Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Bodies We're In

Back before I cared about pesky things like brushing my hair or ever changing out of my favorite t-shirt
“You’re only 21?” the teenage girl asked, her eyes sliding up and down me. She barely came up to my shoulder – I could have closed my fingers around her slender arms. “American vitamins,” she marveled under her breath.

I am tall here in Honduras, and not just tall, big. Hondurans, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s a common occurrence for me to look eye-to-eye with men and tower a full head over other women.

Hondurans aren’t shy, either, about calling attention to size. “Gordita,” or chubby, is tossed around affectionately. I knew a stout little boy called “Gordo.”

“But what do you really want to be called?” I asked him.

“Gordo,” he said, looking at me oddly.

I am gordita here. When I went looking for jeans, I picked out a pair in my size and could barely pull them over my thighs in the dressing room. I came out and asked my friend if it was possible they were mislabeled. “Well, they’re not American sizes,” she said, and I reddened at the implication.

I can’t help it. I know better, but I still wish I was small and thin like the women I see every day, more deft with makeup, more in tune with fashion, less mottled white by my sunburn’s uneven peeling.

It’s harder, too, because for the first time everyone’s eyes are on me. Men stare blatantly on the bus. “Chela,” they shout, which means white or pale, “Gringa,” “Hermosa,” or whatever English phrases they remember  – “I love you,” usually.

I wonder, helplessly, if I wore pants instead of skirts, tied my hair back tighter, wore clothes that were older or looser if the attention would lessen. This is exactly why I hate those catcalls so much; because they make me start thinking that they are somehow my own fault. 

And so I’m torn both ways, wanting to be thinner and prettier and more polished, and wanting to be plain enough to be invisible, to walk to work just one day without the being shouted at. Perhaps some of the things the men say are compliments, but they don’t feel like it. They just make me more conscious of the way my hair frizzes in the humidity, my freckled nose, the weight in my legs that wasn’t there when I started college.

I always write when I have a question – I write to arrive at an answer. The easy answer would be, but Kate, you are pretty, or but Kate, you’re not that big, absolving me of one or two fears and leaving the door open for one hundred more.

What I want to say instead is that others’ perception of the way my body looks doesn’t affect the way my body works. It doesn’t affect the writing I do at work or the friendships I cultivate afterwards. It doesn’t affect the miracle of sustaining life that my body manages to perform every day. Leave the question of whether I'm pretty or fat or neither or both aside – would it matter if I was?

Bodies are incredible. I marvel at the thousands of sequences of effortless movements logged in my muscle memory, the twisting of hair into a french braid, the tying of a shoelace, the way I grip a pencil. I marvel at the way my fingers curl around a guitar’s neck, the way I breathe without thinking about it, the way the scar on my knee turned pink and then white and then so smooth I can barely find it.

These are the bodies that we have; we fill them up with ourselves. Things like slenderness and prettiness, however that’s defined, certainly exist, but they’re only a piece of a marvelous whole. It’s the whole that matters, not the shout of a stranger on a crowded corner or a well-meaning joke from a friend.

Our bodies don’t make us remarkable – we make our bodies remarkable. And when I think of remarkable people, I think of every shape and size and color, every level of ability and disability.

It’s not that beauty or size isn’t a question – it’s just not half as interesting as the other question: Who cares how it looks, what are you going to do with it?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Beholden, Be Held!

When the world was created, God said, “Behold!” and we were beholden, forever unable to repay the debt. “It is very good,” he smiled nonetheless and he held it up to admire.


“Sit, Kati, I’ll bring you your breakfast,” Doña Juana says and I sit and watch her scramble eggs. She is blind in one eye and her legs are stiff. I jump up when she falters on the step but she does not spill even a drop of my coffee.

“Let me get it,” I beg her, though she always says no. I feel uncomfortable. After so much kindness I feel beholden, though I don’t know what to offer more than what I already pay in room and board.

I wonder what I should do, how I could uphold my side of the bargain. Should in Spanish is “debe,” from the Latin debere. Debe also means must and it also means owe though in terms of repayment my obligation falls somewhere debe and could if I wanted to – no one is really asking.

What is it I would have – equal acounts? Refusing those kindnesses I can’t repay? To let others serve you is itself a type of kindness, to refuse that help a type of pride. I don’t want to debe but I forget that there is no must attatched to receiving, that Doña Juana’s service is as free as grace and equally unearned.

When we eat together she talks about God’s faithfulness. He has given her more, she says, than she can ever repay. “He has sustained me,” she tells me, and the word she uses could also be translated held: “I only pray that he helps me to care for you and the other students well.”

It dawns on me like the dawn does here – I awake and there is light – that we are drawing from infinite accounts. Obligation turns sweet, from I should, I must to I may, I get to, our debts paradoxical: the easy burden, the light yoke.

Together we are beholden to each other, held up by each other’s service and fixed on each other’s needs. In my weakness I take freely; in my strength, then I will give.

Behold!” they will say, when they see this – “How beautiful it is!”

In the Strength You Have

“The angel of the LORD came down and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abierzrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.’”  – Judges 6:11-12

At the Association for a More Just Society where I work we’re exhorted to be “brave Christians” and to “love fearlessly,” with an active love. This ignites me but it also scares me a little because it’s hard to think of myself as valiant. If the angel of the LORD came down he’d know all the times I didn’t speak up when I should have; he’d know I climbed to the top of that cliff by the river and just stood and watched while everyone else dove in.

I get excited about justice in theory, but too often I’d rather thresh my wheat in a winepress where it’s safer, where I can hide my work until it’s finished and no one will come to challenge me, to threaten, to rob, or to steal.

“‘Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.’” – Judges 6:13

“You have to know something about Honduras,” my ten-year-old host brother tells me, “Don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk on your phone in the street. Don’t stop to count your money. Just keep walking.”

He and his brother watch television with passive curiosity as it shows another murder in the streets. The camera pans in close. Blood flows from the drug-runner’s hair onto the pavement as police circle around him. He was only a boy.

This doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like a twisted accident that I was born in health and safety that so many can only dream about. At night I hear the lusty voices of church members singing to Him who is “all-powerful, great, and majestic” and I wonder if He is there with them, and if so, why some of their children go to bed hungry.

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14

I forget how God works: that on earth his hands and feet and hearts and mouths are called to knit themselves together and to act.

I’m not here to save the world, I say, and sometimes smugly, because I perceive that condescending zeal in others. But, why am I here, then, if not to use what strength I have? Why am I here if not because I felt sent? Every day I read reports of corruption in Honduras’ Education System, Security System, Property Institute, and if my small notations and translations help to shake that it is good that I am here.

I have no delusions of being a savior; in fact, I am painfully aware of the harmfulness of that mindset. But servants, too, can be sent, in what strength they have.

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel?” My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  – Judges 6:15

Why choose me to do anything when better choices exist? There will always be others who are quicker and smarter than I. They will speak better Spanish, write better, and faster; they will be funnier, even, and know how to cook. Why do anything, then, if someone else could do it better?

Because others don’t do it and it needs to be done. This is how I found myself unexpectedly leading worship, writing editorials, teaching English. Skill matters, of course, but not nearly as much as willingness.

The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”  – Judges 6:16

We ask why injustice happens in this world and the answer isn’t an answer but a command – Go.

The least of us will lead the march, and the LORD will be with us, behind us, before us. And we march on with a promise – that it is justice that wins in the end. 

Speaking Spanish

“How’s your Spanish?,” friends ask me, “Are you getting fluent?,” and I don’t know how to answer because one minute I’m translating a dense legal document and the next I can’t understand someone asking me for the time.

There are things I love about Spanish, and in my best moments, it rolls out of my mouth. Most often, however, my speech is stilted and strange and scattered with, “Can you repeat that?”s, and strange Spanglish constructions like, “Fue como, like, supercool.”

I was excited, in the beginning, to be surrounded completely by the language I was learning. I spoke Spanish even with North American colleagues, stayed up late watching Spanish movies and listening to Spanish music and begged my housemates to teach me new Honduran slang.

It’s in the last week that I began to miss English fiercely. I crave its round sounds and ridiculous clusters of letters, its depth and delightful preciseness. I miss more than the ability to communicate – I miss the tools of my trade. I had always prided myself on writing and speaking well, and suddenly I was handed different tools to use; they felt cumbersome and did not fit well in my hands. 

I love Spanish in the mouths of other people, but in my mouth it still feels strange and ungainly. I know how words are supposed to sound, but I can’t quite form them. I forget important words just as I need to use them. I can ask directions and order food but I lack the words to express new insights, dreams, and passions – I still pray in English.

I have never been good at the sort of light small-talk one shares with coworkers and acquaintances, and in Spanish I am even worse. I can ask a specific question about a chart on a report, but my tongue goes into knots when someone asks about my weekend. I am quieter here.  

In English I was always the student in the front row with her hand up. If a thought came into my head, it would burn on my tongue until I had said it. I would fidget, sometimes, with the weight of my thoughts. It was as if they didn’t exist until I had spoken them aloud. I thought quickly, often out loud, talking over and around others and seizing on debates.

I can’t do that in Spanish. I listen more, nod in silence more, laugh more at other people’s jokes. I am in a position of learning, not sharing, and passive reception. I do not set the stage. This can be frustrating to me, maddening, even, but it is humbling, and that humbleness is good.

The other day I was speaking to a friend about my frustrations, and she said, in Spanish, “Don’t worry, you already speak bastante,” “Bastante” means “enough,” but also “more than enough, a lot,” and even in my worst moments that’s true. I don’t speak fluent Spanish or perfect Spanish, but I speak bastante Spanish, enough to understand and be understood – enough to start. 


One-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, I would tell people if they asked me, but this strange genealogical math doesn’t account for the 1/132nds of Danish and French and all the unregistered names through the hundreds of years my mother’s mothers have been in the United States

I’m just American, I used to shrug. There were African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and then there was me, it seemed, the garden variety American, with nothing for my hyphen to hitch itself to.

There must have been a point where my ancestors made the switch, swapped their hyphens for a new descriptor – White – Scots and Brits and Germans swimming in the melting pot that traded identity for privilege. They lost the Irish temper and stepped into a culture ready-made for them, one stained with legends of superiority and lies about what they deserved.

An unwritten trade, but a trade it was, and as their daughter’s daughter I feel no kinship with the heritage they left. It always felt easier to define myself by what I was not, and so I checked the boxes: Caucasian/White. Not Hispanic. I am not Black; I am not European; I am not Asian; I am not ethnic, I lied to myself, I am the blank palette, white like a coloring book, or like rising dough, not yet baked.

In cultural exchanges, I always felt I had nothing to offer. My ancestors had already gone before and opened their arms, spreading out diseased blankets and hatchets and hoes, burning their language into people’s throats and their religion into people’s hearts and I walked behind them, their current slapping against my knees.

I am the daughter of my father and my mother. They are White like I am, just White, one-quarter English, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German, but only if you ask them. They passed on to me skin that blisters in the sun, a freckling nose, and yellow hair. They passed on their faith and their optimism, their value of books, hard work, and education, their stubbornness and their pragmatism, and also the advantages they have in renting a house, in being offered a job, in walking fearlessly down streets at night.

I never felt a pull of heritage more strongly than when I left my country. I am White, and my color means I must be from the U.S. (they also yell “Gringa!” at the girls from Denmark). I am conspicuous here and people are curious here, which means for the first time I am asked to describe my culture, to own my culture, to represent a country that is more diverse than I can explain.

Two hundred years ago the immigrants that were my father’s fathers came to a country that asked them to leave behind what made them different. Here today, as an immigrant, or a visitor at least, my culture is valued, sometimes more than the culture here. What power that speaks to – how far the culture my ancestors adopted has spread.

It’s a spool I’m still unraveling, this grappling with what it means to be who I am and where I’m from. But I no longer see myself as the default, and that is the beginning. I cannot lie and pretend I am not shaped by my heritage, even if what was once ethnicity has been ameliorated into something tamer and broader, suburbs and college loans, lunchmeat sandwiches with iceberg lettuce and casseroles made from canned soup.

History continues to exist even as time moves forward. Though we are not defined by the distant past we are certainly shaped by it, I have been shaped by it, and to know it well is to know better who I am. 

The Books I Brought

When I moved to Honduras, I fit everything I cared to keep into two clumsy suitcases and a school backpack. Everything, that is, except the two bookshelves stacked several books thick that sit in my parents’ house. I own over a hundred books, probably two hundred, amassed over a dozen years of Christmases and dime sales and thrift store finds. It wasn’t until the night before, when my bags were stuffed nearly full, that I stared at the bookshelves helplessly and wondered which ones to bring

My book shelves are my growth chart. In the back are the paperbacks with bent spines, prizes from library summer reading clubs. Beloved children’s books - Ella Enchanted and Tale of Desperaux and Chronicles of Narnia and Winnie the Pooh – are stacked up against tattered, used classics bought with babysitting money – aspirational purchases with my name dug into the first page in pen.

In high school, I printed one of those lists of “100 Books Everyone Should Read” and streamrolled through it indescriminately: Pride and Prejuduce, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill a Mockingbird, I read books that were brilliant and books I didn’t remotely understand, and any time I found a copy in a used book store or at a yard sale, I bought it and put it on my shelf like a trophy.

I kept every book I bought for college, apart from the textbooks for the handful of math and science classes I had to take. I read deeper and wider and my collection grew – the economics of India, the effects of mass incarceration, the history of Genghis Khan and novel after novel after fascinating novel.

I didn’t take any of those books with me, in the end. Instead, I packed a Spanish-English Bible and a Spanish-English dictionary and went to New-to-You and bought a stack of 50-cent paperbacks to slip between clothes and notebooks and shampoo.

I read the first, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, in one long sitting in the Minneapolis airport waiting for the next flight after the one I had missed. I ate airport Chick-fil-a and tried to remember if there was anything I had forgotten to pack or anything I had forgotten to say to the people I wouldn’t see for a year. When I finished it, I wrote myself a note: “Engrossing and intriguing. High on prose at times and heady; detail-stuffed, but lyric.” Then I left the book on an airport seat and boarded my flight.

I read the next few books compulsively, almost wastefully. I settled into the words and they settled into me. The books I brought were odd choices, maybe, but already their words roll through my head tinged with the flavor of tamal and tamarindo.

I read Home by Marilynne Robinson the first week after I moved into my room in Tegucigalpa, in the evenings, when I was too tired to carry on more conversations, but not tired enough to sleep. I read about small-town Iowa to the sound of the reguetón music thumping next door, to the smell of tortillas cooking. I let the book’s depth and gentleness, its lessons of inexplicable grace settle into me, and then I went to bed.

I read A Pale View of Hills by Kashuo Ishiguri on the weekends when my weekends were still empty. The book, too, had a curious hollowness, a skillful skirting of the real story that was creepy and engrossing.

I read A Fine Balance by Rohington Mistry in the quiet moments of a team retreat in La Ceiba. The 600-page epic knocked me flat every time I opened it, and in the evenings, I would ask Jonathan, who’s from West Bengal, how much of it was true. We sat by the river and talked about castes and politics and history. I finished the book on the long bus ride from La Ceiba to Tegucigalpa and closed it gently at the end, only able to look, melancholy, out of the window at the campo.

I read James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother when I had not spoken to my own mother for nearly six weeks, a combination of faulty internet and missed communication. I cried a little at the end, more because it was beautiful than it was sad, and because I know what it is like to have a mother who cares so completely that her children succeed that everything else in life is secondary.

I read The End of the Affair by Graham Greene on a day trip to a local picturesque city. I went alone, and tried to read on the jittery school bus, squeezed as I was between a couple fondling each other and a basket of corn. It was lonely, a little, to walk the city alone, so I sat in the central park and read. 

I finished the hauntingly human little novel in a cathedral, away from the rain that had started to drizzle. There were people in front of me on their knees, their lips moving silently. The light through the stained-glass windows had just begun to fade. I read to the last sentence – “O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough. I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.” I closed the book and took a mototaxi home.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Stop Saying “I Could Never Do That”

From the window of the bus I see a woman walking alongside the road bent under a bundle of sticks, her head lowered and her shoes split and cracked. A lifetime of sun and hard work lines her face and for a split second it pops into my head: “I could never do that.”

I think of the billion-plus people who still live without electricity, plumbing, or safe and secure housing and with a pang my first thought is still this – “I could never live like that.”

I know what I mean by this, and it comes from admiration – “They are strong,” I want to say, but what I am actually saying is “They are fundamentally different from me.”

Here is the truth: some people are not born more capable of withstanding injustices. A person born in the slums is not less hungry, a person carving their living out of a mountain is not less exhausted at the end of the day. A woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo is just as emotionally and physically devastated after a brutal rape. A mother in San Pedro Sula, Honduras is just as torn apart when her son is shot in the streets as my mother would be.

Things are not less heart-wrenching because they are common. Things are not easier to manage because they are statistically likely. I think this is what we forget – that as humans we feel pain and sorrow, anxiety and loneliness, fear and hopelessness regardless of our nationality or socioeconomic state.

The oppressed and impoverished in this world are not superhuman, nor are they gifted with a superhuman capacity to deal with hunger or disappointment.

Truer thoughts cut closer to our own position as observers, the advantages that place me on the bus and the woman on the roadside:

“It must be difficult to do that.”

“I am not accustomed to doing that.”

“Because of the privileges I was born with, I will never have to do that.”

This is what I think. If I had to do the impossible, to work three jobs just to make it as a single mother, to endure thirty lashes as bonded slave, or to walk three hundred miles to get medicine for my baby, I would do it, because I would have to do it.

I have lived a soft and sheltered life. I can carry less weight, both physically and metaphorically, than those who have spent their whole lives tested. One gets better at bearing weariness, I imagine, with practice.

But that is not what this idea is about. It’s easy to think about the world in terms of “haves” and “have-nots,” or worse, in terms of those who “can” bear the burdens of oppression and those who “can’t”, when that distinction is actually meaningless.

When I see the woman walking alongside the road, really see her, a truer thought comes to my mind. “I never want to do that,” I think, then, “She probably does not want to do that either.”

This thought is the beginning of empathy, the beginning of activism, and the nagging pull of true responsibility.

Thanks to Gary Haugen’s book Locust Effect for planting the seeds of these thoughts. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Beautiful and Ugly at the Same Time

I could paint two pictures of where I am living – and they would both be true.

Honduras is a breathtakingly beautiful country. It’s a land of green rolling hills and mountains – pine forests, tropical beaches, jagged cliffs. Houses are painted in bright oranges, purples, and greens, with banana and coffee plants filling lush backyards.

There is also a spot at the entrance to my community where trash fires are always burning. I see men bent over heaps of garbage sifting through it for something to salvage. There is no trash collection in the barrio, just a single dumpster where some people take their trash – others leave it in the street, or pay a bolo a few cents to dump it in front of someone else’s house.

There is beauty and ugliness here, and there are two ways to misjudge that, particularly as outsiders. The first is to see only the ugliness, to look only as far as the trash-littered alleys and no further.

This picture of Honduras is incomplete. It misses the people who are making Honduras great: the loving families, creative students, and brave fighters against injustice. It defines beauty in a particular way, more like familiarity, more like safety. Any artist will tell you that beauty is seldom safe.

And yet the other fault in vision is equally wrong, if more subtle. That is to see and to talk about nothing but the beautiful in a world where much is not. Adventurers claim, perhaps, to prefer cold bucket showers, or the tedium of hand-washing clothes. They admire the aesthetic of existence eked out of a mountainside and wax nostalgic for someone else’s past.

This is condemnable, particularly for those of us who act so more from whim than necessity. These adventurers seek beauty in a sort of authenticity, yet they do so inauthentically, by choosing to live in a way that others cannot choose to avoid.

By calling symptoms of poverty quaint or beautiful, we privilege our perception over the lived experience of those whose lives we admire. The poor I have known would, if they had the option, choose a life for themselves and their children less picturesque and much closer to ours.

The child playing in the puddles outside my house is adorable, but if I see only her beauty and not the gargabe in the street, the ill-fitting clothing, the perpetually-running nose, I distance myself from her. Were it my niece, my daughter, I would rush to clean her up and change her clothes, to bring her inside from the rain. It is the starving children of others that we call beautiful, remember – our own we call hungry.

We stood on the sidelines of the cancha half watching the local soccer teams play. The boys were distracted by smooth rocks and bugs, our neighbors distracted by their own jokes. With a loud voice someone hawked ciruelas in plastic bags with salt and lime.

It was Sunday and the sun was out – this is what I remember. A trio of sloping mountains towered above us, peaks shrouded in mist. And the teams ran in unison, white shirts against red dust, sweat in beads on their foreheads even in the cool air. I was breathless with the poetry of the scene. I wanted the moment to continue, exactly as it was, exactly as I was in it. The boys shook me out of my reverie and asked me to take them to the playground.

They led me to a dirt field empty but for a few rusted structures. David untangled a rusty chain from what was once a swingset and gripped it, swinging a few inches above the ground, shouting, “Look, I’m Tarzan!” and laughing.

I watched the boys play as the air grew cool and the clouds gathered low at the mountains’ peaks. I noticed the way the children laughed, the boys turning to me when they managed a flip and their wide grins. I noticed trash, the scent of urine, the climbing bars’ missing rungs. The night was beautiful and ugly at the same time and it was confusing because like the seamless transition from daylight to dusk I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started.

Beauty has a sense of aesthetic, but more than that a sense of order and rightness. Things are beautiful when it seems that out of all possible options this is the best one, no matter how surprising. Beauty provokes feelings of longing, even possessivenes. I want to hold that moment at the cancha, for example, in my mind, my heart, forever.

Ugliness is the opposite: a manifestation of things gone awry, out of order, not as they should be. It is children left with rusting shells of playground equipment, trash fires burning, the choke of car exhaust.

Yet ugliness and beauty frequently hold hands. Think of the smiles of children in an unsafe place, or the love for family that drives desperate acts. Think of great literature, art, and music - dissonance in the sweetest melodies, conflict in the bravest plots.

There is more to beauty and ugliness than can be captured by sorting between the two categories. In the end, we are stuck in a mix of the two, seeing beauty rise out of ugliness and ugliness taint beauty. We must be honest about that – to relish beauty where we see it, but not shy from the ugliness that comes alongside.

This is part of the human condition. We are beautiful, it is beautiful here, beautiful and ugly at the same time.