Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Modern Parable

Rosa was sitting two seats to my left, a beautiful Latina woman whose face glowed with a smile.  She was the outsider in more ways than one.  There were about forty of us huddled together in the basement of United Presbyterian Church.  Forty Protestants slumped into folded plastic chairs around small, circular tables.  Every other person in the room was caucasian.  Most were of retirement age and sported thin grey beards meant to connote dignity and wisdom.  The women wore a lot of make-up; the brave ones with brighter shades of lipstick - tiny flashes of the more risque.  A few had on colorful scarfs, worn in protest to the last dead days of winter.

In the middle of the table sat a small plate of chocolates, which most at the table had denied in order to maintain a Lenten discipline or their blood-sugar levels.  The chocolates seemed a bit extravagant.  I guessed that Rosa put them there, that they were her gift to this cadre of servants of the Word.  I took a small rectangle of milk chocolate and bit into the heart of the candy.  Then I took another wrapped in gold foil, unwrapped it quickly and indulged myself before the telling silences of those sitting around the table.  Then I turned to Claire.

Claire was sandwiched between Rosa and myself.  For ten minutes I had sat next to her and had heard not a single word or noise.  Turning to her, I could see she had the sanguine look of the gracefully aged, or it could just as easily have been the first sign of Alzheimer's.

"That's a great shirt you have there, Claire," I said pointing to the Wabash College t-shirt partly hidden beneath her knitted sweater.

Claire's face came alive.  "You know of Wabash."

"Oh yes.  I have just finished participating in a program at Wabash that lasted the two years.  It's a great school."

"My son goes there.  He's a junior."  Invigorated by attention, she shot back her own question, "And where do you live?"

"Oh, I'm from Zionsville, on the northside of Indianapolis.  But, now I live in Greencastle ..."  I paused to see if she would make the connection.  "That's where DePauw University is, just down the road from Crawfordsville," I continued, fully expecting the acrimony of rivalry to creep into the conversation.  But Claire's eyes remained light and warm.

"Do you like it there?"

"Yeah.  I do.  It's a sort of home-coming for me.  I went to school there.  What about you?  Have you grown up here in Bloomington?"

"Yes, I have.  Been a member of this church here for thirty-two."

"That's great."

"I like it."  As she says this, I notice Rosa leaning into our conversation.

"Hi, I'm Wes," I say, stretching my hand across Claire's plate, offering a distinctly American gesture.

"I'm Rosa."  She rolls her 'r', letting it fall into my ear in pieces.

"And are you from here," I ask her in my own form of Hoosier hospitality, inviting her to step forward with her history in her own way at her own pace.  If nothing else, we know how to be considerate, painfully so.  But before she can answer, Claire interrupts.

"She drives me around.  Gives me rides."

Rosa blushes, a warm blush of gratitude and love, not humiliation.  It is clear she considers it an honor to be a part of Claire's life.  And her community.

"I make the bean dip for today," she says motioning to a round tray conspicuously vibrant at the end of two long tables.

"Oh, that was good."  I am eager to make her feel welcome, eager to let her know that I know what it is like to be an outsider in this room.  "Is that a family recipe?"  The moment the question leaves my lips, I realize how quickly I've begun to jump to stereotypes, and my eyes fall to the ball of tinfoil I'm rolling between my thumb and forefinger.  But, thankfully, stereotypes are also lost in translation.

"No.  It's just refried beans ... two types.  I mix them together.  You know?"  She is searching to see if we are indeed communicating.  "I mix them together and put them on the platter.  Then, I make guacamole.  Then I put sour cream and taco seasoning."

I smile and take the next step.  "That's your secret ingredient, huh?"

"That's why it's orange.  Do you notice?"

Even if I didn't (and I didn't), I am compelled to agree, certain now that she has offered this food as a gesture of her love and respect.

"Then, I put cheese.  And also green and red peppers."

And I tell Rosa that I especially like the peppers.  This is not a lie, and I look over again at the beautiful, bright, crisp red and green, the red as red as the t-shirt under Claire's sweater.

"Did you make the guacamole?"

"Yes.  Do you like?"

"It's great.  I love guacamole.  In fact, I was thinking that I would just go ahead and take home the rest of that guacamole with the rest of those chips."

For a moment, this immigrant mother from Queretaro, Mexico and this replanted Hoosier from the suburbs of Indianapolis actually begin to find common ground.  I ask Rosa to tell me what she puts into her guacamole, assuming that in their culture there is still that close distinction between love and food and gifting that once was part of my own family's German heritage - a heritage that we have steadily been unbound from much to our own detriment.  We agree that it must begin with fresh avocados.  And, I tell her about the guacamole I used to order at El Cholo on Fair Oaks Avenue.  I list the ingredients as they appear in my mind - recalling the Latina women there working in their white blouses and flowing dresses:  avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.  She is surprised I like cilantro ("Some people don't like").  Rosa tells me that it must have a bit of garlic, and I nod my head in total agreement.  And sometimes - she tells me - she adds serrano pepper.

"Something to turn up the heat?"

She smiles.  "Yes."

And in this room of Euro-Americans who have now successfully made the transition from poverty to wealth and from to exclusion to comfortable power, Rosa begins to tell me her family's story - of how she and her husband met in Mexico City, of how they traveled north some ten years ago in hopes of finding a better life for their four children, of how two of her boys have done very well here in America  and how one is even a 4.0 student here at Indiana University.  Pre-medicine she tells me, and proudly lifts a newspaper from her purse that tells the story of her two eldest children - a sophomore and freshman.

Sure enough, there they are:  Chuy Vidaurri-Rodriguez and his brother, Lalo.  They are smiling with their arms around one another, and at the top of the page the headline reads:  "Second Chances."  Rosa is just a proud mother, but she also has a cause.  By act of the Indiana House (Bill 1402) and Senate (Bill 590), Chuy and Lalo will no longer be considered state citizens.  Anxious to limit the resources provided for the "Undocumented," Chuy and Lalo will soon be paying over $30,000 a year to attend IU instead of just over $8,000.  And Rosa does not want her sons to lose their opportunity.

So she is ready to share with me or anyone else who will listen to this family plight and struggle.  This country has meant hope and life for her.  It has meant precisely what it meant to the Scottish and German and Irish and English peoples whose descendants now sit around Rosa quietly chatting about the common lamentations and minor joys of ministry.  This country has become both her vexation and her deepest comfort; her home of opportunities her old country could never afford even as she wistfully remembers the countryside south of Mexico City that clearly has such power over her heart, stealing her away to her childhood.  America has become - by act of complete abandonment - her home, for better and for worse, and she is as much concerned about this nation's future as the Presbyterian octogenarians who quibble over the "direction of our country."  Perhaps even more so.  She too is now part of its story and its relatively young history, of wave after wave of the dejected, the persecuted, the exploited, and the tired who have faced down their fears, counted their losses and made a bold leap of faith - entrusting their very families to a dream and to a nation that could just as easily turn on them as it might embrace them.

As I say my goodbye, I take one last look at the joy hidden in Rosa's face, and I wonder at the difference between those who dream and taste of rights beyond anything their forefathers and mothers could have imagined ... and those who have grown certain that such rights are something we determine and decide and dispense - choosing whom we shall or shall not include as neighbor.  And I consider the gift she has offered to us.  Unequivocal generosity, I would call it.  Kindness of which Christ spoke.


Monday, March 04, 2013


Wyatt's face grew tight, and I could see him trying to hold his bottom lip steady.  An impossible task for him as he began to shed his first tears of the evening.  

"I left my remote control on," he sputtered as his chest began to convulse as well.

"Hold on, Wyatt ... It's okay," I said in hopes of stemming the coming breakdown.  "Let's talk about it.  What did you leave on?"

"My remote control for my heli-" Helicopter he was going to say.  But, he never got there.  The mere utterance brought on a rush of convulsions.  My son's emotional state was quickly devolving.  We had been here before.  Many times.  Some small instance in his day, some matter that did not fit the perfect script in his mind, that came back ten-fold at the end of the day.  And off he went.  Like a helicopter off kilter and spinning wildly towards the ground.

"It's okay.  It's okay."  I offered up the assurance mostly for myself, preparing for the journey through this descent, knowing I'd be picking up the pieces the rest of the night.  This would not be a quiet evening.

Forty minutes earlier I had reached into the makeshift closet in the kids' bedroom - pulling out a cardboard copier paper box.  It was full of our family's history captured before the era of digital photographs.  Nine albums of 4x6 photos dating back to college and through our first two years in Pasadena.  

I returned to the living room intending to prove to Wyatt and Elise that their mother and me once drove from Indiana to California in a rent-a-truck.  And those pictures were there.  But, before we found them, we were flipping through staged pictures from fraternity parties and memories from the old lake house up on Wawasee.  I had unearthed a trove of mysteries and stories, unleashing questions and quandaries for Wyatt:  every picture filled with new information, new landscapes, new possibilities, which - in turn - ignited Wyatt's avaricious mind.  Unwittingly, I was setting the stage for the later meltdown, navigating my son away from his nightly rhythms and routines and into space that would be too spacious for him to begin a steady march towards quietness of spirit and mind, and - eventually - sleep.  Instead, I descended into the photographs myself - pulled into the names gone by, unlocking memories buried deep.  So I flipped through page after page.

It's funny how our mind re-imagines and re-shapes our past, building its own narrative of joy or frustration depending on what images and memories we hold onto.  My mind grows content when I thumb through pictures of our days in California, as if the golden rays of sunset in Los Angeles stand as a permanent filter for those days.  There was a lot of freedom in those days, and my future was beautifully undetermined.  That is why I was ambivalent towards Wyatt as he began to ask me questions.  He desired information about the large float dominating Colorado Avenue with its ridiculously bright colors.  I, meanwhile, began to enter back into that scene - recalling the fresh air and warm sun on my skin even on the first day of January.  He wanted names for faces.  I found myself recalling conversations and meals and long hikes in the scrub-brush canyons of Ojai.  Memories don't mean anything if they aren't yours.  So we gravitated apart.  I began to drift further into the past while Wyatt came back to events closer and connected to his own life and experience.  At some point, he must have remembered the fluorescent orange helicopter lying on the television room floor; it's power mostly drained and only sufficient to spin its blades for a few seconds before ceasing.  There was not even enough juice to lift it off the floor.

The synapses and connections in his own mind made the dramatic conclusion that the helicopter's failure was his own failure - having already learned at too young of an age how to lay too heavy of a burden of blame and guilt upon his tiny shoulders.  

"I forgot to turn it off," he cried softly.  It would grow into a lament that would last another hour.

What is it in our nature that gravitates towards our shortcomings, seizing upon them and refusing to let them go even at the urgings of those who love us?  Is this our fate?  What it means to be bound to our depraved nature?  Surely, we cannot help but descend at times.

Thankfully, though, time tempers the harsher critic within us.  As an old friend told me, the sharpness of the day is dulled by time and years, the corners of particular disappointments wear down and we are left with memories where we can laugh where we once cried and relax where we once felt impossibly constrained.  And we pick up the pictures of our past and remember - for the first time - that life is so wonderfully rich and blessed.  Even the failures.  Even the rough nights that I will one day remember with an ache of joy in my heart.