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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kissing tin foil: Letters to my daughter

This is one of our daughters. She's on a business trip in India for the next month and sent this picture of her at the Taj Mahal.

A mother knows her child and I know when she's not happy. She's not happy in this picture. It didn't take long for her to write:

"India is hard. I'm hanging in there. B*** said yesterday--"I've never been so concerned for my personal safety". A*** keeps saying that she's "very stressed"--about everything from bug bites to the food to being taken away and never seen nor heard from again. For me, it breaks my heart--makes me quiver and cry--to see the extreme level of poverty. It doesn't seem fair at all! The little ones are so cute and tender and it's so hard not to give them money or want to make them smile. It would be so easy. But, it is hard when 20 or more kids and teens swarm you and reach to touch you and ask you for something that you could so easily give them but are told not to. Why them and not me? You? Others I know and love? Who says? Why? It's really really scary to think about. How do they do it? Do they know how hard/bad they have it? Do they think so? How awful for me to be so wasteful to use bottled water to brush my teeth--but, if I don't I'll get sick, so, I do. It's just so disturbing and upsetting and frightening. I don't know what to do with it all. Does that make sense?"

My beautiful, intelligent, successful daughter is having a spiritual awakening. This is her very first experience of poverty this close up. Nothing like traveling first class and staying in in four-star hotels amidst abject, grinding poverty to disturb your soul, eh? Mind you, she works and lives in NYC, but the Upper East Side might as well be as far from the South Bronx as Delhi, India.

She asked about my experience in Africa and the Global South. What had I seen. So, I wrote:

I've been to Nigeria, Ghana, Belize (not the tourist part) and South Africa (in the early days of the AIDS crisis, right after Mandela was elected) with a quick side trip to Mozambique. God willing and my grant comes in, I'll either be back in Belize or in Cidadae de Deus - the poorest of the poor section of Rio de Janerio - this time next year for three months. I've also worked in the slums of Boston, Baltimore NYC (South Bronx) and Newark, NJ.

Honestly? I don't know which poverty is worse - here in our own country or in the Global South.

It's shocking, isn't it? In a remote village in Kumasi, Ghana, where people live in mud huts without running water or electricity, I saw babies set outside the hut to die because they had developed dysentery from the water - they wanted to keep them from the other healthy babies - while I carried around bottled water in my back pack.

In Nigeria, when I questioned why they put 'eye makeup' on the babies, I was told that it was a root that kept worms from infecting their eyes. Again, we were in a remote village. It broke my heart when several of the babies and little kids cried when I came near them. They were afraid of me. Thought I was a ghost or a demon. They had never seen a Caucasian before.

In the remote mountain village in Belize where we were last summer, I visited an old man who was dying of stomach cancer who was living in a hut with no electricity and no running water. No bed. No furniture. He was lucky, though, because he slept in a hammock his neighbors had strung on the roof of his hut. He was in terrible pain, but the family had no money to give him medicine. We gave him some Aleve which is nothing, but his family reported the next day that it had made him feel more comfortable and thanked us profusely. He died the next day. I'd like to think he wasn't in as much pain as he might have been without the bottle of Aleve.

There was an epidemic of warts among the children there. Beautiful little children with almond shaped eyes and beautiful caramel colored skin with hideous warts on them. Made me weep. We drove three hours into Belize City to buy wart medicine and gave it to the Village Chief and taught him how to administer it. The biggest treat? Toothbrushes and tooth paste. The kids went nuts for them. We noticed that in the little store in town, which had things like deodorant and snickers bars and bottled water and ice cream, there were no toothbrushes or toothpaste for sale. Imagine!

Then again, I remember a man who lived in one of the housing projects in Baltimore. Working poor. AIDS - no matter how he got it. He wanted to keep working, so the nurses set him up so he could get his medicines intravenously while he slept. We got an hysterical call one night from his wife at 3 AM. Turns out, a rat had chewed through his IV line.

This was 1987 or 88 in the United States of America - the land where you have to be brave because not everyone is free.

This is why I do what I do, sweetheart. I'm now in a community that I can inspire to send resources and money to help flood victims in Louisiana and victims of drought in Mozambique. Or, kids and adults on a mission trip to repair the porch of an elderly person in Appalachia one year and build a playground for children in a remote village in Belize the next.

Or, give temporary shelter and hot, home cooked meals to homeless families in Morris County in our parish hall one week and bring phone cards and clothing and personal care items (shaving creme, deodorant, etc.) to foreign, stranded sailors at the Seamen's Church Institute at Port Newark and NYC. I can't do it all, but I can inspire others to give and to do the work.

It's tempting to ask questions like, "Why me?" but it really does no good. Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you." He said that over 2,000 years ago. I think he might have known something more about the human condition that we do, eh?

You'll have to discover the question you need to ask for yourself. One might be, "What is God calling me to do about this?" I can almost guarantee you that the answer won't be: "Sell everything, move to India, and become the next Mother Theresa."

There's a great story about an American who visited India, after which she wrote to Mother Theresa and offered to sell everything, donate it to her religious order, and in exchange be given the opportunity to sleep on a mat on the floor and work for her.

Mother Theresa sent back a two word response: South Bronx.

There can only be one Mother Theresa. There can only be one you. Maybe God is calling you to be the best YOU you can possibly be: to be even kinder and more generous than you already are. To be a better steward of the gift of creation. To think globally and act locally. I don't know. God knows and you'll find out through meditation and prayer.

We'll talk more about it when we take our next "Road Trip." Or, maybe we'll make a "movie bed" the next time we have a sleep over and watch "A Passage to India" together. Until then, take deep breaths. Breathe through your mouth (it helps with the smell). Wash your hands frequently and pray even more often. And, of course, don't drink the water or anything that hasn't been cooked for at least an hour.

Know that I love you and I am so proud of the journey you are on I can hardly put it into words. Not just the journey to India. The one you are making into your soul.

I love you, too, my darling.

My beautiful, sensitive and very smart daughter wrote back this morning:

Thanks Mom! I read your e-mail a number of times and cried a lot but it was good. It is good. Thanks Momma! We left Delhi and are now in Hyderabad. I'm taking deep breaths, tipping very generously and trying to find a balance between searching for answers and being so very very appreciative for my many many blessings. I'm going to head to bed. G'Night. I love you.

Here's what I just wrote:

I love you, too, my darling.

You know, VisaVaVoa (my grandmother, your great grandmother), who refused to buy toilet paper and used to save old calendars, tearing them neatly into squares and putting them by the side of the commode, used to tell me to kiss the tin foil gum wrapper before I threw it away, so I would think about the value of things before I got rid of them.

I hadn't remembered that in years. As a kid, I just thought she was just a weird old peasant woman. Your experience of poverty helped me recover that memory and think, that maybe, just maybe, if a few more people kissed the tin foil of their gum wrappers before they threw them away, this country - this world - might be in better shape.

I love you and I'm so proud of you. Have a wonderful time, sweetheart.

Ah, my daughter, my self.


Bill said...

You can’t really walk around in my garage when the car is parked. There are boxes of stuff all over the place. Stuff I probably forgot I have and stuff that I will never use again, but I keep it. My sister is the same way. Her house is full of stuff from one end to the other. Stuff that makes no sense, stuff that no sane person would ever keep.

When you grow up poor, that can happen to you. I know the South Bronx well, I was born there. Eagle Avenue in the Bronx is about two miles from Yankee Stadium. Back in the forties and fifties it was mostly German and Irish immigrants. First, second and third generation all mixed up. They were a dirt poor working class lot. They did what they had to do, in order to survive. We eventually moved to the North Bronx, not that it was a step up, but that it was a place to live on our own. Just to get a place separate from your grandparents was a step up. So we moved into a three room apartment in a non-descript tenement up on East 179 street. If your doing the math, three rooms means a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. They throw in the bathroom at no extra charge. Three rooms for mom and the three kids. Mom and my sister in the bedroom and me and my brother on a pull-out in the living room.

My mom used to make French toast for supper. We thought it was great because it was French. We thought that was somehow fancy or rich. We didn’t know that it was a poor man’s supper. We ate first and if there was anything left, she ate. That’s the way it was. We got by and I’ll never forget it. I’ll never look at what I have now or where I am now and not thank God. I knew kids who volunteered for the Army just to get a bed of their own. The military was a ticket out of the tenements. If they survived it was great and if they didn’t, it was still better then where they came from.

What I got from the tenements and what I cherish is my world view. As poor kids, we played with Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Blacks, Chinese, you name it. We never thought about what the other kid was as long as he could field the ball and cover his base. That was all that mattered in those days. The funny thing was that we didn’t look at the rich or well to do with envy. We had our own thing. We had good times along with the bad. In the end, I think we were all the richer for the experience.

Anonymous said...

Bill said, In the end, I think we were all the richer for the experience.

Similar experience to yours (but ours was bread and milk for supper). Many years later when I was grown and the slums of Buffalo were far behind, my mother tried to apologize for the weirdness of our childhood, and I stopped her right fast: "I wouldn't have changed a thing!"... and then went on to tell how grateful I was for a childhood like that where nothing was taken for granted. I feel blessed for those years of poverty. Same with Nam. And look at us now. Life is a miracle.

Bill said...

David writes: "I feel blessed for those years of poverty."

Nicely put David. I mean look, even our Elizabeth turned out ok. Except of course for an addiction to shoes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's snowing today, I'm housebound and my head has stopped hurting. I think that calls for another pair of shoes, don't you?

Bill said...

Of course Elizabeth, in keeping with the snow, may I show you something in a mukluk perhaps.

Brother David said...

Imelda Marcos also had that problem. What did it get her?