Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Losing Words and Finding Friends

The pictures and brief bios of the moms I tutor
at Camino Seguro. 

For the last five-ish years I've written grant proposals and emails and newsletters and appeals and blog posts on behalf of people halfway around the world that I have never met on a weekly basis.

Last year at Plant With Purpose, in my office alcove, I longed to meet the people whose stories I told.  I longed to get a fuller glimpse into their life than a two sentence testimony or a Flickr photo description.

I moved to Guatemala with a heart open for stories. For people. Hungry for connection and confirmation that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

New people and new experiences offer themselves to me every day in this foreign country. I work with mothers who are learning to read for the first time and kids who live in squatter settlements near the Guatemala City garbage dump.

I get to see them, speak with them, laugh with them, and do long division with them three times a week. I've been given a much fuller glimpse into their lives than an emailed testimony, yet when it comes time to write about them, to share a bit of their lives so that you may be compelled to give to the life-changing work of Camino Seguro or to be encouraged by the dedicated people working in a marginalized corner of Guatemala, my words fall flat. Empty.

I can extrapolate a two page report or a $50,000 proposal from a two sentence testimony from “the field,” but when I’m actually living and working in “the field,” silence wins.

I only know that I don’t really know them.

I know facts, yes. Bits and pieces, but they seem insufficient, incomplete.

For example, I know that most of the moms I tutor at Camino Seguro work difficult jobs with long hours—like sorting through trash in the garbage dump or rising in the darkness of the early morning to make and sell tortillas on a street corner bus rides away from where they live, where the money is. I know they live in a dangerous area with an astronomical crime rate. I know most of them are single mothers, have likely suffered domestic abuse, and would do absolutely anything for their children. They've sacrificed to send their kids to Camino Seguro, to enroll themselves in primary school this late in life, and to make education a priority for themselves and their children.

Dona Paula and Camino Seguro board member
I know that Doña Paula’s hair usually hangs in a thick, black braid down her back. I know Doña Bonifacia wears pink reading glasses that are broken at the bridge of her nose and she refuses to switch to a new, unbroken pair. I know which moms struggle with multiplication and which moms need an extra push to get going on their work.

I've shared two months with them, and yet it feels like I don’t know them at all. I become reluctant to write anything about them.

And perhaps that’s a good thing.

When I write about a friend or family member on this blog, I exercise an exponentially greater amount of thought and care when writing the post than I do when sharing my own thoughts and stories. I read the draft over and over.  I imagine what it would feel like to read those words about myself.

When I fundraise and advocate for people I don’t know, it’s easy to orient my words in a compelling manner without giving it much thought. With words I can befriend them in my mind. I don’t have to fumble with Spanish conjugations or admit I don’t remember any short cuts for long division.

Three of the moms at the recent graduation
from 6th grade.
Making friends in real life takes a lot longer than rounding out a blog post or tacking on a Donate Now button to my sidebar.

The people I've met and have worked with in Guatemala are people, not a cause or an ideal or blog material. They’re potential new friends. And I have to admit I’m slow at making friends, at establishing trust, at sharing my own story with others, even when language and culture isn't a barrier. But as I build trust, build friendship, hope to find myself a home here, I also want to write. It’s what I do.

And so hope you’ll be patient with me as I learn to put the amount of care and thought and time into sharing about my new friends here as I would about my dear friends back home. And I hope I’ll learn to be patient with me, too.  

Just as I was beginning to articulate these thoughts for myself, I came across this excellent post by D.L. Mayfield on the role and responsibility of a writer or artist in sharing others' stories. I highly recommend taking a gander at her post, War Photographers, and getting cozy with her blog where she writes about living in the upside-down kingdom. 

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