Sunday, March 17, 2019

Love Letters to my life #9: What am I supposed to do?

Artist reconstruction of Mitla
by Joyce Wycoff

(This love letter to my life is written on my death day, the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.)
This has been a challenging month. I’ve learned that friends have lost loved ones and beloved pets. People I know are dealing with debilitating health conditions. I visited Oaxaca, the 2nd or 3rd poorest state in Mexico and visited the homes and workshops of artisans creating incredible beauty in the midst of debilitating poverty and hardship. While in Oaxaca, I walked through a city, a civilization that no longer exists.

And, I read a book. A young US woman, half-Mexican, goes to Mexico to discover her roots. It started out in the style of “Eat. Pray. Love.” She makes new friends, eats new foods and struggles to learn Spanish and decide whether or not she is “Mexican enough.” Slowly she is drawn to troubled places that turn the heat up on her journalistic tendencies as she uncovers the ugly underbelly of Mexico.

My keys often disappear. Lately, words disappear and take their own sweet time showing up again. In Mexico, the word is neon, flashing distrust … danger … death. 
In a country where death is part of life, the “disappeared” leave a gap that can never be closed as the lost loved one is forever in an impenetrable fog between life and death. All the annual rituals meant to attract and honor the spirits of the ancestors are broken. How can you put your son’s favorite foods on the altar of remembrance when you don’t truly know he is dead? When everything inside you screams that he is still alive ... somewhere.

I had my first experience of "the disappeared,” in September, 2014, as I walked through the cathedral square in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The plaza was crowded, a speaker’s voice booming words I couldn’t understand. I thought it was a concert ... until my chest started to tighten as I walked through the people and saw pictures of young men everywhere. There was a paper quilt of their pictures on the ground sprinkled with flowers. I finally found an English-speaking friend who could tell me about the 43 students who had just been disappeared. The number 43 on a wall is enough to trigger pain, grief, and helpless anger for thousands of people, mostly poor and indigent.

In the mountains of Chiapas live the Zapatistas, another one of those words that stirs a lot of images as well as fear and uncertainty: masked warriors, conflict, primitive dangers. In her book, written in the time frame of 2005, Stephanie Griest tells of a 1997 massacre, unknown to me and probably to most outsiders. Seventy men, women, and children were at Sunday mass when they were attacked by a right-wing group of paramilitary men with automatic rifles. 45 died ... children, 4 pregnant women, one whole family. All members of a pacificist group known as "The Abejas," the bees.

When the author asks Rafael, one of the men she interviewed, why all of this is happening, he takes her to the top of a hill and points to an especially attractive mountain peak. He says, “Because they want to be able to say, 'Mira, look how pretty that spot is, let’s put a Holiday Inn on it,’ and then do it, without worrying about who might live there."

The roots of these things are always complicated, however, apparently, they go back to a cause common to most conflicts: land, money, power. The indigent peoples of Chiapas revere the green mountains of their ancestral lands. Giving up that land would be somewhat similar to someone coming into your home and telling you that your living room is now going to be a convenience store. 

As I thought about the things that have happened, and are undoubtedly still happening in a land I have come to love, I realized that there is little difference in what has happened in the United States and still happens all too often in the name of “progress.” Although we all come from indigenous roots, we, the world, treat the still remaining indigenous peoples as if they are somehow less important, less civilized, less human, than those of us who have managed to gather our tokens of progress, our six-car garages, our self-driving cars, our plastic doodads.

All of this made me wonder if I have lived too long? 
As this existential angst tossed my rose-colored glasses into the wind, I contemplated my slide into skepticism and nihilism. What am I supposed to do? Am I just taking up space, contributing to the CO2 overload, depleting resources that should be saved for the young and energetic? 
After 73 years of developing a positive belief system, I know that giving up is not the answer. One friend reminds me that this is all an illusion. And, it may be, but it doesn't mean the pain is not real. Everyday, we see examples of the most amazing creativity and kindness ... while at the same time, we see leaders around the world deliberately turning their backs on the poor and weak, willingly sacrificing our planet for their personal gain.

For some reason, all of this reminds me of the Zen quote: "Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” At my age, I’m not very proficient at either chopping wood or carrying water, but I can honor the honest efforts of every day life and light candles wherever I find them. 
This doesn't seem like much of a love letter to my life. But, I am still alive and I do love my life, even if it is a bubble. I am healthy and constantly learning. And, I still have friends. Fortunately, this train of thought intersected with my weekly call with a friend in San Diego. She always makes me laugh, even in times like this, and reminded me that my job was to carry on, to add as much kindness and goodness as I can to the world, knowing that what I do is not enough, never enough, but it’s all I have to offer. I guess that's my chop wood; carry water.
PS: A couple of days ago, this cup was in my favorite coffee shop. The message is:
Good day! Today is a good opportunity to smile. 
Maybe that's enough.