I’ll be honest, I’m a little intimidated by what I’m about to share with you. Intimidated as much by the vulnerability that comes with sharing as the “what,” itself. I’ve written and rewritten this piece over and over the past two weeks, trying to balance the passion and enthusiasm I feel with the kind of tempered, controlled emotion that seems more suitable for a blog post. (Though I’m not exactly sure why.)
Then yesterday I came across the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.”
Somehow validated enthusiasm works for me. That was just the nudge I needed…
A few weeks ago, my family and I – along with about 80 other volunteers – piled into the truck beds of several colectivos bound for a Mayan village only a half an hour from where we live.
The plan? To build a six-classroom secondary school (with a much-anticipated basketball court) and install super efficient, vented, wood fire cook stoves in the homes of 40 villagers most in need.
When I speak of “need” within the rural communities of Chiapas, I do not use the term loosely, as in “I need to get my hair done,” or “We need to upgrade the kitchen cabinets.” The kind of need I’m referring to is a little more, well…true, and often used in conjunction with the word “dire.”
I could go into detail about any number of experiences during those eventful three days – about the overwhelming success of the (rather ambitious) school build or the influx of teenage boys from neighboring villages eager to break in the new court. About the inaugural fiesta, its three hours of trilingual formalities and the bizarre display of cultural camaraderie displayed by a Gringo/Maya dance. I could tell you about the admirable work being done to ensure that impoverished students have access to more than a fifth grade education. Each of these subjects is compelling enough to stand alone, I assure you.
But my interests lie elsewhere – so much so, that I’ve spent nearly every waking hour since then back in the community – in my head when not in person.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the lives of indigenous women. Since living in Mexico, that fascination has intensified thanks to our daily interaction with the Tzotzil speaking Mayans of this region. I wander the markets as much to marvel over their patient tending of children, their strange, staccato dialect and their proficiency with a needle and thread as to buy the fruits, vegetables and handcrafts of their labor. I sometimes pretend to be thinking or inspecting my grocery list just for an excuse to idle near a group of mamas huddled on the ground amidst babies and blankets and baskets of beets, or hollowed out gourds, leafy greens and simmering soup.
For a year and a half now, I’ve been asking for a way to get a closer look — to dig deeper into the complexities that accompany this ancient, oppressed and impoverished culture. (By the way, this “asking” thing has been blowing my mind. I won’t get into the layers of serendipity and divine confirmation interwoven through my life right now – I’ll save it for a time when my thoughts have settled a bit.) It seems that my opportunity — my foot-in-the-door — has been presented to me. (Can your hear me smiling?)
During those first three days, I visited home after smoke-filled home, installing cook stoves like a kid in a candy shop. So that’s how they wash their laundry, and that’s why they soak their corn, and that’s where they put their babies when they need their backs free for weaving.
WEAVING!! I’ve been led to a land of sheep and fiber artists!!!!!!! If you know me, you understand how cool this is. If you know me well, you understand that I’m kind of freaking out about just how cool this is. Check out what I posted on my website when we decided to move south.
Breathe, Beth. Breathe your relatively clean and smokeless air. One thing at a time.
So, these stoves are kind of a big deal – a big and complicated deal. True to their traditions, most Mayan women build open fires inside their homes for cooking and heating without proper (if any) ventilation. (Actually, considering that their homes are generally wooden or concrete shacks, there is just enough ventilation inherent to the poor construction to save them from sudden asphyxiation.) Indoor cook fires are responsible for a host of problems affecting a third of the world’s population including severe respiratory illness, cataracts, burns, childhood mortality and deforestation, to name a few.
At first I saw this project as little more than an opportunity to gain an unlikely perspective into the home lives of Mayan women. Wow, did I ever underestimate its complexity (and necessity). I am now totally immersed in a constant dialogue, both internal and interpersonal. A dialogue about stove design, adoption rates, prioritization within a responsible NGO, the effectiveness of numerical analysis vs. anthropological research, language barriers, dependency vs. self-sufficiency, hierarchy within communities, gender discrimination, the balance of efficiency vs. health, homogenization of culture, and safety vs. practicality. A dialogue that includes an untidy blend of ecology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, statistics, public health, spirituality and engineering. One that will never have a perfect solution and which demands a total reevaluation for each individual community.
And you know what’s totally crazy? I AM LOVING IT. I feel so totally invigorated – by the time I’ve spent in mothers’ homes, by the slow and unpredictable process of learning and unlearning and by the firsthand exposure to extreme poverty. By the problem solving, the nuances of communication in three languages and the glimpse into humanity still connected to a more natural, mammalian order. There’s something oddly refreshing about communication with minimal words (you can imagine why). About feeling disconnected by the huge cultural and socioeconomic gaps and yet still very much connected by the universality of femininity and motherhood.
It’s been a really intense few weeks, as much for what is being born in me as for the experiences themselves…
Like waking up to a breakfast of too-sweet Nescafe and fresh made corn tortillas. Someone in our group handed two matchbox cars to the little boys who lived where we were staying. I have never before seen a more heartfelt and raw expression of utter delight. (Forgive the photo quality, just check out this kid’s expressions over what may well be the only toy he’s ever been given.)
Or while peeling an orange gifted to me by a single nineteen-year-old mom who nursed her baby with a sure and quiet confidence. Embarrassed by her watery eyes, she explained that her first son had died last year. “He just got sick,” was all she knew.
Or when three little kids (none of whom looked well) showed me to their home. The billows of smoke were so thick that my eyes burned within seconds. They politely covered their mouths or used their filthy sleeves as they coughed their smoker’s cough.
There have been so many such experiences that I hardly know how to sort them. I am still largely unaccustomed to this degree of reality.
But I asked for this and it was given to me quite generously. Remember when I said that I think we have just as much to learn from them as they do from us (speaking of impoverished cultures)? Well, here’s one right in front of me — one whose faces are already becoming familiar. And it just so happens to be a community of fiber artists (which is totally my thing). So what now? A story line? For sure. A weaving cooperative? A more extensive and customized stove project? Rainwater catchment? Permaculture?
Hold on a second. Didn’t I just say that I have as much to learn from them as they do from me? If I really believe this (and I really do) then the last thing I need to be doing is thinking of ways to solve the problems I think they have. My first job is to listen, and frankly, that could take a while.
Even more interesting is that I have been given nothing less than a divine gift, and in the very next breath I ask “what now?” What is the matter with me? How about the slightest pause for gratitude?! How about abandoning my ego for two seconds and acknowledging how incredible a gift this really is!?
This tendency to hurry through life, always looking for what’s next even when I already have everything I have ever wanted? What a tragedy of human nature. What a total insult to the giver.
Maybe that’s why this post has taken me two weeks to write. Because I was passing over the most important part.
Can you imagine? My dreams are handed to me on chipped terracotta plate with tiny painted flowers and a side of hot tortillas, and of all things, I almost forget to say “thank you.”