Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Be Kind

"I told you to be patient
I told you to be fine
I told you to be balanced
I told you to be kind"
 - Skinny Love, by Bon Iver 

Confession: although there are many times when encounters with strangers can turn into something significant, I tend to try and avoid even basic run-ins with people I don't know. Entering a store, I often say a prayer in my head, "Please don't talk to me, please leave me alone," inwardly flinching when a sales associate asks if they can help me with anything and I have to do the whole, "No thank you, just looking," bit while they look at me looking around. Silly, right?

Then there are the times when I'm the one initiating the encounter, and wondering later how the other person felt about it.

There's a man whom I have often seen sitting on a specific street corner. His clothes are tattered and dirty. His hair is tangled and his skin is weathered. I've passed him so many times, walking and in taxis. This morning, I talked to him for the first time. I had two extra sandwiches and decided to give them to someone on the street: a performer maybe, or someone like him if he wasn't there. I had gone hiking with the Casa Gabriel boys yesterday and made a ton of sandwiches for everyone, so many I forgot about the extra ones stowed in my backpack. I had to go grocery shopping so I grabbed the sandwiches from the fridge and went looking for someone to give them to. Sure enough, the man was sitting at his usual spot on the street corner. I approached him.

"Good morning," I said in Spanish, smiling. "Would you like a sandwich? It's ham and cheese." I held out the ziplock-bagged sandwich. The man looked from me to the sandwich uncertainly, before reaching out to take it.
"Actually I have two," I said, pulling out the second one. "I had extra." He took that as well and I stood there, smiling but feeling awkward. The man's face had a large scab along his chin, his hair as tangled and his clothes as worn as ever. Yet for the first time I truly saw his eyes: they were a piercing blue. He didn't seem to be Ecuadorian. Where was he from?

"Well," I said, and I reached out to touch the sleeve of his jacket, about to say "God bless you,", when the man jerked away and said "Don't touch."
"I'm sorry, it's okay," I said, pulling back. "God bless you," I said, smiled, and crossed the street. It wasn't until I was walking away that it registered with me: the man had spoken English. Should I have switched to English? Did he understand Spanish at all - anything I had said?

As I bought groceries, I thought about the man and what, if anything, I could do in the future. I could say hi when I saw him, at least. But more than that, should I find out what language he speaks and ask if he has a Bible? If he would like one? There are others more equipped than I to reach out to him, I know. Others for whom it is safer, and to whom he may open up more, possibly.

When I passed by the street corner in a taxi, my groceries loaded in the back, the man was gone. I hope, at least, that he eats the sandwiches and is maybe less hungry today. I hope that even though he withdrew sharply from a touch on the sleeve that he was in some way touched by someone speaking kindly to him. I hope that even if I never know his story, his background, his name, that someone does who cares about him and can reach him. Encounters with strangers can be difficult, awkward, and surprising. I hope that for today, a couple of sandwiches were a good surprise for him.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Take Two

"It's easy to forget what you learned
Waiting for the thrill to return
Feeling your desire burnAnd drawn to the flame"
- Distant Sun, by Crowded House

I worked for weeks to help organize the high school graduation celebration for two of the Casa Gabriel boys, Carlos and David. Director Phil created a program for the evening, I had the physical programs laid out and printed. He made a guest list, I created and sent out invitations. He decided on what the dinner would be, I ordered the cakes and that day, went to Casa Gabriel to meet Maricruz, the mom of one of the boys who was going to be cooking the dinner. When Maricruz arrived, I told her I was expecting about 80 people for the dinner, so she asked specifically for a giant pot which she had used before. I asked house-dad Danny if he'd look for it while Maricruz and I went shopping for ingredients.

Upon returning to the house with all the groceries, Maricruz immediately asked if the pot had turned up. I found Danny in the upstairs kitchen and asked about the pot.
"No, I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I couldn't find it."
Beside us on the table was a huge cooking pot. This thing so was big, I believe twins could happily bathe in it. I nodded towards it.
"So, what about this one?" 
"Oh yeah," said Danny, giving a sheepish laugh. "That's it."
I picked up the pot - with a mental face-palm - and presented it to Maricruz.

When I returned home, my living room was an ordered mess of bags containing decorations, candies and bowls for the tables, candles, paper and pens and instructions for people to write notes to the boys, ingredients for making punch, paper goods for 100, certificates for the boys which I had filled in with calligraphy, and other odds and ends. I went through everything again and again, trying to make sure I didn't forget anything. Phil picked me up three hours before the event and dropped me off at the church. I set everything in the downstairs dining hall and went to work setting up the tables and chairs.

Two of the Casa Gabriel boys, Joel and Moises, came to help me decorate. They walked in wearing their huge headphones, a little too cool for school but still willing to come help. We were blowing up balloons when one of them popped, echoing through the dining hall. Joel shuddered.
"I hate it when they pop!" he said. We had all the balloons on a table, blowing them up then deciding where to hang them. Whenever one would start drifting towards the floor, Joel would dive to grab it, afraid it would hit something and pop. A couple more did pop, randomly, causing Joel to jump and shudder every time.
"I really don't like that pop!" he muttered.

The evening was a huge success. Afterwards, the boys all pitched in to help clean up. As Joel picked up a broom, I hurried over to him. 
"I need your help, I have a special job for you," I told Joel. He listened, curious.
"I need you to go and pop all the balloons," I told him earnestly. Poor Joel got a shocked/scared look on his face.
"Just teasing!" I said. He was relieved.
"Noooo, Sonnet," he said, and laughed.

Missing items right under one's nose, and the frightening pop of balloons. Two small and humorous memories from a full and very good day.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stumbling and Soldiering

Once or so, I've felt I had been split down the middle
All parts of myself torn asunder

I was the eternal optimist
believing in relief
found just over the horizon
While feeling like a soldier who is stumbling forward
Hands pressed tight against his abdomen,
his chest,
Trying to keep his organs from spilling out
Blood seeping through his fingers
soaking his clothes
Somehow -
teeth gritted in a smile through the pain –
He makes it all the way to the med tent
before asking for help

Though still I am that soldier
oft stumbling along
I’ve learned to ask for help when I am bleeding
for it is unnecessary and unwise
to always try and bandage oneself

I’ve learned
I can trust others with my wounds
(though tis always a risk, I admit:
hand someone your knife to hold and they can choose to cut you with it)
Sometimes I cannot carry all the pieces of myself alone

So I share this
while soldiering forward
and stumbling on
For if you need someone to press their hand against the wound in your heart
Stopper the blood
till we can try and properly bandage it up

I will.

Monday, February 6, 2017


"10,000 weight in gold
Never feels like treasure until you lose it all"

 - "10,000 Weight In Gold", by The Head And The Heart

None of us could have anticipated where we'd end up that day in early December: in a room full of about 200 prostitutes, listening to a health and safety presentation.

Every other week I go downtown with Desi, Hannah, and other friends to visit with and pray for women and transgender men in prostitution. That day, there were five of us going, one for the first time ever. We took a crowded bus downtown, squeezing past people to get off at the right stop. It's always such a relief to step onto the bus platform, freed from the many bodies being flung around by the seemingly manic bus driver.

Normally we go to several different streets and meet with the women. That day was different; Desi and Hannah wanted to visit a hostel where some of the women said they hold meetings, in order to ask if that location might be a good place to hold a Christmas party. We arrived at the hostel and entered a dimly-lit corridor which opened out onto a courtyard area. A woman greeted us with a finger to her lips; there was a meeting in progress and we needed to be quiet. Desi said we were there to inquire about use of space and the women brushed us off, saying all the rooms were in use.
"It's not for today, it's for a Christmas party in two weeks," Desi explained. "For the women who work on the streets here. We come visit them twice a month and we want to throw a small Christmas party for them."

The woman's demeanor shifted.
"All the women have a meeting here every thirty days, and today is the 30th," she stated. "They are all here right now," gesturing towards the courtyard. "Why don't you come in and invite them to the party in a little bit?"
"Oh we don't want to interrupt," Desi protested.
"No it's fine! It's just an information session, go on in!"
So she led us inside, all of us a bit anxious as to what we were getting into.

We made our way through the crowd and sat on a small step running around the edge of the courtyard. The room was packed. I estimated that there were about 200 women there. In the center of the space was a dry fountain decorated with red Christmas ornaments and ribbons of bright gold. Beside it stood a woman who stated that she was from the Ministry of Health. She was there giving a health and safety presentation. She encouraged the women to get tested regularly, to use specific safety measures, and to seek help when needed. She then went on to do a presentation with a condom and a banana - classic sex ed, along with a few colorful comments which woudn't be appropriate in a classroom. When finished, she turned to our group (earlier, one of our group, a blonde, had muttered, "I feel so white!" so we knew we stood out) and asked, "Where are you all from? I don't think I've seen you before."

Sweet Desi popped up and explained who we were.
"Some of you know us," she said, nodding towards certain women who had smiled and waved when we came in. She explained about the Christmas party and that it would be right here in two weeks.
"We just want you to know, we are not here to change you, we are here to share the love God has given all of us."
This remark was met with a hearty round of applause. Of course, we hope and pray that one day these women will be changed, thoroughly and completely. New work, new realizations that they are worth so much more, new experiences of grace to accept and share. No more thinking that all they can do is sell themselves. But for the moment, the women needed to simply hear love. They are belittled, mocked, regarded as the scum of society, and yet used by men every day. The shreds of pride they cling to needed to hear that we were there for them as they were. Change comes slowly. It can't be rushed.

When Desi sat down, two other women stood and announced that they were from a Catholic church and had brought a delicious meal of rice with chicken and vegetables to share. Desi looked at the rest of us and chirped, "Let's go help!" So we went to the back and helped serve the plates of rice and cups of juice. We served and served until it was gone.

Two weeks later, I was in the States but Desi, Hannah, and several others held a grand Christmas party there in the hostel. Around 150 women and men showed up, though they later confessed that they were afraid the party wouldn't actually happen. A Christmas party just for them seemed so unlikely. No one did things like that for them, ever. So when they saw my friends arriving with snacks and gifts, peeking out of the upstairs windows of the hostel, they jumped up and down for joy. There was worship, prayer, presents, and plenty of time to just say, "You matter, you are loved," to everyone.

When we go downtown, we never know just who or what we'll encounter. Sometimes it's someone who is mourning the death of their boyfriend, killed by a gang six months earlier. Sometimes it's someone whose eyes go blank when you ask them about their future dreams, saying, "I have none, it's too painful to dream," yet who will let us put our hands on them and pray. Sometimes it's someone who just needs to see a smiling friend wave to them from across the street, a friend who isn't in their line of work, hasn't known the terrible abuse of their past, yet comes just as a friend because God's love is bigger than we can ever grasp. Even on the streets and inside hostels which are brothels in disguise, God is there. He loves and treasures them so much. In whatever form, that's what we've encountered.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Moments That Count

"And planning for the apocalypse 
Is not considered
Considered cool
I don't suggest it myself
But no I won't sweat"
 - My Mathematical Mind, by Spoon

I remember the day I successfully said 'five-hundred' in Spanish.

In June of 2013 I moved to Costa Rica to attend six months of language school. It was a total immersion program: I lived with a Tico family (Costa Rican), walked to school each day and had classes in vocabulary, pronunciation, and the ever-complicated grammar. I had one teacher who was so laid back, teaching classes with little to no preparation beforehand, that no one in the class felt as though they were learning much. I had one who refused to speak a word of English to explain what she was teaching in Spanish, lecturing people if they didn't get it (which none of us understood of course, just the general gist from the universally stern tone and eyebrows).

But there were two teachers in particular who truly rooted for their students, explaining and encouraging and clearly meant to teach. One of those was my first vocabulary teacher. I wish I could remember her name. We'll call her Maria (since I'd say 70% of the women in South America have that as a first or middle name). When I first entered her class, I had no conversational Spanish whatsoever. I could name basic colors and items of furniture, and things such as 'hello', 'thank you', and 'goodbye'. So Maria set out to creatively teach our class the basics and beyond. One day, she wrote a slew of numbers on the whiteboard. She pointed to a number, said a student's name, and we were to call out the number in Spanish, like game show contestants hoping to get the correct answer. She came to five-hundred and said my name, looking at me expectantly. I had had trouble recalling this number before, because in Spanish it follows a pattern of cien, dosciento, trescientos, cuatrocientos, and suddenly changing completely to quinientos. The day before, Maria had jingled her set of keys and told us to remember that the first part sounded like 'key'. It was a memory trick some of the other teachers would have refused, because it brought in English. However Maria knew that how we became able to speak the language was less important than simply being able to, especially in her six-week intensive course. As I racked my brain for the correct answer, she sidled towards her desk to get her keys when I shouted, "QUINIENTOS!" Maria was so thrilled that she actually bounded across the round to hug me. I've never had a problem with the number since.

This past weekend, the ministry organization I'm a part of held their Annual Team Conference. We had speakers, worship, ministry updates, and fun things such as a pie social and talent show. I thought about reciting a poem, but since half the audience was Ecuadorian I knew this wouldn't translate. However a month before I had become fascinated with the Fibonacci Sequence and had memorized the first ten numbers fairly effortlessly. I read a novel called "Speak" which featured fictionalized letters from famous inventors, including Alan Turing. Turing spoke of the sequence, and though I had learned about it ages ago in school, it suddenly became alive for me. So I thought, "Numbers are easy to translate. I'll memorize the first twenty, up to ten-thousand, and recite that."

The night of the talent show, I got my friend Carlos to hold up a large sheet of paper on which I'd printed the following image plus the one above:

I put on my glasses, addressing the room as though I was a teacher and they my students. Using a pincho stick pointer I explained how in nature a snail shell, plus the pineapple and many other plants, all grow according to the Fibonacci Sequence. One part, then a second part equal to the first, then a third part equal to the sum of the first two, then a fourth part equal to the sum of the two parts before it, and so on. 1, 1, then 1+1=2, 2+1=3, and on into eternity. I then explained what my 'talent' actually was, and when Carlos had held up a second sheet of paper which listed the twenty numbers, I stepped back so I couldn't see it and began to recite them in Spanish. The final number was: Diez mil novecientos cuarenta y seis (10,946). Mic drop the pincho stick.

It's always curious to look back and see where we've come from. I dreamed of living overseas as a kind of abstract if-God-wills obedience. It's been different than I imagined, not for good or bad but simply because reality is often different from expectations. Learning Spanish was difficult and frightening and liberating. There are more embarrassing moments than I could have planned for, and also more joy and freedom and delight in walking into almost any situation and being able to make it through in a second language, my mind switching back and forth in waking thoughts and in dreams. As I stood and recited those twenty numbers, picturing them in my head in both languages, I thought about how I couldn't have done it without the support of a patient teacher who celebrated the fact that I could say quinientos, without her having to get her keys.