Mar 2009

Sweet(er) Dreams

The darkening sky behind me represents a heavenly mechitzah dividing Martin Luther King Day from Inauguration Day. I stand humbly at the edge of both occasions, profoundly aware of the awesome destination confluence of these two occasions, one just ending and one about to dawn, represent for our nation and for this world. When you lie your head down upon your pillow tonight, remember that it is a good night for sweet dreams.

I have those recurring dreams that are likely rooted in adolescence, dreams that find me in one of two places, an unknown classroom on test day or in the wings of a theater desperately fumbling through a script trying to recall my lines. In both dreams I am unprepared and anxious. I had one of those unsettling mild night terrors last week. I was, as many of you know, sleeping in a hammock – a few feet away from the hammock of Ilana Eisen – in a palapa, a small thatched roof hut in the village of Muchacuhxca, Mexico. We were together on the American Jewish World Service Rabbinic School Delegation with 19 students from a range of rabbinic seminaries. What was that dream doing in my head in such a remote village? What was my subconscious addressing when finally I fell into the deep sleep of a hot night, a sleep so sound that barking dogs, clicking critters and undiscerning roosters would did not arouse me? Work at the office? My absence from home? Without benefit of therapy in that moment, I pondered the question during my short hike to the bathroom. I gazed at the full moon through jungle trees annoyed with myself. No e-mail, no phone, no newspaper, no television, and still I cannot pull myself from the tyranny of deadlines and pressures. I pushed the internal dialogue and wondered what prevented me from just being present in this place, in this village and in the physical work that was satisfying in the way that only rock schlepping and sand raking can be. What, I wondered, is this annoying intrusion of a dream doing here?

One quarter of a moon later, I am forming an answer but now the visit itself feels like something out of a dream. Muchachuxca is like no place I have ever experienced in my life. The Mayans living in the small village welcome our assistance and our energy. The children with whom we engage to and from our meals wait for us with flowers, songs and games. We reciprocate. Upon my return last Wednesday, less than a week ago, friends, family and colleagues want to know exactly what I wanted to know before I departed. What did the village look like?

Running water? [Yes]

Electricity? [Yes]

What did you eat? [Mostly beans, rice and tortillas]

Could you sleep in a hammock? [some]

Were there snakes? [yes]

Bugs? [of course]

Indoor Plumbing [of a sort]

Hot water? [No].

All of my overblown pre-trip concerns about my physical well-being faded into the village itself upon my arrival. Five days after returning home, the conditions in which we lived for 10 days are strikingly irrelevant. What endures are dream like images of a place so far from this luxury hotel, so removed from this dinner buffet and so distant from my home in Columbus, Ohio that I cannot, like the disturbing dream that awakens you at dawn and won’t leave you all day, leave Muchacuhxca.

It is a real place inhabited by real people, Mayans who cling to their ancient traditions in a country that marginalizes them. There are two churches in the village, one painted yellow and one aqua. There is a small overpriced store near the center of town. The store is painted pink and the same 7 or 8 people are seated outside on a bench each night. Chickens, shade-seeking ducks, turkeys, roosters and thin dogs roam the town freely along with dozens and dozens of (unvaccinated) children. In small groups we ate our meals in the homes of smiling women who prepared fire-toasted tortillas, squash soup, eggs and beans. An aging medicine man taught us about the healing power of tree sap, bark, roots, and leaves. We walked daily by the small medical clinic that is never open. We learned that the one hundred or so families in this community are subsistence farmers who eat what they grow are told that a serious drought has kept the harvest minimal. It is a community that produces honey but bees don’t produce without rain. Every morning, in shacharit, the prayer for rain grows in both meaning and volume. One morning in the middle of the trip, we end shacharit singing and dancing Mayim. In my dreamlike recollection, I see Isaiahs, a thoughtful village leader who guides us in our service project, who opens a work day with song, and cries as he describes leaving the village at the age of 14 to make the 3 hour trip to Cancun earning a 5 or 8 dollars a day wage in fine hotels. I see him last Tuesday morning when the rain finally arrived, dropping to his knees as it begins to pour and raising his hands in the air uttering a prayer of gratitude so filled with kavanah that I am shaken. THIS, THIS is shacharit I think – and I recall the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yahrtzeit was last Wednesday, “Let the spirit of prayer interfere in the affairs of man. Prayer is private, a service of the heart; but let concern and compassion, born out of prayer, dominate public life. Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, and falsehoods. Liturgy must be a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

Overthrowing poverty in the developing world is a challenge. I read over and over again the words of author Jamaica Kincaid who writes of the poor in tropical tourist communities, “...they are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the realities of their lives, and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place that you, the tourist want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.” Were we sympathetic, kind tourists, escaping the banality and boredom of our own lives in this village that from a distance appears charming and happy? Because we ate in homes, we had to walk back and forth 3 times daily to our hosts. As it happened, my food group had to walk the full length of the village for every meal, a walk we came to appreciate because in these short hikes up and down the narrow main road of Muchacuxcah, we witnessed the routine of daily life up close. We saw young children sitting on a hot basketball court guarding the drying squash seed from pecking birds and hungry dogs. We saw young girls hauling buckets of corn to the one grinding mill open two hours a day. We gathered around the high school teacher and inquired about her small one room set up for her students. She explained to us, with the help of a translator, that lessons are supposed to be broadcast through television, that the village put up an antenna but that the television itself did not work so she was doing her best to fill in on her own. On the way to breakfast we enjoyed seeing all the school aged kids dressed in neat soccer-like uniforms headed for school and later learned that the teachers, who often commuted great distances, did not show up. Seeking to suppress our tourist tendencies, one day we intentionally walked through the village alone, individually, rather than as a happy team of volunteers. On that day we traveled through town as private human beings observing real life in a place that real people call home. This is when an unshakeable image caught my eye. Having passed the same spot many times, I realized for the first time that an open plaza in the center of town where children often played supported the bones of broken down playground equipment. There was one rickety but working see-saw, a swing set with two dragging metal swings and what had once been a tall slide. All that was left of the slide was the ladder a child would use to climb to its top. It was unsafe. It was surely not a play thing. There was no slide – nowhere for the child to go except back down the ladder, or worse, to fall. This was a revolutionary moment.

While I can’t say for sure, I have convinced myself that the day I noticed the missing slide was the night I dreamed my familiar dream. My dream is about not being prepared - - and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw – what I really saw that sweaty afternoon, walking alone, in Muchucuxcah. Nothing could prepare me for the strange relic on a dusty playground. Nowhere to go. No teachers. No doctors. No steady economy. No choices. My dream was about not knowing the lines, not knowing my part, not knowing quite what to say or how to act in response to this experience, this place, these good people who want to build a healthy, vibrant community right there. They love their land, their culture, their children, and their families. They seek basic human options for independent living and are slowly, so, so slowly laboring together to transform their community. We helped them transform a tiny bit, but there is so much work those of us blessed with privilege have yet to do on their behalf and on behalf of thousands of villages like this one. Among Dr. King’s articulated dream was this: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” 

If you are waiting for what to do about all of this, what you can do about any of this, what legislation to work for or against, which letter to write to which congressperson or senator, I have no such wisdom. Not yet. I am still working through my commitment. But I have seen a world I could never imagine, not even in a dream. Now I know it is real and that somehow, I am linked to all people’s suffering, to all who lack choices in all places. Poverty matters to me in a way it never did before and I awake from my ignorance knowing I must advocate for global justice. My newfound consciousness merges tonight with the annual celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy and on the eve of Barak Obama’s inauguration. These occasions uplift me and despite all of the reasons in the world to crumble, this evening I gather the strength to believe that dreams – even the most audacious ones, can come true:

Not that we will be unprepared for a test, but that we will pass them, not that we will fail when we walk upon the stage, but we will know what to say, how to...act. And you, each of you...all the more so! Tonight – indeed, if not now when? – be optimistic dreamers.

“Years from now,” in the words of the almost-President Obama “you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope. For many months we've been teased, even derided, for talking about hope. But we always knew hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”

I thank AJWS for uncovering in me and in so many others, the will to work, the courage to fight and the audacity to hope for global justice.