Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning from the Little Ones

A few weeks before I arrived in Honduras, someone called me to tell me about the host family I would be staying with. They had three children, they told me, Paolo is 10, Hector is 7, and Allisson, who has Down’s syndrome, is 4.

That’s how they said it: “Allisson, she has Down’s syndrome, is 4.”

In-country, others told me about my family too, and the medical condition always hung there in a footnote: “and the little girl has Down’s syndrome.” I didn’t know much about the condition, and wondered what it would be like to live with her. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I found was that it didn’t take long to look past the footnote that always followed her name – to fall in love not with Allisson-who-has-Down’s-syndrome but with Allisson, who, when I come home, drops her toys and shouts my name, “Ka-TAH!” running towards me for a hug,

Allisson, the copy-cat, the queen of the house, who doesn’t say many words but understands almost everything, who struts and preens and throws tantrums, who cuddles and kisses and dances with her face lifted to the sky in pure joy,

Allisson, who walks through the living room with an empty pringles can on top of her head, like the ladies at the market who balance baskets full of vegetables, “Papa papa papa,” she babbles, “potatoes potatoes potatoes,” and we give her imaginary money and she puts it into her pockets,

Allisson, sassy and persistent, who digs her fingers in my purse when I leave it out, looking for the 2-lempira bills that are enough to buy a packet of her favorite chips, who will grab the bills and show them to me, then point to herself, cocking her head in a question – Can I have it?

Allisson, who can sometimes be maddening, who gets frustrated that we don’t understand her, or that we won’t let her do what her brothers do, who screams loud enough to shake the house and can’t be trusted with a crayon without eating it,

Allisson, whose tantrums fade away as quickly as they start, and who snuggles beside me to stroke my hair, trying her best to smooth it into a ponytail and humming the low, tuneless melody that means she’s completely satisfied.

Allisson the princess in pink plastic glasses, the glue of the family, who can read anger or sadness with remarkable astuteness and knows just what to do to fix it.

One day Hector was misbehaving and his grandmother reached for the ruler. She was shouting and he was crying and Allisson left her toys to squeeze herself between her brother and her grandmother. She held Hector’s face between her little hands. “Shh,” she told him, then looked back at her grandmother, “Da da da,” she said in a scolding tone, shaking her finger, and kept stroking her brother’s face as he quieted down. “No ‘buela,” she said, “No, grandma.” Her grandmother’s voice softened. She spoke sternly, but gently to Hector, and the ruler fell to the side of the couch, forgotten.

She keeps me company in my room sometimes, coloring with a pencil that won’t break if she bites it, and I talk to her. I think I need to sweep in here, I tell her, and she slides off the bed, goes downstairs, and comes back three minutes later dragging the broom and dustpan. She loves to help, and beams when you thank her. Sometimes she cries when I carry my own plate to the sink.

There are things that Allisson will never be able to do. Allisson-with-Down-Syndrome may never bring home the good grades that her brothers earn, learn English like her cousins, or run a business like her mother and father. But Allisson, just Allisson, can still do so much. She amazes me with her gentleness and her silliness and her sassiness and imagination. She makes us laugh and she keeps us from crying. She can already do more than some people said she’d ever do, and she’s learning more every day.

How much do we miss when we see people like Allisson for who they’re not and not for who they are? Does the world really need more brilliant minds, or does it need more kind ones? Does it need more expertise, or does it need more faithfulness? There’s a lot that I’m learning, for example, that only this four-year-old could teach me. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Do We Mean, “Normal”?

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the United States was telling me how much Tegucigalpa had challenged her expectations.

“I expected there to be poverty and all the bad things you hear about,” she said, “But there's malls here and TGI Friday’s – it’s actually pretty normal!”

“Normal”, of course, was a short-hand for “familiar." But I knew, and sympathized with what she was trying to say. Realizing that Hondurans eat at TGI Friday’s, that they take their kids to karate class, watch Netflix, and snap Instagram shots of their latte art, makes Honduras feel a lot less foreign.

A few weekends ago, I went to a friend’s house and we cooked pasta with pesto and an apple pie. I went and saw a Hollywood movie (in English, with Spanish subtitles) in this mall, then I went out with friends to a tea shop and sipped lemongrass tea while we talked about books we’d recently read.

To me this felt normal, by which I mean familiar. Not all my weekends are like this, but the familiarity was comfortable and rejuvenating. And I realized this – I can create a life for myself here in Honduras that feels familiar. But there was nothing about that weekend that was normal.

I live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where half of all residents are still rural farmers, and where the GDP per capita is about $6/day. Over 60% of Hondurans live in poverty, and 60% of these poorest Hondurans will have dropped out of school by age 12.  

This isn’t just Honduras. Something like 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day. Poverty is normal. The threat of diseases like malaria, dengue, HIV-AIDS is still normal. Gender inequality, racial discrimination, violent armed conflict – these things are still all too normal.

TGI Fridays is not normal.

It’s only natural to feel more comfortable in places that look familiar, or to connect more with people who share your background, your interests, and your outlook on life. But to see these things as the norm is dangerous. When we have the idea that “normal” means “like us”, that means that those who are different are somehow “abnormal”, and, thus, that they should change.

This is sneaky rhetoric. It happens in the United States when the goal for immigrants or ethnic minorities is “assimilation,” which often secretly means, “act, talk, and think ‘normal’,” which often means, “act, talk, and think like the white, male people in power.”

Acting “normal” becomes the test for which the reward is professional advancement, integration into social groups, and the constant murmur of, “why can’t the rest of them be like you.”

But a world in which all think, speak, and act alike is no world I want to live in.

It’s easy to come to Honduras and connect with people who are like me, friends who grew up on the same U.S. media, graduated college, and enjoy travel and hiking and coffee shops. It’s harder to connect with the girl in my neighborhood who dropped out of school at 15 to have her first child, who makes what living she can selling gum and newspapers by the bus station, and who’s too tired to have many hobbies.

It’s harder, but there’s more to learn in that friendship than in people who reinforce what I already think and know. We have a problem in our world where powerful people know and interact only with other powerful people, and view those with less education, fewer connections, less experience as less interesting, less worthy of attention, less normal.

Until we know and care for people who aren’t like us, we can’t be their advocates and they can’t be ours. We can’t start the work of reconciliation across culture or class or position. We’ll keep thinking “their” underprivileged position is because they aren’t enough like “us.”

It’s not that I shouldn’t enjoy lemongrass tea with friends when I am in a position to do so. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with karate or Netflix or Instagram. But it’s important to recognize how rare and unusual these privileges are where I am – and how rich lives can be even when they don’t contain them.

This is a challenge to myself to redefine normal and stretch my boundaries of the familiar, to appreciate the wealth of differences this world hosts, and accept humbly that I’m not normal, not remotely, and that that’s okay.  

Take Care

I fell down. It doesn’t matter how, but I ended up with two skinned knees and a patch scraped off my forearm. Embarrassing. Grimacing and feeling the tingly sting I hadn’t felt since I was young enough to run on gravel.

Even cool, clean water stung at first. The angry red patches clung tightly to the bits of dirt and I had to pour and pour until the wound dripped clean. I had a raisin-purple bruise beneath.

They gave me the day off on Monday. Rest! Get better! I stared at my joints so swollen they looked like foreign things. They were like children, crying out to be bathed and cared for. When I tried to run, I shuffled. Stubborn, the knees wouldn’t bend.

They are tiny little scrapes, really, the kind children are distracted from by popsicles. But they demand my attention, my care, and I realize how unaccustomed I am to caring for myself. Someone else always had to tell me to go home when I was sniffling. I don’t like to stop.

I get pitying glances, on the bus and in line to buy band-aids. There were gasps and hands clasped against chests. Everyone told me to buy a different cream that they swore by. They were just little scratches, a moment of clumsiness, I was embarrassed by the attention. It’s nothing, I kept saying, It’s no problem, though it stung to stand.

CuĂ­dete! They tell me here when I leave in the morning, Take care of yourself. I think of myself, as any selfish human, but that doesn’t become care, the gentle attuned-ness to needs and inclinations.

My knees woke me up in the morning, the drying scabs pricking. How disgusting. I scooped a pailful of water from the cistern and bathed them. The red was hardening and turning a brown-maroon. I sat in bed and cleaned my knees and forearm, watched the puckered pink skin begin to emerge. I’m not used to this conversation, this asking and answering with my body: What do you need? What will make you feel better? It was a moment that surprised me – the peacefulness of self-care.

What a silly and sheepish emotion, to suddenly love my knees and care very much about what happens to them. What if this love extended to the rest of me, the parts that cry out for sleep or for vegetables, for slowing down sometimes? From my knees to the rest of me, I want to take care. 

Encounters with Geckos

It is the hour of the morning where everyone starts to stir. I hear pots clattering, the hiss of oil in a hot pan, water splashing, and the girls downstairs singing along with Christian radio. I am in the shower, splashing water on my face, and before I’ve quite woken up I turn for shampoo and grab at a gecko, nearly transluscent, skittering down the shower door.

Blinking from the water and steam, it pauses, in the wrong place, waiting for me to act. I don’t scream, but my heart beats, remembering suddenly its stiff, tailless brother that I found beneath the hummus in the gas station.

I screamed then. It had been late, and unexpected, its flattened body pressed against the refrigerated shelf. The security guard had ambled over, pistol on his hip. He picked it up. He shook it a little in my face laughing at me, with me, whose heart still pounded, before he went to toss it in the bushes outside.

“Was it a cricket?” the cashier asked me – un grillo. I was buying chips and chocolates. It had been a long night.

“No,” I said, though they make similar hiccuping sounds. At night I hear the geckos clicking, and sometimes see them skittering across my ceiling, swift and fluorescent, but I couldn’t remember the word for “lizard” so I said it was a ranita con una cola, a “little frog with a tail”,  before I remembered the dark scab where its tail had been.

Geco, she said, unsurprised, “Yes, they’re always getting in where they don’t belong.”

I opened the shower door a crack and waited. It fled to the cool air outside, leaving me looking at its tiny prints on the door.