72 Hours

 

Amber, Linda, Patrice, me

Amber, Linda, Patrice, me

The same day (Tuesday) that I posted on this blog some of my reminiscence on my recent trip to El Salvador, the woman who introduced me to the country back in 1996, Linda Rea, was being life-flighted to the intensive care unit at Akron hospital, having just been in a head-on collision which left her with serious head injuries and internal bleeding. They say that the first 72 hours are critical. In the first 72 hours, anything can happen. The worst can happen. 

I’m trying to focus on my work, but my brain is on repeat: 72 hours, 72 hours, 72 hours. It’s a testament to the many lives that Linda has touched that, within 24 hours of hearing the news, 110 people had signed up for the Facebook group “Friends of Linda” in order to share news and updates.

To keep the positive energy going as she heals, I thought it would be appropriate to share my own memories of how she touched my own life so profoundly, so many years ago. If I’m guilty of being a “do-gooder,” it’s entirely Linda’s fault. She opened my eyes to the world. She showed me the path. The following is an excerpt from just one day of my life-changing three-week trip with Linda Rea.

Santa Marta, El Salvador, December 1996

 

 

The history of Santa Marta in graffiti on the side of the mental health clinic.

The history of Santa Marta in graffiti on the side of the mental health clinic.

In the early 80s, the war in El Salvador (funded in part by the U.S.) was at a level of high intensity. One thousand Salvadorans were being killed every month–victims of the Scorched Earth policy of the military and government. Entire communities were forced to flee, and anyone left behind was killed; then crops, houses, and livestock were burned. The rational of the military behind the Scorched Earth policy was that if they wiped out all of the communities who might be sympathetic to the FMLN guerrillas, the rebels’ strength would be weakened. 

It wasn’t until the late 80s that international pressure finally caused the army to abandon their Scorched Earth policy, and refugees sought to return to their homes. 

Despite the international pressure to end the violence, their homes were still in a war zone. Nevertheless, communities chose to go back. I say “homes,” but since everything had been destroyed, there were really no homes to return to. They had to start from nothing because they were left with nothing. 

And where in all of this was their crime? What had they done to deserve being persecuted, killed, chased off their land?

Members of DIGNAS: Wilma, Rejina, Rosa, Juana

Members of DIGNAS: Wilma, Rejina, Rosa, Juana

The group I was with, part of a three week intensive class on the marginalization of Central America, split into two smaller groups so that we could visit two of these repopulated communities, and my group went to Santa Marta. There, we spent our time meeting with a woman’s group (DIGNAS, the Women’s Association of Life and Dignity); a teacher and the principal of Santa Marta’s school; and the governing directive of the community. 

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The president of the directive told us the history of Santa Marta. In 1976-77, Santa Marta began to organize Christian base communities under the influence of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s powerful homilies. Romero saw the suffering of the people and could not stand idly by (though many in the Catholic church were doing just that). He proclaimed to the people in his weekly homilies broadcast throughout the country that they had dignity, and that it was wrong for their government to suppress and persecute them. He invited the army to mutiny (“Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant . . . No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.”) 

On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated in his own church while giving mass. Anyone who listened to Romero was labelled as a supporter of the guerrilla movement. 

On the fifteenth of March, 1981, a strong military action entered the area near Santa Marta. People made plans to flee. They left in one big group and headed toward Honduras. They were chased by machine guns and helicopters as they struggled to cross the river between the border of the two countries. The directive president’s wife had given birth to twins the day before; only one child survived.

Seven thousand people fled to refugee camps in Honduras. But in the refugee camps, they were mistreated by the Honduran military. Sickness was a major problem as well. Sometimes as many as seven people–mostly the very old or very young–would die in a single day.

Members of the Santa Marta directive

Members of the Santa Marta directive

In the refugee camps, although they were mistreated, the people got a chance to learn skills and trades. They learned how to govern themselves and they learned that they had rights as human beings. As one song used in literacy courses in the refugee camps goes, “Campesino, lift your head up/You are also a human being/Don’t humble yourself!” 

For six years they remained in these refugee camps. Children were born there and knew no other childhood. Finally, the people were sick of waiting. They did not want their children to grow up on other people’s charity.

In 1986 they began to pressure the army and the government to let them go home. The UN told them they could either go back in small groups, stay in Honduras and be legalized, or go to another country. 

But in the minds of the people, they only had one option: they were going home together, and they were going home now. 

On October 10, 1987 the first large group of refugees returned to Santa Marta and two other nearby communities. Of the seven thousand who fled, only 4,500 were left.

They came back to nothing. They had to rebuild their houses, set up a school, replant their crops, find ways to provide electricity and potable water. Housing projects had generated 150 houses, but they still needed 500 more. Teachers are working on getting their high school diplomas, a goal which will be realized in May of this year. They now have a small store and a bakery. Slowly and carefully they are rebuilding, with no help and no apology from the government that took it all away from them.

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After meeting with the directive and hearing the history of Santa Marta, it was time to get a night’s rest. Up until this point on the trip, we had stayed at a relatively comfortable hotel in San Salvador, but on this night, we would sleep in the community center in Santa Marta (one of their few concrete buildings). To say that this was out of our comfort zone would be an understatement. Musty mattresses, spiders, mice, scorpions–these were our bedfellows. Our bathroom was an outhouse a few yards away; you had to pick your way through animal excrement to get to it, and the concrete hole which functioned as the toilet was crawling with ants. Inside our windowless building, it was pitch black–you literally could not see two inches in front of your face.

Around three in the morning, I was awoken by what I could only assume (being surrounded by complete darkness and utterly disoriented) were the sounds of hell, or at the very least of mass murder taking place just on the other side of our concrete wall. I had never heard anything like it. 

In reality, of course, these were the mundane, everyday sounds of the animals of the village waking up–crooning, howling, braying, screeching in rounds of madding, and seemingly never-ending cacophony. This went on for hours, and all I could do was lay there in the pitch blackness and wonder if anyone else in my group was awake and experiencing the same thing. I didn’t dare get out of bed–our trip leader had casually stomped on a scorpion the night before, and I was not convinced he was without companions. The darkness, and the hellish animal chorus, seemed endless. But finally, morning came, and I walked outside into the deepening light of a new day.

And there was Santa Marta–living, breathing, existing. It seemed so much more real to me then, all of it. The history, the people, the war, all of their sacrifices, the shameful part my own country had played. It wasn’t just a story told in a classroom, or an hour and a half meeting with community members: this was it; this was everything; this was real life. And for one terrifying night and one beautiful morning, it had embraced me, and left me forever changed.

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The Danger of A Single Story

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Chimamanda Adichie

A friend of mine recently posted a link to this video of  Nigerian Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaking about the danger of a single story, and it is officially my favorite thing ever. Her main point is that if you only know a culture through a very narrow perspective, a single story, you don’t really know the culture at all. If you label someone (or an entire country or region) as poor, uneducated, suffering, in need of charity–if you put yourself above them–you may so easily miss the gifts they also possess, and are able to give back to you. Joy, artistry, sense of community, their individual humanity.

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The serenity and beauty of Lake Kivu, which, during the genocide, was marred by the mass dumping of bodies.

The serenity and beauty of Lake Kivu, which, during the genocide, was marred by the mass dumping of bodies.

I’ve seen this in my own experience and travels, over and over again. In Rwanda, fifteen years after the genocide, of course people are still struggling to come to terms with it and move forward as they have to live side-by-side with people who have killed members of their family–but Rwandans still know how to smile and laugh in the face of adversity, and as little as most of them have, they are more generous hosts than a lot of Americans I know. Women are getting a greater share of power in Rwanda these days, but only because of the horrific fact that so many men and boys were slaughtered during the genocide.

 

I had to hike straight up the side of a mountain for four hours to see this fella. Totally worth it.

I had to hike straight up the side of a mountain for four hours to see this fella. Totally worth it.

And Rwanda is also a stunningly beautiful country, and one of the few places in the world that you can literally come face-to-face with a mountain gorilla, the same mountain gorillas whose story Dian Fossey told, even though she was constantly harassed for her work and eventually murdered by poachers.

No such thing as a single story.

If I had never gone to Rwanda, I never would have met the most amazing woman I have ever met in my life, Rosamond Carr, a New Yorker who, in 1949 moved with her husband to Africa and spent much of the rest of her life in Rwanda, turning land of a thousand hills book coverher flower plantation into an orphanage after the genocide (she was 82 years old at the time, and her friends and family thought she was utterly mad to return; she was still there at the age of 93 when I met her, sharp as a tack and still doing what she loved.) Her memoir, Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda, is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read about following your true path in life (rampaging elephants, drought, bankruptcy, heartbreak be damned).

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group photo

The group.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit El Higueral, a small community in the mountains of El Salvador. My friend Brandon’s church in Kansas City is a sister community, and they send down a small delegation a couple times a year. It was so not about simply doing some volunteer work or distributing some charitable donations. There was no agenda, religious or otherwise. These two communities were truly sister communities, and we were told from the beginning that the main purpose of our trip was simply to be with these people, hang out, get to know them.

Sure, we managed to do a few projects, like painting the church they have been working on building for the past five years, cleaning out six months worth of dust from the one-room clinic, meeting with the scholarship students and the women’s savings cooperative. Everyone gave whatever skills they had–an artist painted a mural on the outside wall of their community center; a group of nurses, a psychologist & a chiropractor set up a clinic and in the end saw over 50 people; folks who knew Spanish acted as translators; the sporty ones played soccer with the kids; the teachers taught a few English classes. Me, I was simply along to tell the story.

ceton and rosita in clinic

Rosita & Ceton (you have to look closely to realize that Ceton is actually on his knees.)

Some of the folks on this trip, like Dean, Carol and Ed from Boston, had been coming down to El Higueral for over a decade. They had seen babies grow up, they knew each individual and family–there was no single story, or rather, there were about 130 single stories.

samuel and mom

Samuel and his mother.

And three times a day, we ate our meals with different families and got to know Rosita, who had been a medic in the war and now ran the community clinic (she’s pint-sized, but believe me, you do not mess with Rosita). And Veronica, the twelve year old with cerebal palsey who looked like she was no more than three & was only starting to learn to walk, but always had a giant, giant smile on her face and was so clearly full of joy. Samuel,with his giant round eyes. Chepe, a former FMLN fighter, who was our guide on the two and a half hour hike up to  Izotalillo, a much smaller coffee-growing community.

We loved this woman!

We loved this woman!

There was one elderly lady in the community, whose name I never even knew, who would, every time she saw me, say a few words in Spanish (incomprehensible to me) and give me a great, big hug.

 

 

When we left, we left rich in stories. The entire community gathered around the community center to send us off. Dean played some songs, a young men’s group from the community played some songs, we shared our thanks and gratitude for their hospitality, they thanked us for becoming part of their community and wished us many happy returns. We played with the kids one last time, piled up our mattresses, swept out the community center, and headed home (also with eight suitcases full of coffee beans and crafts which Dean distributes in the states). 

 

 

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When I was in Guatemala (and El Salvador for the first time) in 1996–meeting with widows of the disappeared, political activists, community councils, artisans–we would often ask, “What can I do to help?” And every time, the answer was one I continued to hear over and over again throughout the years; it was simply this: tell our stories.

As writers, this is our gift. We get to tell stories. Every story is unique, because it has never been written before–not by you, not through your eyes and your words. That’s why it is so important–because there is no such thing as a single story. Every time you share your story, you open up a world to someone who might never have know it. You become part of a visionary kaleidoscope of truths through which we are better able to see the world in all its richness.

What is the danger of a single story? A black man can never be president of the United States. Marriage is only between a man and a woman. Heath care is only for people who can afford it. Muslims are terrorists. Women who are raped ask for it. People on public assistance are lazy.

Chimamanda Adichie was approached by a young man at one of her reading, and he said, I read your novel, and I’m so sorry that you live in a country where your young men are so abusive. Her response: I just read this novel, American Psycho, and I’m so sorry that the young men of your country are murders.

When You Let Go of Everything, You See What You Really Have

So, I recently took a big leap of faith and quit my job. Now, “leap” sounds all fun and spontaneous…but in reality it took a good 3 or 4 years of soul searching, working through doubts, therapy, meditation, and self-help books. What I realized was this: the things that I was doing not-for-money–mentoring, teaching, volunteer work, traveling to interesting places like Rwanda, Turkey, and El Salvador, writing, curating a reading series and editing an online journal–were the things that I truly enjoyed and wanted to do more of, and were also things that could generate income if I put my mind to it and placed a little faith in the universe. 

What I found surprising (but in retrospect, not) is that the trade-off of giving up a decent, steady salary in exchange for the freedom to set my own schedule and pursue my own projects was, instead of being terrifying and scary, in fact joyous and liberating, and the kindest gift I’ve ever given myself. And when I shifted my thinking from “My god, how am I going to pay my rent!?” to “Wow, if I just focus on making enough to pay my rent, I can make a lot less money, and I’ll be totally fine.” I knew that I would be okay. I’m pretty scrappy when it comes down to it, and I’ve been supporting myself since my first paper route job at the age of twelve.

And then it became fun to think of expenses I could strip out of my life. I needed to do this in order to make this work. Goodbye monthly unlimited metro card; hello walking everywhere. Goodbye Netflix, hello watching free tv online. Goodbye, fancy groceries; hello minimalist cooking. Goodbye meeting friends for dinner; hello meeting friends for coffee.

One of my current self-help guru crushes is Wayne Dyer, who gives this advice: Whatever you don’t have, you don’t need. If you’re alive, congratulations, you’ve already proved you can live without it, whatever that new shiny thing is that you feel you must have. 

When you let go of everything, you see what you really have.

So that’s the history behind why I’ve started this blog. I’ve committed to spending less and doing more. I’ve committed to finding time to write. And hey, this blog is free, so it fits my current budget. So. Welcome. Thanks for taking this journey with me.