“THAT IS UNWELCOME BEHAVIOR!” I yelled, extricating myself from my blanket nest on the couch.
This was my eighth such leap from comfort to stop my punkier ferret, Brodie, from trying to burrow through my zipped luggage. I scooped him up and flipped him onto his back on the carpet, looking him square in the eye. “You’ll rip the bag and my stuff will fall out and all the other passengers will laugh at me,” I explained. He responded by sticking his tongue up my nostril.
The luggage in question is a wheeled orange and gray duffel bag, and it is about to travel 10,000 miles. As am I.
I’ve been asked more times than I can count on 14 fingers why I’m taking this trip. Shrugging has yet to pass as an adequate response, which is too bad since it’s so much easier than fumbling around with words (inadequate) to explain (impossible) why I want (need) to go. I will still attempt the shrug response, but for those for whom that will not suffice, words:
The Simple Reason: It’s time for a refresher course
It’s been 19 years since my family moved back to the States after living in Paraguay for two and a half years while my parents were missionaries there, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since. I just need to see it again, you know? I need to see the city and our old homes, to walk the streets we used to walk, to eat the food, to hear the accent, to smell the trees, to see the poverty, to see the wealth, to see the litter, to see the art, to hear the music, the buses, the kids, the street vendors. I want to see it again, but this time through adult eyes.
I’m also looking forward to hearing Paraguayan Spanish again. The majority of the Spanish speaking population in my area is Mexican and their accents are so different from what I grew up with that I’m often unsure if I’m hearing a new word, or just an old word in which all the letters are actually being pronounced. My Spanish has gotten pretty lousy from twenty years of only occasional use; I’m hoping being around it for four weeks will kick my brain-o back into el gear-o.
Plus: Have you ever been to Wisconsin in January? It’s bloody cold here! Time to get me the heck outta Dodge.
(… she said, as the temperature dropped to (an unseasonably balmy) 20° F while the wind howled through the iced branches of the barren trees outside her window, skeletal reminders that death by hypothermia is kept at bay only by a few inches of uncaring drywall and saggy insulation.)
The Complicated Reason: I– Yes.
Things are about to get a little stream-of-consciousness here. Bear with me.
I’m treading water. I’m uncertain. I’m faltering. I’m fading. I’m creating expectations for myself, assigning their creation to other people, and then chastising myself for failing to meet those expectations. I’m digging a pit, filling it with icy hose water, and treading, treading, treading…
I need to see something else. I want to see something else, but I also need to see something else. Someplace else. To immerse myself in places and things I once knew well and loved deeply, those places and things that once brought comfort but which were taken away before I was ready, before any of us expected them to go. Is it like that theory that kids who suck their thumbs do so because they were weened too soon? I look for substitutes and create false goals to make up for having lost prematurely those things I might have set as goals anyway.
I also need to see Christianity against the backdrop of another culture. I need to see what it looks like when big “A” America is stripped away and replaced by little “a” american-culture-in-the-form-of-Facebook-and-hipster-hair-as-owned-by-developing-nations. I need to see what we consider “church” here that also shows up in vastly-different-elsewheres. Is there something to be salvaged in whatever it is we’re all concluding is worth keeping? Are there conclusions we’re all drawing, all of us all over the world, about God, regardless of the cultural templates we lay over our daily lives?
Whatever that is, whatever that is that sticks across cultures, I need to spend some time with that, and in a place where I am forced to pay better attention, a place where I can dig into a little intentional listening. I am seeking a balm. More than a balm- a poultice, in the hope it will encourage my heart that it is possible to draw out the infection of fear and self-centeredness I have nurtured in myself the past several years.
How It Came About
The products were good ones, my coworkers were great, and I loved being able to clock out at the same time every day, a luxury I’d rarely been afforded up ’til then as I’d been working for small businesses for years. But the benefits of the job ended there as the work itself was almost unendurable. Not the actual bill calculation or information gathering, but dealing with the reactionary aggression of the people expected to pay those bills.
Here’s the thing:
The dark side of humanity isn’t reserved solely for bad guys in black hats.
It’s also found in 50-somethings SCREAMING into the phone that you- yes you, the cubicle monkey on the other end of the line– are the reason the health care industry is going down in flames. That you- yes you– are personally trying to rob them, are abusing the system, are stealing food from the mouths of their children, are depleting their kids’ college funds, are emptying their retirement accounts by allowing them months on end to pay the $20 in coinsurance they owe for a $16,000 equipment rental for which my employer will receive $200 total payment when all is said and done. They wrote down your name at the start of this phone call, smart-ass. They’re going to call your manager, know-it-all. They’re going to alert the Better Business Bureau, you lying ageist. They’re going to see to it that you’re fired, and that your employer is shut down, and that none of you people ever work again because you are thieves and evil and everything that is wrong with this country.
It was a nightmare. But it was a nightmare with a paycheck in an uncertain economy, so I willed myself to stay asleep.
My only escape during the work day was on my lunch break. I’d scarf down my Diet Mt. Dew and pb&j on my fifteen minute break in the morning, then spend my half hour lunch at my desk reading blogs from people who lived in Paraguay. I took such pleasure in seeing their pictures and reading their stories, especially missionaries’ blogs because their tales felt particularly familiar.
During one such lunch break I came across a blog from a woman living as a missionary in Paraguay with her husband and their two daughters. Over the next several months I plumbed her archives and read every single post, following this family’s adventure as it took them from the US to Peru to Paraguay. I left them comments, I shared their blog links, I even dropped a penny or two in the pot, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I really wanted to do, needed to do, was to meet these characters. (And boy are they characters!) I didn’t know how that could ever happen since there I was, nailed to a headset with screaming humanity shouting at me from the other end, but just in case: I started saving my money.
Fast forward to a sunny morning in April of 2010. A Thursday. My coworkers and I were called together and read a letter explaining that most of us were being let go, effective immediately. And so, after a year and a half, I was out of work once again.
Out of work, laden with free time, and coddling a growing desire to book a flight southward.
Since then I’ve picked up the odd job here and there being in commercials, helping my dad with roofing projects, and working for several months as a temp in an office with a fridge full of Diet Dr. Pepper. (Win!) A few bucks at a time I’ve added to what I squirreled away during my claim processing days, until I finally reached the point where I had both the time and the money to take this trip. One round-trip ticket purchase later and I’m on my way to meet a family of quasi-strangers 5,000 miles from home, eat an unhealthy number of empanadas, and sweat like it’s my job.
I’m probably causing permanent nerve damage to my smiley face-parts with how excited I am about this trip. I can’t wait to share the adventure with you here!
P.S. Yes I have made arrangements for the ferrets, and yes I will have folks stopping by my apartment to check the mail and make sure no crazy people have tried to break in and steal any of my… laundry? second-hand hardcover 1970s fiction? poop scoopers?