Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cardboard Cutouts... In Shades of Red, White, and Blue

It brought tears to my eyes the night I sat in silence reading the following...

“The night before the helicopter flight, Victor Langarica called home for the last time, certain that he would die the next day. ‘You better make it’ his mother told him. ‘Your kids are waiting here for you.’ She put his 6-year-old daughter, Devina, on the phone to talk with him. When he got back on the line with his mother, he was crying. ‘ I will remember you every second,’ he said.” Devina’s father died in Iraq the next day. Excerpt from “The True Cost of War” by Weston Kosova. Newsweek, Feb 5, 2007

“Never forget that your daddy loves you more than anything and that I will be home soon.” Major Michael Mundell wrote that letter to his young daughter. He died in Iraq on January 5, 2007. Quote is an excerpt from “Our Soldiers Stories: The War in the Words of the Dead” by Jon Meacham. Newsweek, April 7, 2007

Reading “Our Soldiers Stories: The War in the Words of the Dead” in the April 2nd issue of Newsweek, I read the words of Terri Clifton, who lost her son Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Clifton. “It’s become very important to me that these soldiers and Marines are viewed as individuals with lives, dreams, experiences and families. They aren’t cardboard cutouts in shades of red, white, and blue.”

Lance Cpl. Clifton was 19 when he lost his life to a mortar.

If I am to be honest with you then it is important to emphasize I am of the political left.

I do not want this to be political, insofar as that can be avoided. In many ways, it can’t. But I hope you can read this, you too can maybe think of the human cost of war. One thing I have noticed in Chile is the media, is, as some might say, more graphic, others might call it something else: more honest. While watching the international portion of the news, I have seen bloodied corpses dragged out of burning cars, babies dead in rubble, and soldiers, face down, never to rise again. This is the reality I see the war in Iraq from, through the eyes of Chileans who day by day endure the photos and video of lives lost in the most horrendous of ways, ways we, those who should must see it the most, don´t tolerate.

I looked through a list of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and began from the top of the list and worked my way through their ages:

21, 21, 21, 28, 20, 32, 26, 24, 21, 21, 25, 19.

I heard a story the other day about a depressed veteran who went seeking treatment from the Veterans Administration. “I’m depressed, I feel so suicidal” he noted. The clerk, without looking up, informed him they were unable to help. “Come back in a couple months.” This soldier, became another one of American’s fallen when he hung himself four days later. Senseless deaths, and it leaves me feeling anxious and empty inside as I write about them.

As a colective nation, we have never been asked to do anything since this war started, except to shop and shop a lot. And we have, as a nation, collectively done less than that, failing in essence, to see the humanity of the soldier, the humanity of the stranger outside our realm of reality, and the loved ones in our nation and Iraq that have so tragically been left behind.

Men, women, children... Iraqi and American, or that is to say, somebody´s son or daughter, wife or husband, mom or dad... real people, just like me, and just like you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What´s a Kilo to you?

What’s a Kilo to you? Living in Chile my life has switched from Standard Measurements like miles, pounds, etc... and instead been replaced with the horribly confusing Metric system of kilometers, kilograms, etc... Sometimes, the math, no matter how you do it, is astounding.

The first time I realized it was with my dad in town. God bless the man for bringing everything but the Italian Sausage to make us some true Chicago Style Pizza. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts I could not quite convince him that as hard as it was to believe, Chile did not seem to carry Italian Sausage anywhere. We went from store to store to store until finally he seemed to resign to this reality, and finding the closest thing we could to replace it, he told me to order him a pound of Sausage. I knew somewhere in the conversion from pounds to kilos we had a 1 and 2.2 and I took my best guess. “2.2 kilos of sausage please.” When the man handed me 5 pounds of sausage, I had to embarrassingly realize my calculation was wrong, 1 pound does not equal 2.2 kilos, but rather 1 kilo equals 2.2 pounds.

Well, again I ask what’s a kilo to you? This past weekend, on a weekend trip to Pomaire with my housemates Roy and Caitlin, Roy introduced me to quite possibly the most beautiful eating experience I have had in Chile. As some people have noticed in the photos where it looks like a baggy sweatshirt with baggier jeans swallowed me, I have been losing weight. I’d like to say it’s a result of me working out more, but seeing as how I have not ran since March, I must accredit it to our largely vegetarian diet that our volunteer budget affords us. There is a running joke in the house whenever someone asks what’s for dinner to respond “I think a pasta, rice, or beans dish with some tomatoes and zucchini.”

And so, getting back to the story, this weekend introduced me to the pinnacle moment of my eating experience in Chile. In response to what’s a kilo to you, this is what I can tell you: it is a 2.2 pound empanada filled with chicken, beef, onion, and olives stuffed in some of the most delicious dough, and if that were not enough, it was followed by a bajativo (a downer) that made a cold winter day a little warmer with a tasty Apple kick to it. All that for only $3 US.

I came home that night completely full, and, according to Roy, with the biggest smile he’d seen me with since I arrived in Chile. The next night, it was back to lentils and veggies, but for one day, one glorious day, I ate like an empanada king!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Who Knew Free Help Was So Hard to Give Away?

(After the last entry, I thought a balance of finding meaning here might be good. Below is a journal entry from April 22nd, as I rolled into my 4th month of nothing to do for work. I had a job title- volunteer, but no job to do with the title.)

April 22nd, 2007

I am unemployed. And really, if I want to be honest, I have been in this state of unemployment since December. I mean, technically I have a job, in so far that I am a volunteer in a program called the Holy Cross Associates. Today celebrates 9 months of life as an Associate, and I am in no mood for celebration. Perhaps tomorrow will signify my first day of work, and that my friends, would be a reason to celebrate.

I never imagined free help in a supposedly poor country would be so hard to give away. I have tried, at times I really have. Imagine if you will, the humiliation that comes with the worthlessness that defines you when you must answer the most basic of questions, “what is it you do in Chile?” with an even more basic but all the real and honest answer: nothing.

I hope as you read this, the immediate instinct to offer reassuring words trying to speak volumes of the opposite can be quelled. Hear me, really hear me when I tell you of the worthlessness one feels when his days pass again and again without goals or hopes, and end void of successes or even failed attempts.

The program always advertised this experience as a presence with the people, a being rather than doing mentality that emphasized again and again I would not be down here to do a job a Chilean could not do. I wonder if a Chilean could get away without working the way I have the last few months. And so perhaps in the end it is my fault that I find myself in a program in which I often feel I do not fit. Anyone who reads this thinking about volunteering after college, I highly suggest figuring out if it is spiritual formation or service you want the emphasis on. It is something I would have been wise on discerning more carefully myself.

I came to Chile wanting nothing more than to work with the poor, to live amongst them and know them in such a way that this would create the cornerstone of a life of service, not just a two year formation. I came armed with nothing more than an open heart and hands inspired by nothing more than idealistic notions of what I could do, what I mistakenly assumed I would easily do.

And so, I am unemployed. It is humiliating, it is humbling, it is perhaps true solidarity in ways I never imagined and honestly never wanted.

Note: One week after this journal entry I walked into a local school and explained my situation. I am now working, co-teaching English classes to juniors and seniors, as well as working in campus ministry assisting in various aspects. It is still somewhat unfulfilling and I struggle with it, but now, at least, it is something. I might still be going under used, but at least I am no longer being unused. Other than that, I am still visiting the orphanage, and all I can say, is those kids will never know what they have meant to me in this time of difficulty.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Meet Paola

“In this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he’s out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong… he is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room.” Thomas Merton

She’s a twelve year old girl with a smile, a sparkle in her eyes, and a thumb in her mouth. It’s the best way I can understand the quote from Thomas Merton. Everyday I visit this orphanage/foster home (hogar) she is the first one to jump out of her seat, run towards me, and leap into my arms. She gives me the customary Chilean kiss on the cheek, hugs me, and pulls back and looks into my eyes, penetrating all my defenses. I am helpless with this child, she has come to mean the world to me. If you ask me the thing I love the most about Chile, I could answer without hesitation and complete honesty, Paola. At times, it is the only thing I love about Chile.

You find God in humanity. When I work with Paola and the rest of the kids in the hogar, it’s like all the causes and ideals, all that used to motivate me through high school and college, they mean nothing. It sounds heretical, believe me I know, but before you kick me out of the justice league, just try to understand. In place of those causes and ideals, marches and protests and catchy slogans I now have names I can’t forget with memorable faces and unbelievable stories. It’s Paola, twelve years old, who jokingly tells me again and again with a smile and a wink “para ti, baby” (it’s for you baby) in her best Spanglish. It’s Gisella, who writes me little notes telling me how nice I am and how she likes when I visit them, perhaps never knowing how much I love her back, because who knows if she’s ever really been loved before and knows what worldly love feels like.

It’s hard to remind myself these loving children are victims of physical and sexual abuse and now deal with issues of abandonment. Causes and ideals, protests and marches, they are good and needed, but it isn’t until we live amongst what we are fighting for that we really understand: causes and ideals are nothing special in themselves without love and dedication to what lies behind the scenes. In college, I fought the good fight for human rights, but sometimes was able to forget just what I was fighting for.

I wonder as I write this is you can understand what it feels like to truly find God in humanity, to truly believe God isn’t looking down at you from the comfortable heavens but right through you, through the desperate eyes of an orphan.

I might not be able to change the world like I once thought, but yet, changes can be made, for Paola and others like her, one cause, that is to say, one person, at a time. Walking away from the house they live in, a ritual has begun. Paola insists on walking me out with the woman in charge. I say my goodbyes, which in Chilean terms means kisses on the cheek all around, words exchanged, more hugs and cheek kisses, and at last, a long walk, and a final goodbye to the woman in charge as I leave their compound. Then a few feet outside the gate of the house, I hear Paola’s little giggle, and then hear her voice shout,- Tio Pato (tio being anyone in charge, pato, being duck, but also the nickname for Patrick) But anway, “Tio Pato, para ti... BABY!” The neighbors in this quiet neighborhood must think I am crazy, as I turn around, take one last look at her smile, laugh, pray she understands the story my eyes try and communicate to her, and with more meaning then she may ever understand shout back, no, para ti… baby!