Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ya meet some pretty unassumin' people...

It hit me, walking through the Jacksonville airport at 1:30am this morning, that everything started there. 2 years ago. That's where I met my fellow YASCers for the first time, one by one, as we all arrived for this mysterious thing called discernment. I'm in Florida now for the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes where Cristosal is sharing our human rights work thanks to some serious helping hands from the 815 Development Office (mil gracias compañeras!)

But what I wanted to share has nothing to do with the conference. I arrived here alone, cold, wet at 2am. I set out on a walk this afternoon, past long stretches of urban sprawl and cloaked in a poncho that under favorable circumstances could be considered a well trimmed trash bag.

And I loved it. The smell of ocean air mixed with a chilly drizzle, the slow intentional way people greeted you on the street, if only with their eyes. I sat down in a small ice cream shop next to a wrinkled couple matching the cut and dry description of retired Floridians... until they started talking. One batch of sweet potato fries and a cup of raspberry custard ice cream later, I'd learned I was sitting next to the two-time national sailing champion and his wily mistress/artist friend who had sailed across the Atlantic to Greece in a steel-hulled 72' sailboat. Twice. "We were gonna go to Singpore frum there, but ya know, with the fighting and all, they just decided it wa'nt a good idea," she said to me, swirling the mountain of whipped cream atop her mocha cappuccino.

The rain kept coming down, and the ice cream shop owner insisted on lending me his umbrella. They had two after all, and I could just drop it off whenever it stopped raining.

I stood on the frozen beach ten minutes later, watching the sea gulls, smelling the salt, and feeling like I was in Seattle, Boston, and El Salvador all at the same time. There's something about slowing down, about letting the world come to you, that I didn't know how to execute two years ago. I stood on that beach in my soggy sneakers and just grinned like a fool, feeling the cold wind on my face and listening to my poncho flap in the breeze under a newly acquired umbrella.

There's lots of obvious things that have changed in two years, but something about coming back to the same place teaches you how your way of being can change too. How someone who has rushed and pushed and jumped her entire life can, against all the odds, slow down just long enough to see what's happening on this little abandoned strip of Florida and relish every sweet, salty-aired second of it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Double Life

In Spanish, we say la gente está viviendo una realidad de violencia...
"the people are living a reality of violence." As if this were only the flavor of the week, and there will be a new reality tomorrow.

In my day-to-day, this reality is always present: in my friends' Facebook posts, in the curly-cues of an "MS" or "18" graffittied on street corners, in the horrific stories of families broken, women abused, and impunity paraded through the lives of those I love and know. I have seen bodies mutilated on the side of the highway, and the first thought is always gangs or traffic accident? 

This violence has never touched me. I have never felt unsafe. I have no past experiences for these stories to latch on to, no emotional response to equate with what these families experience. I am deeply grateful for this and would never wish to be in these people's shoes. But in the words of Oscar Romero, "there are things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried."

I feel at the same time ashamed and immensely grateful for my own immunity... for the privilege of my skin color, the wealth and the passport that protect me. But what do I do with that privilege? How do I account for it? For now, I go to work every day, I lend my gifts any way I know how, and often at night, revel in the simplicity of crime shows where you know the bad guy will get nailed in the end.

At Cristosal, we assist victims of gang violence, particularly those forced from their homes due to threats of extortion, kidnapping, rape, and death. The suffering is unbelievable, the lack of justice infuriating. Cristosal's work is to make it possible for the Salvadoran state and the international community to assist these victims - to build a future in which these people receive the justice and protections they deserve. I believe in this mission with every fiber of my being... but that future is still many years away, and this reality is being lived today, and tomorrow, and the day after that...

I am learning to receive this sadness, to hold someone's suffering, and to accept my own limitations without calling it failure. I want to fix this. I want to free a woman from being unjustly held in prison, save young girls who grow up with the expectation that at 12 they will be raped... it is the gang's right. I am learning patience in the face of sorrow, and the uncomfortable need to just turn off the bad news, cook and paint your nails as if the outside world did not exist. This post holds no answers, just the expressed discomfort of knowing there is no quick fix.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Feliz Año Nuevo!

In El Salvador, New Years means fireworks. The first lane of nearly every roundabout in the city has been occupied for the past week by pop-up plastic roadside stands selling colorful explosives. There is nothing official or organized about this process. The noise begins on New Years Eve right after lunchtime, with sparklers and foot-long cylinders wrapped in newspaper and filled with confetti that explode with a spectacular BOOM. There's no official countdown or Dick Clark on the television, so sometime between 11:45pm and 12:15am the sky is filled with fireworks... the real kind you get on the 4th of July... that people set off from any convenient street corner.

I spent New Years with Bianca's family, chowing down on absurdly delicious turkey at 10pm and learning how to dance the robot from a precocious 7-year old. This morning we had "breakfast" at noon, a house gathering around cinnamon pancakes and individual omelettes. As everyone went their separate ways, for the first time in what feels like months I was alone. I left the house and began walking, turning down random streets that even within the last year, I had never noticed before. The sun was setting behind San Salvador's volcano, turning the entire sky a brilliant pink striated with purples and magentas.

The neighborhood where I live is filled with cement square homes with metal gates and chicken wire, yet beyond these "apocalypse-proofed" exteriors, inside there is always a news station or salsa music playing into the street. The walkways are filled with large-leafed palm trees and tropical flowers practically popping out of their buds, swallowing the faraway bus and car horns. When I pass people on the sidewalk... many are elderly wearing leathered skin and a stooped spine... they look at me like an animal escaped from the zoo, a gringa walking alone, unsure what to say or do. Turns out all you need is a big smile and a "buenas," and it's like cracking open a safe releasing enormous toothy grins and a surprised glee that creeps into the crows feet bordering their eyes. It reminded me that some days, all you have to do is simply be.

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