Monday, October 26, 2009

...That´s Me in the Spotlight, Losing My Religion

The first time my host family met Paulette, we sat around making stilted and awkward conversation for a while, and Miguelangel asked her what she liked to do. "Oh, you read and write a lot?" his eyebrows shot up. "So does Angelica." "Oh, you like to make things...just like...Angelica" The look he was giving me was saying, "Are all Americans exactly like you?" As they´d gotten to know me, they´d been clearly thrilled with everything I did. You read and write for fun? What a unique American treasure they had. Then I bring along this other Norte and now they´re thinking that their little treasure isn´t so special at all. Actually, I´d been thinking the same thing.

I´m not going to lie, like most people, I´ve always thought I was a little special, a little different than other people. As a teenager it had manifested as frustration that no one understood me, but since then it´s been more this feeling of anticipation and excitement to see exactly how I´d turn out to be special. When I temporarily lost my religion a few weeks ago, I got my explanation.

I was reading this book called The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. It´s about evolutionary psychology, and the fact that not just our physical traits, but our behaviors and mentalities, can completely be explained by evolution. The "goal" (although there´s no actual thought process attached to it) is very simple - to perpetuate our genes. From that point, evolution can explain all facets of human behavior - why we love, why we fight, why we are at times generous and at times selfish, at times manipulative, at times sacrificing, why we gossip, why we think we are here for a higher purpose, why we always think we are right in an argument, why we are attracted to certain behaviors or people, just EVERYTHING. Every single thing we do can be logically and completely justified by evolution. As I was reading this, I was slowly coming to the same conclusion that the book eventually did - God was to explain why things are the way they are, and thus with this explanation it is very possible that there is no God. Darwin was an atheist. And the Golden Rule, Treat Others As You Want To Be Treated, like all other "universal truths" that span religions and cultures, is actually an evolutionary treatise that will help get your genes carried into future generations.

THIS ROCKED MY WORLD. The problem was that I agreed with it, fully and completely. It is extremely clear that evolution is true, but I just couldn´t get it alligned with the other "truth" I know, and have felt to my very core for as long as I can remember; that there is an energy all around us, a general sense of balance in the world, and a PURPOSE for all of this. Even if the results were the same, that we were "good people" and the same behaviors that might have carried our soul to the next life or heaven or wherever were the ones carrying our genes to future generations, the WHY still mattered to me...A LOT.

I wrestled with this idea, mentally and emotionally for about a week, and honestly got a little depressed. I wasn´t here in the Peace Corps because I wanted to DO good things as much as I wanted to LOOK like I was doing good things (another evolutionary idea I had to admit was true). Every decision I made that week, when I followed my most natural urges, was completely justified because it´s only human. How silly and egotistical of me to have thought that the powers that be were conspiring to teach me lessons; that I needed to learn those lessons to better myself as a person, since a person is just a moral animal. But at the same time, I´d seen evidence of those "powers that be" in my own life and in the life of others for YEARS. I´d acted under that assumption of "purpose" and it had always been to my advantage, every single time. Was it all really my own delusion?

Eventually, I visited Paulette, in desperation of needing to talk to someone (in English) about what was going through my head. I threw the book on her couch and pointed at it, accusingly. "This book...this book..." I gasped out before collapsing defeated in a heap on her sofa.
"I rocked your world, didn`t I?" (She`d loaned me the book). She understood. Calmly, she went to her room and brought out another book for me to read - this one, The Power of NOW, by Ekhart Tolle. We worked on Ao po`i and talked about other things. When got back home, I was barely into the first chapter when I could see that this book was true (I felt it inherently, like it spoke to my soul, which had been protesting hard for the last week within me, rallying to proclaim its existence, despite certain evidence to the contrary), but that evolutionary psychology was also true, and they were not mutually exclusive. Here`s the gist, the salve that has since left me with a budding zen-like demeanor. Evolution formed the brain and part of the brain is the ego. The ego is the voice in our heads, our insecurities , our sense of separation, our constant thoughts. This can and does get in the way of our other level, our Being or God or spirituality, which is our connecting force; it is love unconditional. To quote "I Heart Huckabees", it is the Blanket.

I`d been running into that same idea everywhere over the last few years, in different forms; in The Secret, in Yoga, in books on writing, books on development, in meditating, in Life Success. It seemed to be everywhere I turned, like a universal truth...and why wouldn't the two levels of ourselves be connected, at times working together and at times going head to head? It certainly explains a lot. It`s like the Walt Whitman quote, "Do I contradict myself? Ok, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes."

It happened that after all this I found an essay I wrote BEFORE all this, called "Igual, No Màs"("equal, no more". Paraguayans use this constantly and I love it.), which I´ll include here since we`re on the subject:

What do I believe? I believe I`m already there and have always been there, even before I realized it. I believe we are all very clearly part of the same thing, the same force, the same existence, the same God. Entonces, somos igual, no màs (Then, we`re equal, no more). I believe we are here to help each other, always, along our paths, for we are all in different stages of realization that we are already there. For me, it`s easy to want the physical comfort and to choose the easy path, even when I want to seem like I`ve taken the hard path and I`m tough. I believe that all the world`s religions are the same, and they`re all just fables to explain what we all want to know, which is "Why are we here?" Entonces, religiònes son igual, no màs. They are not inherently bad, but people can and do make them so. I think that I don`t need to go to a certain place and read a certain book to commune with God, but the truth is I do, it just might be a different place or different book. Sometimes I find my life wandering and need to consciously do things to reset my priorities, just like everyone else. So again, somos igaul, no màs. We`re all just doing the best we can all the time. There is no devil, there is only ourselves and our minds and our egos getting in the way of our inherent connection. The physical us, our needs, our desires and evolved personalities and problems, can get in the way of our us, our spiritual us. Our souls, individually and collectively, are always there, constant, unending love, and this is God.

So now I`ve come full circle and reached exactly the same conclusion I had before this whole religious crisis started, but feeling like I`ve walked across hot coals to get here. Maybe I`m not unique, or just not more unique than anyone else. But I am special...exactly as special as everyone else. Maybe the fact that we all feel different from other people is a uniting factor for us. We are the products of evolution, yes, but we can also work toward our own spiritual evolution and more clearly connect the two truths.

I debated whether or not to include all this in my blog, preachy as it might sound, but this really is what`s going on with me, so es lo que es (It is what it is). Or maybe, to bring us back to the REM theme, "Oh, no, I`ve said too much...I haven`t said enough".

In case you doubt divinity:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Character (&) Development

(left to right)La Presidenta, my awesome contact Nimia, my not-so-awesome former contact Mercedes

Interesting name for a neighborhood

Me and Abuelita

Scenes from Parade of the 251st anniversary of the town

Abuelita and Natalia


So who are these crazy characters with whom I´m spending my days? It´s time you knew more about some of my Paraguayans.

"He Not My Baby Daddy"

Cinthia is a successful, state-employed defense attorney who fights for the accused that can´t afford a lawyer. Two years ago, her lawyer friend had a case of child neglect. A withered and weathered campo "midwife" would volunteer to take whatever unwanted babies she had helped deliver...and then try to sell them. Her shack was crawling with dirty, neglected, snot-crusted kids. A neighbor called the authorities after seeing a baby who,in the care of this midwife, was covered in angry red bites from an ant attack. Cinthia, single and in her late 20´s, adopted that baby and now has a beautiful and charming 2 yr old, Fiorella.

Among her dynamic group of friends was a Catholic priest. One of her other friends had a crush on the priest, had made a pass at him, and been rejected outright. About that same time, Cinthia got pregnant. Her friend, seething from rejection started spreading rumors that the priest was the babydaddy. The outrage hit the town like a tidal wave. It was a huge scandal and all anyone talked about over tereré.

My sweet 80 yr old Abuelita, having heard this rumor directly from the jealous friend, made an off-hand remark to Flaquito that Cinthia was a "Ojaka Kumanda", which translates directly as "Woman that sits with her legs open", but when said in Guarani is one of the single most offensive things that can be said about a person...and Cinthia is his sister. Purple with rage, Flaquito was willing to never speak to Abuelita again over it. There was a huge fight and he only stayed because she threatened that if he left, her death would be on his conscience because she would surely have a heart attack that night from all the worry he caused her. He took Valium and slept off the rage before they managed to precariously patch things up.

It was a very difficult time for the family. Cinthia always refused to say who the father was, but 2 months later she got a job in Ciudad del Este and moved, escaping the gossip. The priest went to Rome for "personal reasons". With both of them gone, the tongues have slowed their wagging and things have settled.

Then Cinthia, watermelon round, came back a couple weeks ago to have her mom´s support for the birth. The baby was just born, a little girl names Soffia...and she looks exactly like the priest.

"Why My Host Brother is a Big Fat Idiot"

My brother,Miguelangel, is fat. I have no problem telling you that because my family talks about it without hesitation. It´s pretty obvious. Ì`m only telling you this because I really like him a lot. We are definitely friends, and it is because of that that I am frustrated with this. There are different types of fat, not all unhealthy, but his is the type accompanied by high blood pressure and heart problems, and this is why I´m mad at him.

Two years ago, at 24, he collapsed outside his back door. It turned out to be a heart problem, and the doctor told him he´d have to exercise and lose weight, or take medication. He doesn´t want to take medication for the rest of his life, and now, at 26, has low energy, terrible headaches for days on end, and general heart and bloodpressure issues. The only other option is exercise, but the reason he says he can´t is because he is too busy with the church. Remember, he spends 7 nights a week at church or meetings for the church. He can´t walk to those meetings because then he´ll be sweaty, and he can´t walk home because he has his moto with him. I don´t know how he eats that much when he´s so full of excuses.

I don´t have a problem with him going to church, but you can´t tell me that God wants him to die, and this is the effect. Paraguayans are extremists, in general, and he is no exception. He has no balance in his life- work and church. He is choosing God over his health. His big dream is to be a missionary, but I don´t see how he´s ever going to make it at the rate he´s going, and it completely defeats the purpose if the would-be-missionary is dead before he ever gets to save a soul. He doesn´t see it like that. He figures God will carry him through.

But I read this book about a guy in the Peace Corps in the 60´s in Ecuador, and this is what he said about missionaries and development work:

I had helped change the lives of some, had helped bring them so far along the road out of poverty that their position in the town was becoming insupportable. I felt like the guy from AID who had come to visit me. He had formerly been a missionary in Ecuador, an Evangelista. I took him across the street and introduced him to Wilfredo, the only Protestant in town, and later, perhaps out of some necessity to be unpleasant...I jabbed him a little. "This is what you´ve done, "I said. "You´ve taken the best man in town, the hardest working man, the most honest man, and you´ve separated him from his culture. He lives completely isolated in this lousy little town, the only Non-Catholic on the beach, the only True Believer, and he´s a joke to the town. Everyone thinks he´s crazy." "Yes," my friend said, "That´s why I left missionary work. I came to realize that I couldn´t be responsible for wrecking the lives of people with promises of paradise, making their whole lives miserable in the certainty of saving their souls. I came to realize that people had to find happiness with their own culture." -Living Poor

So that´s Migue´s goal. Let´s hope he lives long enough to accomplish it.

"La Presidenta"

So I can´t tell if my boss hates me, or if she just hates everyone. She has this way, just before and while addressing someone, of closing her eyes for a second as though she´s in great pain and/or this idiot in front of her has just thrown her into a silent rage and she needs a moment to compose herself before addressing the situation. Her jaw seems rusted shut and she speaks very quietly through nearly clenched teeth, the result being that everyone around her has to lean in to hear, and that I, with my still green and growing Spanish, can´t understand a single word.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, people seem to always be scrambling to please her, bending over backwards to kiss her ass. It´s natural for people to want friends in high places, of course, but come on. At every meeting, she´s served her glass of coke with a napkin around it in case it sweats (God forbid), and a special little plate of the hors de´ouvres in tiny, pastel, paper, muffin cups. She is always served the first piece of cake at the many parties. I can´t bring myself to serve her food, but I do find myself beaming when she throws a stiff nod of approval my way, just like everyone else she deigns to compliment.

It´s like when a bride has a bunch of desperate single friends. When she throws the bouquet they all scramble around on the floor in their fancy dresses, pushing, pulling and squealing over a bunch of now wilted and torn flowers. Once the half-smile moment has passed and she´s again behind her fortress of robotic professionalism, I´m left empty-handed, limping on my broken high-heel, holding up my torn dress, and feeling stupid for trying so hard for what I logically know is an empty token, and being reminded all over again that we will never be friends.

I´m secretly thrilled each time she has lipstick on her teeth, or sweat-stains in her armpits, or takes a 3rd cookie in a way where you can tell she´s been eying it for a while and trying to restrain herself.

At times I question why my Peace Corps assignment was to help people like this, but I´m definitely learning form the experience, so maybe that´s why. And at least they have an achievable goal and I´ll get my project done. They´re already extremely together and don´t need much help. It could be worse, like how after FOUR years in his town, The same guy that wrote "Living Poor" realized that:

There was an insane quality to the poverty in the town, some black secret that lay just outside the mind´s acceptance...(he goes on to explain how a great percentage of the babies and kids in the town die, and about how a man had come in drunk and looking for trouble until he received it in the form of having his head slashed open with a machete)...I began to be aware that there was scarcely a moment when a baby´s crying didn´t fill the air, and there was a resemblance between the violence of the babies´ furious raging cries and the violence of machetes slashing through flesh. Like a revelation, I suddenly realized that these screams were the screams of human beings learning about poverty. They were learning about sickness and about hunger; They were learning in a hard school what they could expect from life, learning to accept their destiny and the futility of revolting against it. They were being twisted and maimed. They were being turned from normal human beings into The Poor. After the age of 6 they were ready for life, and as far as being poor, they know all about it; there isn´t a thing they don´t know. There are no more tears. They play quietly, gravely in the dirt before their houses, and there is something terrible in their eyes, a kind of blindness. For years they will go without weeping, and then a strange thing happens. At about the age of 19, the boys discover the healing magical release of alcohol, and until they are about 24 or 25, whenever they have money, they drink cane alcohol almost as a rite, seeking out the purging relief in those few minutes just before unconsciousness when everything concentrates in a flashing, searing point - all the hopelessness, the misery, the stupid deprived past and the stupid endless future..."Oh, puta," they yell in the street. "Oh, la gran puta." Oh, great whore, they yell in the street. They are screaming at life in a paroxism of rage, accusing life of cheating them. The tears gush out of their eyes,they roll on the ground, beating the ground with their fists, hewing the earth. "Oh, puta. Oh PUTA. Oh Gran Puta, LA GRAN PUTA!" After about 26 all the revolt is burned out of them, by that time they are beginning to get old. They finally accept their estiny. Or if they can´t, I guess they take up their machetes and go looking for it. And this thing about the town that I had been afraid to think, the town´s black, unspeakable secret? They mentioned it on a news broadcast one night, sandwiched between the stories of wars and riots, announcing that 60% of the world´s children were suffering from protein starvation, and that this deprivation in the first 5 years of life permanently and irrevocably destroyed up to 25% of a man´s intelligence. 25%. If 75 is the IQ in the town, what is the medical word that describes this poor, doomed people, this wasted resource living out it´s unproductive destiny in the impregnable prison of a destroyed mind, in a twilight, idiot world where nothing relaly makes much sense? -Living Poor

Of course, some of that is true here, just like some of it is true everywhere, but here there is much more hope. Still, it´s an awful lot to be up against, and it´s the same reason why there´s a new kid in our house. Abuelita has "adopted" a 7 yr old, Natalia, who is from a campo family that couldn´t take care of her. I think she weighs like 20 pounds because I can easily lift her over my head; overrun with parasites, Abuelita explained. She also explained that the reason she has her is because with her, Natalia could end up a teacher or professional, while in the campo, nothing would become of her.

I can´t help but see the similarity between all these situations, Cinthia and Abuelita with their adoptions, Migue with his missionary work, me and the Peace Corps in general. Everyone´s intentions start from a good place. How can we not help these poor people? With a little help from me, they can be saved. But how can we know that helping is really helping? Can development come from anywhere other than a perspective of superiority? We clearly bring with us all of our problems and issues, judgments and ideals - who´s to say we´re better? Who´s to say what´s good? Would you want to be "developed"? Would you resent it if you were? The efforts of parents trying to develop their kids are often resented. What about if you´re the presidenta of a successful cooperativa?

Just some thoughts...All I can do is what I can do, and of course I love it here. It´s just that with all the vacations, I´ve had a lot of time to think


Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.