpa’s desk were a few shoes neatly arranged and recently polished. Mom said, “You know when we were growing up, Albert used to have holes in his shoes because he spent the money on us. Over time, he could afford to have nicer shoes, leather, with sturdy soles that could be easily repaired and last a long time.” I tried on a pair to see if they fit. They did.

My parents packed the dress shoes I asked them to bring along for the funeral. I had kept the sturdy ones that fit well, and used them from time to time in the past six years. I had kept Grandpa’s handkerchief with me in my backpack and then at my desk in Santo Domingo. I stuck it back in the pocket of my backpack on the trip home. Arriving to the funeral, I had Albert’s shoes and handkerchief.

. . .

I remember carrying my grandfather as he carried me. I carried his handkerchief with me on all my travels, and I kept it in my pocket Monday morning.

I carried my grandmother as she carried me, one hand on the casket bar, the other holding the handkerchief grandpa gave me.

. . .

I don’t know why I do stuff like this. If you ask people that really know me, they’ll tell you that I’m a person who likes to carry out a movement or a tradition so that it in some ways connects to its origin. I’ve done it with the houses I’ve lived in, the campus of W&M, and the bridges of Richmond, VA and so on.

Helen was being laid to rest next to Albert, something she had wanted for six years, and as I stood on the edge of the grave, I realized, strangely, that it was like I was bringing Albert’s belongings back to him, as if to prove to him that I was a good and faithful servant. Thousands of miles I brought them back to the origin. Wouldn’t he be so proud?

But I know, and I know he would have told me, that he never wanted them returned, he just wanted to see how far they would travel.

I think that’s how Albert and Helen loved their grandchildren, never wanting a permanent deposit, but most certainly a visit, a meal, and stories to see how far they had traveled.

With tears stinging my face on a cold January Monday morning, I took out his handkerchief and wiped my eyes, and put it back in my pocket; I still had plenty more miles to travel . . .

She’s Been Waiting to Share So Many Stories

Grandpa made this stained glass hummingbird.

Six years ago when my grandfather passed away, my grandmother requested her grandsons to carry the casket of her husband, 87 years of age, and 60 years of marriage. It wasn’t just that she wanted the strongest, most capable men to carry it; rather, she said that it was the most fitting.

Albert had loved each of us dearly when we were babies. He held us as he rocked back and forth in his chair, carried us around the home, and even changed our diapers. He used to call me “little pumpkin head;” my guess is my siblings and cousins had similar nicknames befitting of their early physical condition.

Now, on that cold, January day in the small town of Warren, Illinois, his grandsons, men of post graduate degrees, working young professionals, and university students would carry the man who once carried them.

How beautiful and mysterious life is, that me, a baby of 7-8 pounds and some ounces, small enough to fit in a wash tub, could grow  to be 6’3” not able to fit into a bathtub. Once, completely dependent on those that provided for every need, I was innocently incapable. We were all like that though, my brother and my cousins, dependent on love to sustain us, for without it we would perish. We were vulnerable and weak.

At 22 years old, tears stinging my eyes as I held them back, I waited to see if my cousins let theirs go. Yes, strangely, I was still vulnerable and weak. I felt like that was ok though. I think Albert knew we had become strong men, both in will and stature, strong enough to carry the man who once carried them. He was dependent on love to sustain him.

I never got to tell him that I set sail on the greatest adventure of my life, but my grandmother knew.

She told me several times that her Albert would be proud of me. I know she had been carrying many messages for him. She had been saving them up for six years now. To think she’d lived more life with him, than without him – 60 years of marriage.

I can’t imagine all the things she’d been waiting to tell him, things like the accomplishments of her grandkids, new sewing patterns or quilting ideas, corn that needed shucking, and the plans for the big Thanksgiving dinners. When he passed, she said she just wanted to be with Albert up in Heaven. She was really ready to go.

 

Two weeks ago a stroke set in motion the rapid decline of her health.

I’d like to think she just started packing her bags.

It had been a very difficult two weeks for the entire family. Many tears.

I think she was just firming up the details of her departure.

. . .

Sunday night she left to go be with Albert in Heaven.

. . .

I imagine her with pockets full of letters, stacks of photos with rubber bands wrapped around them, and printed emails from the family at home and abroad.

She’s coming home grandpa, so make sure the kitchen is clean.

I love you Grandma :)

Tercer Cielo – Mi Ultimo Dia (English Translation)

Tercer Cielo is a talented music group from the Dominican Republic and lately I’ve been learning to play and sing one of their songs on my guitar. “My Last Day” has a beautiful melody and message, and has some amazing harmonies throughout. I’ve translated the song into an English interpretation below the video. As you know, direct translation never captures the same meaning, so I’ve taken liberties to make it sound like we would say it in English. The Spanish lyrics appear below that section. Que hermosa.

As if it were my last day,
I’m going to live with a sincere love
And show those close to me how much I love them.

As if it were my last day,
I’m going to fight for my dreams,
Living without fear and treasuring every minute.
I’m not going to wait until tomorrow because all I have is the present.

If there wasn’t much time, I would stay and take a moment
To show you that I love you and that I am fully content that I have you.
And if your joy depended on me, I would give everything I can to you to make this day the best day in our life.

If this was my last chance to look at you again,
I would make this moment the most important in your memory,
Because in the times of difficulty and stress of this life, we miss the details we later wish we could remember.
And then regret that we’ve forgotten these experiences, and mourn that we cannot recreate them.

If there wasn’t much time, I would stay and take a moment
To show you that I love you and that I am fully content that I have you.
And if your joy depended on me, I would give everything I can to you,
And make this day the best day in our life.

I would enjoy all that God has given me
friends, family and love,
and I’ll make this day the best of my life.

¿Cuantas palabras en Ingles conoces?

Una comunidad para aprender Ingles y diez otras lenguas.

[Spanish Lyrics]

Como si fuera mi último día,
Voy a vivir en la vida, amando sincero
Mostrando a los míos cuanto los quiero

Como si fuera mi último día
Voy a luchar por mis sueños
Viviendo sin miedo
Y cada minuto, vivirlo intenso.
No voy a esperar hasta mañana, si el presente lo tengo

Como si no hubiese tiempo, Me quedara un momento
Voy a mostrar que te amo, Que estoy contento, que te tengo,
Como si tu alegría depende de mí, voy a darlo todo por ti,
Y voy a hacerte este día el mejor que pueda vivir.

Como si fuera mi último chance para mirarte de nuevo,
Hare del momento, el más importante de tu recuerdo,
En el estrés de la vida, Se nos escapan detalles,
Que luego más adelante lamentamos olvidarse,
A veces se hace difícil o imposible recuperarse,

Como si no hubiese tiempo
Me quedara un momento
Voy a mostrar que te amo
Que estoy contento, que te tengo
Como si tu alegría depende de mí, voy a darlo todo por ti
Y voy a hacerte este día el mejor que pueda vivir.

Disfrutar todo aquello que Dios me brindo
Mis amigos, familia y amor
Y voy a hacer este día el mejor que pueda vivir
Y voy a hacer este día el mejor que pueda vivir.

The Transparency of Kindness

I’ve experienced some amazing moments of kindness since I started traveling in August. Moments where I stop and realize that there is goodness in this world, and even though someone does not have money or status, they can change someone else’s life. To me, I thought that to make a difference in someone’s life, you needed to have enough money and education. You had to be in a position of power to positively affect someone else. But there were many moments, and continue to be experiences, where I realize that being educated, having money, skills or talents is irrelevant. Absolutely irrelevant. What matters most is desire, and the willingness to step forward and make yourself available.

Out of many, many examples over the past 4 months to illustrate this point, I’m going to talk about Antonio. Antonio is a Guatemalan in his thirties (possibly early forties). Early on in his life, his diminutive status and diminished mental capacity limited his ability to work led his family to cast him out in the streets to survive on his own. He’s an orphan, and because he never grew up around a family or had consistent relationships until he was 12, his language skills are limited. He doesn’t even speak Spanish. When you want to talk to him, you either have to know Tz’utujil or use body language, and work at it both until he understands. He has no wealth nor the potential for earning it. In the modern world, he has nothing to offer, but yet, he has a room in a home, three meals a day, and a family to call his own. How?

When people ask me what I’ve thought about Central America, I usually respond that people are so kind, so incredibly gracious and welcoming. I say it because it is a point of contrast between the United States and the Central American culture. I say it because I’m a single, young American, without any dependencies, and everything I consider to be safe, secure, and good has come from hard work and the protection of what I’ve been given or earned. Sometimes, I think that to survive in this world you have to fight, and that to admit weakness, or softness is a dangerous admission into vulnerability.

Antonio lives with the Cortez family, and has lived with them for over 20 years. They found him on the street and felt sympathy for him and gave him a home, and more importantly, they gave him a family. He’s got a role in the family and it matters that he follows through with it. He has to fill the water into the outdoor sinks and replenish the firewood, or the food making (which starts at 6:00am) will not happen. I’ve seen him many times at 5:00am wearing a stocking cap and a winter coat carrying firewood up to the second floor. He always wants me to pass by him, and he won’t let me wait for him to finish his trek up the steps.

My perspective has been changing about how this world can work.  I have seen too much already to continue with my old mindset. While I haven’t usually taken the time to record my thoughts on this blog, or captured the moments with a photo, in some ways, I don’t want to. There is something special and unique about knowing that when a moment exists it will pass and will forever never be recorded in words or images. I believe these moments are precious, and they have become some of my fondest memories.

The first time I saw Antonio’s room was when I went up the steps one evening up to my room. The experience made me stop, mid-steps, and think about what it means to be an orphan, or a son, or a traveler in this world. His room, in a word, is “security.” The family gave him something that will always be his. He has a single bulb that lights up his small dwelling place. I saw a picture of the Cortez family, a picture of Jesus, a dresser, a neatly made bed, and his boots placed next to his shoes underneath his small coat rack. I paused on the steps, and thought about the preciousness of having a room to call your own. To have a place where you can set your stuff, fold and store your clothes, and rest in privacy. The times I’ve felt most comfortable while traveling in the past four months has been when someone has given me a room to my own. It’s then that I know that this place will be mine, and mine only, and I and my various possessions, will be safe here.

Antonio’s room is his firm grip on this world. Even though this world has been cold to him and deserted him so many times, this room is something that will not be taken away. It is his, and his only.

I don’t have a picture of Antonio’s room, and I will never have a picture of it. It’s his room. It’s where he feels safe. I’ll leave it in his possession.

I guess, one could say that you really need to leave the borders of the western world to see such kindness of the Cortez family, but I don’t think that’s fair to our society. Kindness exists in our culture every day, but it is so easy to overlook. We get lost in our schedules, in our obligations, and in our entertainment.

So I suppose what happened to me was not that the world was suddenly filled with these moments of real kindness, it’s that I was finally able to see them.

And now, I see it everywhere.

Love is a Continuous Investment

Everything we have is from the contribution of others. I’m starting to see that much more clearly. I know that my trip and my service abroad would not be possible without the financial and emotional support from my friends, my church, and my family. I want to say thank you to you all. Without you, this would not be possible for me.

I’ve thought a lot about what I have and what I’ve been able to do, and truly, it has been possible, only by the contributions from others. I think there is something crucial that separates one generation from another, and this happens only with maturity. It’s the belief in investment. The older generation believes in investing in the future. Why? Because it’s a good thing to do? Because it makes them feel good to love their families or financial support young people, or their college, or an organization? Or is it in part, because they know how the process works.

They know that the reason we are able to live in the present has been made possible by the investments of the people who lived before us, and in order to keep this process going, we must invest. Invest time, love, energy and even a little more. I think they recognize that every entity of life is a system. A system of inputs and outputs, and quite simply there will be no outputs if we do not keep putting more in.

  • We won’t have more crops if we don’t plant more seeds.
  • We won’t have better students if we don’t teach them.
  • We won’t have well behaved sons and daughters if we don’t instruct them.
  • And we won’t have love unless first love.

I guess growing up, we just take. We take what people give and we always believe there will be more money, or energy, or love. I realize now, that there was always more because my parents always put more in. I was drawing from an account that was not made magical by anything other than by the magic of the effort made by my parents, my friends and my community.

I’m starting to pick up on this idea more as I travel. I get frustrated sometimes when I meet people who do not acknowledge or recognize what came before them. They are here in San Pedro only to party and to extract as much value as they can out of this location. They aren’t interested in learning about the culture, the language, or the reasons why this place is so nice, they’re just looking for a cheap place to drink.

Of course, not all travelers are like this. I have had plenty of meaningful conversations with people from all over the world that talk about their community, their city, and their family with a glowing appreciation for everything that has been done for them. And many times, they desire to invest in the same system that made it possible for them to be who they are, to work where they worked, and to travel where they travel.

Maybe the difference is in the word “privilege.” All travelers I’ve met, including myself, are privileged. We are a part of the specific group of people who have the funds and the time to travel. Some of us recognize this privilege and feel “gratitude,” others recognize this privilege and feel “entitled.” It’s like they are saying “of course I have money to travel” or “of course I’m from a wealthy nation . . . it’s just how things are.”

I believe that “how things are” comes from thousands of investments. People who make investments in our lives to teach us, build roads for us, clean our communities, organize our sports teams, assemble our churches, and in the simplest of terms – people made investments to love us.

And without these consistent investments the whole system will break down.

So thank you to everyone who has loved me. I am who I am, and I am where I am because of you.

I love you back.

Tamales and Tiny Hector

I was playing guitar when Tiny Hector (my nickname for Hector’s nephew) walked into my room and presented me with a large banana leaf. The women were busy preparing a large batch of tamales and were going to wrap this mix of ground corn, chicken, and fruit with large banana leaves.  I asked Hector (his real name) if he had been helping the women wrap the 300 tamales that they had planned to make that evening. His response was a presentation of the leaf to me, so  I took it from him, looked it over, smiled, and then gave it back. He put some of it in his mouth, and proceeded to tear up the rest into tiny pieces.

I suppose this is how Tiny Hector helps when the women are working. I love this kid. He’s so sincere, so honest, and he doesn’t speak much of any language. Most of the family here speaks Spanish and Tz’utujil. (Tz’utujil is one of the local Mayan languages – I’ll write more on this later.) If nothing else, Tiny Hector provides a respite from the hard work during the nine hour marathon needed to prepare 300 tamales.

From what I understood with my limited Spanish, the women were making tamales for a special day of celebration. Twelve women had gathered from the local church at our house, and had been working all day to make these tamales. The Cortez family was excited for me to try tamales. Apparently, everyone loves tamales in Guatemala, and sometimes they get together to make them for special occasions. Hector asked me if it was ok that the women would be working on the tamales outside my room. He said they may be up late. I told him it wouldn’t bother me. So the women labored while I slept.

The next morning, at breakfast I asked Flori where Hector was. She said he was sleeping; he was up late last night. I asked her how late she and the women stayed up to make the tamales. She said she went to bed at 3:00 and woke up at 5:30 to begin the house work. “Wow,” I thought, “these women are so dedicated.”

Later, at lunch, I was talking about all the tomale making with Hector. He said he slept in because he was up late at night and up early in the morning to deliver some of the food to a local church and to drop the rest of the food off at his church. I asked, “Oh, so the tamales are for a celebration tonight at your church? You usually have church on a Tuesday, right.” He said that they did, but tonight was special. Tonight his brother was going to speak.

I made a new friend at church recently, his name is Nicholas, and he’s a farmer. He stands about 5’1” and wears black cowboy boots. The very first night I attended, he was the first person to greet me. He has a big family and has been very involved in the church. I asked Nicholas, “Is there always a dinner after church?” Nicholas responded, “No, tonight is a special celebration.”

I find it funny that since I don’t know how to speak Spanish well, I find myself gathering clues most of the time and trying to assemble a complete story. Very often, I ask the same questions, and with repeated answers, I eventually get the picture. Somehow, I still didn’t know why today was a big day.

The service proceeded as normal, and when the Pastor was finishing his message, he asked Hector’s brother to come up and say a few words. Hector’s brother is really involved in the church, as I’ve seen his name on the main board a few times as a deacon or a greeter.

Hector started talking about his past. He talked about his family and his job and how there was a period where things weren’t good. I gathered that some really bad things had happened, really bad, and as he humbly told his story, tears started to fall from his eyes. He had to pause to continue, but at the points where he thanked his family for their loyalty and their trust, he could barely speak.

The pastor came back up and put his arm around him and asked if people wanted to come forward to pray with the family. I felt like I was witnessing a very important event in the history of the church, in the history of Hector’s family, and something uniquely special about this community. It was a humble gathering, and hugs and kisses were exchanged by the family in front of the church. No pomp and circumstance, no loud music, just a community of people standing in the middle of the church happy to celebrate a man that came home.

The pastor announced that the youth would serve the church, the whole church. Regulars, full-fledged members, and people who just happened to walk in that night. Everyone would be fed.

As the youth were coming out to serve everyone, I asked Nicholas to explain to me what tonight was about. He said that Hector’s brother was in a really bad place in his life, but a year ago on this day, he walked back into the church and turned his back on a lifestyle that had damaged his family. It was the anniversary of him becoming a Christian, of him coming home.

I keep having these moments where I feel like time slows down and all the Spanish clues I’ve gathered throughout the day are now forming a cohesive picture.

The women were up late.

The women labored while I slept.

The women stayed up until 3:00am to make over 300 tamales.

The men stayed up til 3:00 as well.

The men got up again at 4:30 to deliver the food.

They made over 300 tamales for their family, their friends, and for strangers.

For an entire day, a community labored to celebrate a man who came home. They thought it proper to have a banquet, but not just for the family. Everyone. Anyone. Anyone who walked in that door of the church got fed. Anyone with dirty clothes or dirty hands. Anyone who had already eaten that evening, and anyone that hadn’t yet eaten that day.

They all labored while I slept.

I couldn’t believe it.

Tiny Hector stood in my room with a banana leaf in hand smiling at me, wanting me to join in.

Tiny Hector is Hector’s brothers son.

Tiny Hector labored while I slept to celebrate his dad coming home.

Even now, as I write this. A heavy emotional weight pulls at my heart. All this kindness and sincerity. All the humble workers. All the ordinary people making food to eat. The lack of pomp and circumstance. The lack of applause. The lack of tables as we ate our food . . . we all ate the tamales in our laps.

It’s all so heavy in my heart.

And probably the best thing is what happened when we got home. After three hours of celebration, we returned home. Hector’s dad asked me if I had ever eaten a tamale before. I said I hadn’t, but I really, really liked them. He asked how many I ate today. I told him I ate four.

He opened up his mouth (which was missing six front teeth) and put his hands on his belly and laughed a big hearty full-bellied laugh.

“I had eight,” he said.

Somehow, it was clear to me that this was the last puzzle piece of this story. The one that seemed to make everything fit together.  The family labored while I slept so that everyone could celebrate, and anyone could eat. After all, eating is for family and for friends, and for foreigners. And when you eat tamales, those delicious tamales, the goal is to eat until you’re full, until the entire family is full.

The labor had been completed. We celebrated and ate until our bellies were full, and now it was time to rest, for everyone to rest.

I went back to my room and set down my things. I found a tiny piece of a banana leaf and set it on my desk, and I smiled as I turned out the light.

Pancho, the Caballero – A True Gentleman

In Nicaragua, getting out of bed on Thursday morning was difficult. Everyday, we awoke to sore muscles, but this day I knew we were going to visit La Chureca, the enormous dump in Nicaragua. Emotionally, I didn’t feel ready to visit the dump. I was not looking forward to what I was going to see. I don’t know if it was the impending guilt or shame for living such a comfortable lifestyle,  knowing that the people I was to meet had next to nothing, or that I was probably going to see something that would shake me up inside.

Riding in the back of a pickup into La Chureca my nostrils were assaulted by the foul smells. It was probably the worst smell I’ve ever experienced. Food scraps, soiled clothes, and used toilet paper (since no one is allowed to put used toilet paper down the toilet) get thrown away and everything gets hauled to the dump. Consequently, when the trash workers are burning the heap, you smell everything undesirable. It was extremely hot and humid that day, so I also smelled rotten food and other sun-baked refuse. Birds circled over the heads of the trash workers who wore long pants and shirts and rubber boots. They carried with them long poles that looked like forks and they looked for items of value: clothes, plastics, glass, metals, anything that could be sold or used for their dwellings. People can make a living at the dump, and have been doing so for quite some time.

La Chureca began almost 40 years ago after a hurricane destroyed the homesteads of Nicaraguans. Families began to move into the area because they were able to earn a living picking saleable things from the trash. The government gave some subsidies for housing with the perspective that it was all temporary community – these people would leave as soon as conditions improved. Today there are more than 500 families living at the dump. Families are large at the dump, so 500 families can mean anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people.

A beacon of hope in the area is the local church run by Pastors Ramon and Miriam Baca. Inititally they had it inside the walls of the dump so that it was close to the people living in the community. Recently, they changed the location of the church to outside the dump so that all churchgoers would feel the literal and figurative sense of life beyond the walls of the mountains of trash. We participated in the daily feeding station that the local church operated.

After a short tour of the area, I think most of our group was exhausted from the shock of viewing the living conditions. For me, I know I have never been in a place this bad. I almost feel shame for saying that because what happened next shocked me more than the unsanitary abodes we toured.

About 50 children sat in colored plastic chairs to wait patiently for lunch. They were all smiling and playing with each other. Brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends – these kids were part of a tight-knit community in La Chureca. Despite not having shoes, or clean hands or faces, these kids were still kids.

They took joy in poking each other, putting their arms around the shoulders of a friend, and greeting all the Americans with waves and hugs. I thought to myself, “How can such beauty and warmth exist in such a terrible place?”

As I was trying to process this in my mind, a little guy turned around and started talking to me. I learned that his name was Pancho. Pancho didn’t have a plate with him so I asked him if he wanted to eat. He said that he had already eaten and all he wanted was for me to put him on my shoulders. He walked out from the area of chairs and motioned for me to crouch down. He walked around to my back and began to climb up to my shoulders. I was thinking to myself that those little barefeet were incredibly dirty. I probably had little footprints on my back.

Pancho started to say “Caballo, Caballo!” which means “horse” in Spanish. So I galloped around the yard with Pancho the cowboy – the Caballero – on my shoulders. He was squealing with laughter. I was smiling too. I knew that there is not much I could do for him at that moment except to show him love and kindness.

As I was galloping around, Pancho was saying something to me that I had to stop and listen for him to repeat again. “Como?” I asked.

Pancho said (translated):

“Let’s go to my house.”

“Where is your house?”

“Over there, just up the street.”

“You live close to here?”

“Yes, lets go to my house and say hi to mama . . .”

Whew.

At that moment I got a big lump in my throat. I felt as though time stopped and everything about this dump, all my perceptions came crashing down. Pancho, the little caballero, did what anyone does when playing with new friends – he invited me to his house to say hi to his mama. I imagined what his house might look like . . . the dirt floors, the rusted metal sheets pieced together to form a wall, broken furniture, holes in the roof, and a makeshift table where he and his brothers and sisters would eat what little food his mother prepared.

I wanted to cry.

How could this little boy with dirty feet, dirty hands, and a dirty face, wearing a shirt that was so old the printed graphic had faded away, be so kind, so full of joy, so much like every other child in America?

See, the most shocking thing for me that day was not that La Chuleca was so dirty and desolate, it’s that there was a such a bright spirit of happiness in those kids, in that community, and in my friend Pancho.

I had to put Pancho down because we were leaving. He said to me that he wanted to ride on my shoulders again. I said, “I’m sorry Pancho. I have to leave.” He said, “Ok.” And then he said something that I couldn’t understand. I wished that I knew what he meant. As I jumped back on the pickup to leave, Pancho came to the edge of the feeding area and waved and said it again. I still didn’t know what it meant, but my guess is that it was an invitation to come back and play, because I still needed to meet his mama . . .