Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Give me my 'bubble' back?

How can you gather together
the thousand fragments
of each person?
What's wrong with the rudder?
The boat inscribes circles
and there's not a single gull.
The world sinks:
hang on, it'll leave you
alone in the sun.
You write:
the ink grew less,
the sea increases.
The body that hoped to flower like a branch,
to bear fruit, to become like a flute in the frost —
imagination has thrust it into a noisy bee-hive
so that musical time can come and torture it.  
-Greek Nobel Laureate Giorgos Seferis, "Lost Worlds"

Scene I
I was sitting in the sun reading The Glass Castle, praised for "transforming sad memories into a world of beauty." [Now if the author could tell me how to do exactly that for my post-conflict memory reconciliation projects, I would be very grateful.] I was listening to my iPod in a strange moment of cultural oblivion, in which I was craving the separation from the outside world that the iPod afforded me and the distance that headphones create from potential conversation. The last time I had pulled out an iPod in public outside a plane setting was more than six months ago and on this particular Sunday afternoon in Guatemala, I was hoping to create that invisible bubble between myself and the world - the very bubble I usually aggressively seek to burst.

Despite Patrick Park bellowing into my ears, I heard a whimpering sound behind me. I turned around to see a little boy crying. I ask him "what is wrong?" in Spanish. He continues to cry and slowly walks away from me. I know I have to tread lightly; in many of the countries in which I have lived and worked, children react with fear to strangers with different dress, skin, hair, or eye color than their own and, especially in Guatemala, there have been a number of adoption scandals that have made locals very skeptical of lone Western women. The boy is sobbing and I cannot tell if he cannot understand my Spanish or he is too shy to respond to me. "Are you in pain? Does your tummy hurt? Did you fall and hurt yourself?" He shakes his head no. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?" Looks at me blankly. "Where is your mummy?" Continues to look at me with no reaction other than balling.

I look around the park, but cannot spot any women who could potentially be his mother. I see a policewoman and ask if she has seen the boy's mother or if she can think of any way to help him. She gives us both a sympathetic look, shrugs and says "it happens all the time." In the process of doing this, I must have dropped a 50 centavo coin - the equivalent to far less than 50 US cents. The boy tugged my skirt and pointed at the coin to remind me to pick it up.

There was no way I could get him to talk to me, or to stop crying. I could not get through to him or help him.  All this training, all these conflict and post-conflict zones, all these hours of programming, all these conversations - and I cannot stop a little boy from crying.

Scene II
My notorious clumsiness has led to:
a) My falling off a motorcycle onto red African soil in Northern Uganda;
b) My colliding with every piece of furniture in our apartment in Cairo to the point that when my roommates heard a thud, they would immediately say "ah, crashing sound. Roxanne must be home.";
c) My landing on my behind in a Jerusalem downpour that almost ruined New Year's Eve (and necessitated icing my collarbone in mortification at a cafe).
Hence, when I began a set of visits to the women of the village of San Mateo with tripping over something, I was barely surprised. I turned behind me to see what it was.

It was a newborn puppy. Immediately a little boy ran to me: "Miss, the dog gave birth last night and the puppy is sick!" I look down and notice it is not breathing. I touch its body and it is not nearly warm enough. How do you start your day with a dead puppy? And how do you tell a little boy you have just met that the puppy is dead?

It is the moments that make the cycle of life and death, pain and joy, suffering and well-being blatantly apparent that make the silver lining entirely elusive. Helplessness is a crippling emotion for an aid worker. It is moments like these that make me wish that I could go back to that place, that pre-fellowship, pre-road, pre-epiphanies, pre-everything place of mine, of not being able to feel.


  1. It's eery how the hairs on my arms are on end right now

  2. Everything about this post makes me want to give you a huge hug. And soon I will!!