Waiting for Something Big in San Luis Potosi
I had never been to Mexico. I have lived, worked, studied and played in other countries for over three years of my life, but had never visited our friendly neighbors down south. I had little idea of what to expect, forgoing the usual research to finishing essential "to dos" at home so I could return home to a job and a wife. I knew many buildings would probably be constructed of the ubiquitous orange brick that pervades many developing countries. I knew many of those same buildings would have rebar sticking out the roof in anticipation of adding another floor when money permitted. I knew to expect the familiar pull of strangeness, the reaffirmation that the world is, indeed, quite large.
The magic of travel is in expectations. Though my expectations of this trip were poorly formed, deep down I expect the same thing every time: something big. And, I believe that expectation is not just hope, but prophesy. That is, expecting bigness alters the cosmos and brings bigness to me. (I say the same for other expectations: smallness, strife, magnanimity, compassion, etc. As a devout English major, I believe in words' abilities to alter our universe). So, I came expecting something big.
While waiting for the big--some revelation, connection, emotion--I was washing dishes. Thanks to Ticht Naht Hanh, washing dishes can never be for me just about washing dishes. Instead, washing dishes is, like every moment, an opportunity to live a fully present, miraculous moment. Ticht Naht Hanh transforms the mundane into the transcendent, with each moment a benediction. Don't misunderstand me. I don't live like this. For me, starting the car is usually just starting the car, sweeping the floor merely an opportunity to zone out. But, when Ticht Naht Hanh articulated his worldview in which each moment is pregnant with the divine, he used the example of washing dishes. So, for me, washing dishes is more than just washing dishes.
And so I was washing dishes, thinking of Ticht Naht Hanh, and expecting something big.
More precisely, I was washing dishes with Diana, cleaning up after our lunch of enchiladas suizas con pollo (with chicken). My Spanish is, as they would say in Mexico if they were frank, no esta bien (not good). But, nonetheless, Diana and I were struggling through some broken conversation. She was very patient. I learned who cut her hair (Selene, a former orphan herself and now matron of Casa Hogar) and what she likes studying (fashion and clothes-making). I learn she likes singing along to the radio playing in the kitchen.
As we scrap tortillas and scrape beans, I notice that many of the dishes are cracked, chipped, warped. I notice that Diana is wearing a Montgomery County Parks and Recreation t-shirt. I continued to disgrace past Spanish teachers with my blown noun-verb agreement, my inability to speak about anything but the present (Joni Mitchell actually glorifies this inability in "Chelsea Morning" when she promises to "talk in present tenses." In the kindest light, my Spanish is a kind of force-marched "being in the moment" simply because I cannot formulate past or future. In more reality-based light, it is an abomination.) But, as Diana and I weave a conversation together with ques? (whats?) and entiendes? (you understands?), I begin to think about these dishes we are washing.
These are not like the dishes in my house. In the United States, many have the luxury of "making a statement" with what we buy, what we wear, where and what we eat, what we drive. We believe--even as I know it's not so--that what flatware we use, what china pattern we choose "says something" about us. We fret about buying the wrong kind of computer, driving the wrong kind of car. These are not the worries of the children at Casa Hogar. Their plastic bowls--scuffed as they may be--hold milk and cereal. Their cattle truck is sufficient to take them to and from church and school. Their clothes cover their bodies. Indeed, they were muy guapo (very handsome) and bonita (pretty) in church today. Their things are both enough and not enough in the same instant.
Their things don't say anything about these children. Not the way children's clothes speak in America. Not the way I have come to believe that my new glasses are "very me."
What I just said--about things not speaking for these kids--is not entirely true. I want these kids to embody a richness of heart, to symbolize the indomitability of the human spirit. I want them to show us how, beyond essentials, all our striving is ego and fear. Maybe when I was (not much) younger, that's what these kids could have been, what they could have shown. But I know better. While things don't say everything, they do say something. And insofar as things speak for people, the hand-me-downs and leftovers, the chipped and scuffed, they speak loudly enough. They say simply, persistently, "These kids are poor." Their things speak and we must listen.
As a group, we are reading "Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice" by Curtiss DeYoung. It profiles social activists from around the world whose activism springs directly and inextricably from their faith. The first two chapters profile Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his "view from below." As a young German minister, Bonhoeffer traveled to the United States and spent time in the African-American faith community in New York City. Through his experiences there, he came to see not only the racism in America, but the corollary anti-Semitism in his native Germany. He came to understand, viscerally, the "view from below."
Bonhoeffer adopted "the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled--in short,  the perspective of those who suffered." It is this empathy, this ability to see the world from multiple vantage points, from which Bonhoeffer's outrage and activism sprung. Without this understanding, Bonhoeffer is just another complicit German minister.
Being here, at the Casa Hogar, among kids who look up to me--literally--it occurs to me that children, always and forever, have a view from below.
Bonhoeffer understood kids' perspective, their standing as viewers from below, I think, when he offers this matrix for action: "The ultimate question, for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating."
Asking ourselves how the coming generation is to live requires an understanding of who the next generation is--all of them. This understanding must be real, flowing from friendship, shared experience, mutual respect, and compassion. Will those conversations be difficult? Hell yes. Will those relationships be time-consuming? You bet. Will they be inconvenient, require compromise, challenge us? All of the above. Do we have a choice? Not if we want to survive.
As Diana and I finish drying the dishes, a particularly catchy song crackles on the radio. Diana and another girl sing loudly, con gusto (with feeling). Interrupting, because that's what I do, I ask what the song is about.
"Tito y Bambino."
"Tito and Bambino are boyfriend girlfriend?" I ask in Spanish.
"No," Diana says, wondering why I am compulsively stupid. "Tito y Bambino are a rock group."
"Ah," and I try again, "But what is the topic of the song?"
"Ah, I understand," she says. "The song is about love."
Isn't it always?
I think something big just happened.