The Places and Things That Scare Us
My mother brought poverty into our house and introduced it to me, my brother, and my sister. She chaperoned a show-and-tell where poverty was the featured act, the pet rat, snake, or tarantula that inspired fear and awe, repulsion, and disbelief. Rodents, insects, and arachnids are not so unlike destitution in the ways we shiver at the thought of their touch, expect them to be hidden from view, turn away from them when they are not, and wish to stamp them out of existence.
When I was young, I didn’t realize we were poor. Need secretly infested the houses of our mid-western working class neighborhood, but I didn’t know this. I did not notice the signs of blight in the musty thrift stores where we shopped, the broken down cars in the neighbors’ yards, or even the wire hanger sticking out of our own TV. Years later my father confessed that our family had lived check to check during this time.
But what we witnessed was not what my mother had described.
The poverty my mother knew was an entirely different species. This one pervaded El Salvador in the 1950s. To escape hunger, at age five she plucked worms from the earth and cotton from its stalks. But even with the extra money she and her four siblings toiled to earn there were days when her belly ached with emptiness. By the time my mother was twenty-three she had attained only a fourth grade education. Her childhood days were comprised not of schoolbooks and chalkboards but hoisting water jugs onto her head and nodding assent to whatever chore her mother demanded. As a teenager, my grandmother, Mama Tina, extended my mother’s services to the homes of strangers, where she was required to live and labor.
At twenty-three, her life changed when she met my father, a Peace Corps volunteer in her village. My father is originally from a lower middle class town in rural Ohio, so I imagine that the first time he encountered true hardship was in El Salvador. After two years of instructing farmers how to make silage, he returned home with not only the insights of settling in a developing country but also my mother. She, of course, carried with her a lifelong and intimate knowledge of impoverishment.
* * *
I remember exactly when I first realized my parent’s ideology of wealth was different than most. I was at a white and grey-speckled table in the school cafeteria when my friends began trading information on their Christmas reapings after an extended holiday break. I don’t recall exactly what I had received that year, but undoubtedly, as my parents had done every other year, they would have carefully spread our unwrapped gifts on a couch or chair of the living room. Probably, there was a sweater, maybe a board game or a book, and then one special item chosen from the list I had written for them. But I cared less about the gifts, and more about the desserts, in particular, the caramels.
Every year, on Christmas Eve I would spend the day pouring cups of flour into bowls, measuring teaspoons of cinnamon, and eyeing the oven timer, as I assisted my mother in baking lemon bars, coconut squares, and pineapple upside down cake. Then in the evening, the entire family would gather around the kitchen table to chatter and wrap caramels. The smell of hot sugared butter and velvety-voiced carols would fill the kitchen as the five of us cut cellophane, enveloped the candies in its square folds, and snuck a few into our mouths as we jokingly declared them defective.
Yet, as my girl friends shared notes about all they had received, I sat mostly silently and somewhat ashamed that my tangible gifts did not measure up. One girl reported her mother had lavished upon her a bedroom television.
During high school, even after my father climbed the ranks of his public service job and my mother accepted more hours as a seamstress, they allotted only seventy five dollars for Christmas and forty for birthdays. Years later, after my father had endured two heart failures, he reflected on his life. At the time, we were walking the route he now champions every day as part of his newly adopted exercise regimen, past the neighborhood’s one-story houses. The homes are attractive and neat, with tidy lawns and smooth blacktop driveways filled with American sedans. ‘I never wanted more than what I had,’ he explained. ‘Money would have brought more responsibility than I wanted.’
Since she left El Salvador, my mother has remained loyal to her life there. She lights up when she tells stories about walking tens of miles to vend a chicken or scrubbing clothes by hand in the river. Although sometimes her voice quivers and her eyes grow shadowy when she recounts the death of a cousin or neighbor, more often she bellows out an uplifting tale about her own wild antics as a child. Her excitement flows all the way into her fluttering hands.
‘I would climb the trees to steal mangoes!’ she roars.
* * *
I visited El Salvador for the first time when I was six years old, during its civil war. The trip exists only in the vague memory of an earthy scent and the best orange soda I’ve ever tasted. I was too young to be impacted by or remember the experience. I’m still unsure whether I’ve invented the memory of hearing the explosions of bombs in the nighttime. My parents assure me that I slept through them, even when the war was approaching a nearby town.
Later, we made the trip again when I was seventeen years old. This time, the visit was like a hot iron soldering images into my memory: children, soiled and desperate, begging in the streets; buses packed with human cattle hurtling dangerously around mountain curves; and elderly men perspiring as they hacked their machetes through fields. I saw how life wrangles and brawls with its people and how resources coagulate in the homes of very few. My own grandmother’s adobe-brick home lacked tile to cover the dirt floors and had no running water. Our family bathed near the outhouse in the backyard, crouching in our underwear with soapy hair as we watched vigilantly for passers-by.
One day there was no wood to heat the water, which pooled in an outside basin from the rain. My sister, mother, and I tackled our bath like a team sport, assembling together in the backyard with a determined but anxious readiness. We stood in between two or three sheets dangling from the clothes lines and prepared ourselves. I will never forget the image of my mother, standing on a rock in only her underwear, her hair shampooed straight up like a troll doll. She squealed like a toddler each time a rush of icy water slapped against the nape of her neck. My sister and I were doubled over not only from the stream of our own cold water dripping down our backs but also from laughter. We bonded more on that trip than we had in months combined, especially since there was no TV or computer to provide escape from each other.
At the time I didn’t speak much Spanish, and so I couldn’t ask my aunt, cousins, or grandmother if they were happy. I probably wouldn’t have made the inquiry even if I did speak the language, because I was sure they could not be happy, not without their own room or even a bed, without a microwave or a telephone. Their life seemed unbearable each time I toted the flashlight to the outhouse and then watched cockroaches scuttle into the foul-smelling hole I was about to use.
The day we were supposed to return to the United States the plane incurred mechanical difficulties and we could not leave. I cried and whined until I learned the airline would send us for the night to a four-star hotel where a TV would distract me into forgetting where I was, a well-educated staff would meet my demands in my own English language, and a full buffet breakfast would satiate my American food cravings.
But after finally returning home, over the next few weeks I found myself missing the fresh orange juice my grandmother had squeezed for us each morning. I missed the unrestrained curiosity of my cousins as they petted the hair on my arm as we lay in a hammock. And I even missed awakening at 6:00 a.m. because the soft, dewy scent of dawn air had soothed and livened me. At the time I didn’t know, but in those three weeks in El Salvador, I had glimpsed something deeper in life and in myself.
Many years later, I read a news article about a poll showing that the citizens of some of the poorest countries in the world are also the happiest. El Salvador ranked third among the happiest of countries. Other research helps explain how people with very little can be happy. One study demonstrates that experiences bring more happiness than possessions. While people lose interest in new acquisitions and the excitement fades, those who draw happiness from experiences can rely on the memories of the past to bring them continued pleasure.
* * *
In my late twenties, I followed in my father’s footsteps and joined the Peace Corps. I lived for two years in the far north of Cameroon, one of the poorest regions of the world. There I saw poverty like I never could have imagined: a man with a foot rancid with gangrene, a baby too malnourished to properly cry, a prostitute with dirt spotting her legs all the way from her bare feet to her exposed thigh. I was nearly moved to despair by these instances, as well as the death of one of my friends near the end of my service. I hadn’t even known she was ill until I received the call that she had passed.
Fatima was a member of the women’s advocacy organization I helped create as part of my Peace Corps work. She died of AIDS, leaving behind two orphaned children of twelve and seven. I attended her wake, along with the organization’s eighteen female members. We descended en masse on the family’s home. The inside of the house was already filled with mourners, so we seated ourselves on mats placed in the sand along a gray cement outer wall. I was sweating on the walk over, but the air was so hot and dry that there was only a residue of salt and dirt left on my forehead.
The women began to sing. Their solemn hymns seemed to rise straight from the earth, resonate through me, and then float on the air. I had no doubt that these rhythms had extended across years and across oceans, transcended time and distance to one day become and be informed by American slave hymns and gospel. Yet as moving as the music and sorrow was, hardly anyone cried. I witnessed only one woman slip into grief, letting her sniffle grow into a full wail before she removed herself from the housing compound. I wondered if this was the local custom, to grieve in privacy to prevent one from inciting the pain in others.
Fatima’s daughter came to sit before us, elevated in a chair. The little girl wore a fancy lilac fabric normally reserved for adults. She tensed her face muscles and clenched her fists in her lap; but despite her resistance and the women’s insistence for her to fight the urge to cry, the wetness rolled down the sides of her cheeks. My stomach ached with the guilt of knowing that had her mother been an American like me, she would still be alive. Yet I also saw, that at age twelve, the women were teaching the girl a lesson that would serve her well in Cameroon: that pain was inevitable but suffering was a choice. Resisting life as it was would only cause more pain.
In Cameroon, neither death nor sickness, nor the other ills of poverty, were treated casually. But grief was just barely permitted, in the way that a little girl was urged not to mourn. One had to accept tragedies because there was no other choice but to accept them. There were recurrent reminders that these phenomena were not separate from life but part of the contract with it. Most of my female friends had lost a child, and nearly every one of my friends had lost a sibling or parent.
Perhaps living with so much death causes people to huddle together and find safety in numbers. Cameroonians rely on each other. Neighbors, acquaintances and friends often expressed concern that I lived alone. “Who would find you if you were sick or dying?” they asked with their eyebrows furrowed.
The commitment to each other is genuine, warm, and profoundly human. Their lives are connected in a way that the developing world sacrificed for the sake of convenience and modernization. Privacy has resulted in isolation and technology in disconnection. In contrast, there is still a sense of community in Cameroon. Family and friends provide for each other at their weakest – sometimes to a fault. Businessmen are forced to close their shops’ doors as a result of their kindness and neighbors’ tabs that never get paid. Educated family members forgo stable employment in the city to return to farming in their villages because they have no other concept of home. The most prosperous family members feed and board entire clans.
* * *
I returned to El Salvador alone when I was thirty-three. I had not been there since I was a teenager. “Your blood called,” said one El Salvadoran woman who I met on a bus ride to the capital. By this age, I was certainly much more familiar with poverty. In addition to living in Cameroon for two years, I had traveled for nearly a year in some of the most impoverished areas of the world, trekking through Hmong villages in the hills of Laos and stepping over blanketed sleepers in the train stations of New Delhi.
Yet, nothing prepared me for the anguish I felt seeing my aunt, at sixty-five, struggling to survive. She appeared decades older than my mother, despite only a few years difference in age. Her face was creased and withered from sun and labor. Each morning she would rise at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to begin her day’s work making tortillas. Meanwhile, I slept in her mattress-less bed, my head covered with the sheet to protect myself from the smoke fumes that entered from the adjoining outdoor kitchen. I could hear my Tia Nila’s coughs and attempts to clear her throat sounding from the kitchen again and again. I inquired as to how many tortillas she made each day.
How much? I asked.
5 cents each.
In my head, I began to calculate the price of the corn flour, the gas for the stove, the wood for the fire.
She saw me thinking. Por nada,
she said. I work so hard for nothing.
* * *
After all my studying and dissection of poverty, it is still a foreign and mysterious species. My mother, family in El Salvador, and friends in Cameroon know its tracks, scent, sound, and touch. Yet I am fortunate to remain inexperienced with its true nature. I have an unending and deep gratitude to be part of the 20% of the world’s population that makes more than $10 a day, while the other 80% of humanity, 5.15 billion people, live on less.
In my travels and encounters, I have merely observed the complexities of poverty from afar. Albeit I have seen its many facets: heart-wrenching, ugly, relentless and unforgiving. I would be remiss not to acknowledge that desperation and need can bring out the worst in humans. Yet, I have more often seen how the struggle brings out the best in people: how a community is made stronger for their willingness to depend upon and support each other; how an orphaned child can provide an example of strength, courage, and freedom from fear of loss; and how an individual may humble himself in recognizing that some things are more powerful than the self. Beauty arises from poverty in the form of hope, resilience, and determination.
* * *
When I was younger, every time I saw even a dime-sized spider in any corner of my bedroom, I would scream a shrill, panicked scream, the kind that brings whoever is near rushing to give aid. I wish I could say it was only the dramatics of a child or teenager, but this behavior lasted well into my twenties. I couldn’t even look at photos of spiders without cringing. Once I tried resting a spider-shaped plastic ring on the palm of my hand. I endured about thirty seconds before I whimpered and then threw the figure across the room in an instinctive jerk of the elbow. For many years, my arachnophobia seemed insurmountable.
I can recall the first time I made a conscious decision to tackle my fear. I was soaking my muscles in a steamy shower when I noticed a pinky-nail-sized spider near my face, crawling up a corner tile. I jolted backward, and my hand automatically grasped the showerhead to aim the water so that the spider would be washed away.
But then I hesitated. I waited to let my breathing and heartbeat slow. I was curious about the nature and the textures of my fear. Suddenly I saw how big I was in comparison to the spider and how this tiny life in front of me was so vulnerable. I raised my hand and finger towards the spider to gently nudge it, as its small body raced away in an effort to escape me. I caught up with him, barely grazing his legs with my finger. For a while afterwards, I watched for him vigilantly each day. Sometimes I would see him and I would have to repeat the internal process of slowing the breath and refusing to run.
While I was living in Cameroon, there was a constant presence of palm-sized Huntsman spiders in my home. For the first few months in the country, I thought of them simply as mini-tarantulas. But as I grew more accustomed to them, I recognized the differences between the two species. The Huntsman has a thin and long body, and black-striped legs that are reedy, low to the ground, and angular. In contrast, a tarantula’s body and legs are thick, hairy, and raised into a more heightened curl. I was scared of the spiders in my house, of course. But little by little, I would move closer to them, placing my hand on the nearby wall. They were fast, so I never touched one, but I came close. And the intention was more important than the achievement of the act.
Now, although the sight of a spider still instinctively causes repulsion, I accept them. I give them their space, and I hope they will respect mine.
My biggest triumph was at a ten-day meditation retreat in Thailand. On the first day, a Buddhist nun had instructed the participants to clean our rooms and hang our mosquito nets. As I swept the floor, I bent down to peer beneath the concrete bed, and I recoiled at the discovery of a grotesquely large spider underneath my bed. The animal was as large as my hand. My breath caught in my throat and my heartbeat began to race. The nun had also advised us that we could use a bucket to remove any unwelcomed animals and insects from our rooms. But under no circumstance should we kill them. However, the thought of trying to trap this giant arachnid seemed much worse than simply letting him stay. After staring at him in scared silence for a few moments, I made my decision.
“Okay,” I whispered. “You sleep downstairs. And I’ll sleep upstairs. That’s the deal.”
In a lot of ways, I have even come to appreciate spiders. I know the more I see them, the less I will see other insects. One scientist stated convincingly, “If spiders disappeared, we would face famine…Spiders are primary controllers of insects. Without [them], all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” As repugnant, ugly, and fear inspiring as they are, they are part of the synchronicity of nature.
It has taken me years, but I have finally learned their value.