Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Customer Is Always Right

Yesterday I said to my friends and colleagues, Caroline and Molly, "This week stinks." (Actually, I didn't say "stinks," but my parents and my grandmothers read this blog.) "I want a refund."

From the customer service point of view, the whole idea that the customer is always right is downright exasperating, mostly because you know it often (usually?) isn't true. But this is America, where we can, for example, sue toaster manufacturers because we dropped a toaster--that they made, that we bought--on our own heads. Never mind that there are few good reasons for toasters to be above head-level. So sometimes I think I am, or should be, entitled to send my week back and get some sort of reimbursement. Or a new week. And by "new" I don't mean "the next one."

This week started off promisingly enough. I was getting an extra day off than usual, which is normally a cause for financial concern, but I've been doing okay in that area recently and I thought I'd use it to start getting the house ready for Christmas. Also, we normally close the store at ten, but in the new year our store will be inaugurating (drum roll, please) Breakfast Sandwiches. So some construction dudes (I say "dudes" because they were, literally, all men--I'm not being sexist) had to come in to rearrange the innards of our store so that we can accommodate this novelty, and this was going to involve our closing two hours early. Nice. An early close can be a good thing.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned dudes didn't seem to realise that if, for some reason, they decided that a particular night was not convenient for them to show up, we, the closing staff at Starbucks, were going to have to extend our shifts an extra two hours, or otherwise enact all sorts of scheduling contortions. Molly, Ben, Erika and I bore the brunt of this schedule mishandling, and I ended up covering a shift for someone on my "extra" day off, and the store was busy, and it never feels like we have enough staff on hand (because we don't, even though apparently the numbers say we do), and I was in charge of all these growing and shrinking shifts, and although the store innards were not getting modified at all, my own were growing increasingly tense, to the point where I felt like I was going to pop. (As an aside, I predict that in five to ten years, the term "going postal" will be obsolete and people will talk about "going Starbucks.")

Then I got the news about Grandpa, overarching and overshadowing everything--but somehow the shadows it cast just made everything else seem so much worse and bigger and harder, instead of as small and insignificant as it actually was. Therefore, slamming my finger in the pastry case door last night felt like the last straw. But actually, it was saying goodbye to Frank-the-Manager. He's getting a new store in another part of the state. It's not like I'll never see him again, but the timing was horrendous, and I burst into tears.

I wish there were refunds for things like this. I would like to tell God that although I know people are getting slaughtered in Darfur and Christian teenagers are getting beheaded in Iraq, I live in America, where the customer is always right, and I want some compensation. When I think of it that way, it sounds almost as petty as it actually is, but not quite. And it still doesn't take away from the fact that I feel as if it’s all a big deal.

But there’s this thing Frank called a silver lining, and which reminds me of Romans 8.28: And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT). In my experience, a lot of the good that God causes everything to work for is something I don’t see—at least not for a very long time. But here’s a little good that I’m seeing already.

Because of the shift I covered on Tuesday, which I hadn’t wanted to work, I can afford to give up my Saturday shift to someone else, so that I can spend the weekend with my grandmother, mom, and brother. I get an extra day off after all, but this way I get a whole weekend to be and reminisce with family. And I can be sad for Grandma, but Grandpa’s not dying anymore, and that's something to be thankful for.

Those things sound sort of little, too, but they also feel like a big deal. I still don't know that the customer is always right. If anything, I reckon my dealings this week were less than gracious and more like "those 'entitled' people" I'm always getting irritated with. But God is merciful, and maybe there’s something like a refund after all.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

As I Was Saying . . . Family

Grandpa Madeira died this morning. He’ll “be Home for Christmas.” He already is. Lucky. And it’s sure a whole lot better than being smothered with Alzheimer’s in a wheelchair in a nursing home.

But it’s hard. Hard on Grandma, who has spent the most recent years of her life singing to him and helping him play one-finger scales on the nursing home piano and spending most all of her afternoons loving what’s been left of a humble, great man whose final responses to her could be nothing more than a smile and a roar and tears. Hard on Mom, who was hoping to hug her dad one more time when she came home for Christmas, and now is flying back last-minute to comfort her mother. Hard on Dad, who had a great relationship with his father-in-law and now has to hold down the fort overseas by himself for a couple weeks until he comes back here to join us for the holy holiday.

But it’s a little easier, too. After years of watching a mind-numbing disease eat away at his memory and personality, words and abilities, it almost seemed to eat away at our (or at least my) memories, too. Now I feel free to remember him and who he actually was—and imagine who he actually is now, face to face with Jesus.

December 7 is his birthday. Apparently when I was two, I toddled around the dinner table unprompted and said, “Happy birfday, Grandpa.” He was fifty years older than I, so we always remembered each others’ ages. I feel like the lucky grandchild, because I got to live with him and Grandma for five summers in my late teens and early twenties, while I worked at a day camp run by the church he had planted. I borrowed his bike to get to and from camp. (I still have it, though I haven’t ridden it probably since then.) In the evenings I would come home and he and Grandma and I played Skip-Bo most nights. I grew to hate the game, mostly because I don’t really like games anyway, but I kept playing it, because it was a good way to spend time with them. Grandma won a lot. Grandpa would sit down at the card table with a sigh and say, with comic resignation, “Well, Jennifah,” (he loved to tease Grandma about her Rhode Island accent) “it’s time for my nightly humiliation.” He won a lot, too, but admitting that would have taken all the steam out of his mock laments. We would go for walks, too—just Grandpa and me—through Haynes Park, down to the water where all the boats were. I don’t remember what we talked about. Probably not much. He was quiet. But it was nice. We also washed the dishes together so Grandma wouldn’t have to.

He had a great sense of humour and an even better laugh to go with it. He loved the New York Yankees, for which I suppose I can forgive him, and he also loved cars. And he could sing. That was one of the last things he could still do, even after Alzheimer’s ate most of his brain away. He and Grandma harmonized together and sang “Gentle Jesus” over many a baby being dedicated to God in the church. I still hear them when I think of that song.

When we had family reunions and holidays and clambakes, and had stuffed our faces to the point of sleepiness, he’d pull out the antique milk-stool from his childhood and place it in the middle of the living room floor, lie on his back with his head propped on it, and konk out. He’d snore, and everyone would laugh. When I was in college, I had to write a sonnet as a writing assignment, and I wrote it about him:

Lines Upon My Grandfather’s Face

The subterranean rumblings, tranquil though
They were, accompanied who knows what dreams
Of joy and world-weight pain. Yet when he woke
To see our grins, his eyes showed laughter-seams
Which crinkled like dry rivulets beneath
The broad expanse of forehead crossed by lines
Of latitude and longitude. And each
Line marked a memory’s setting or a time
Which brought the furrowed wisdom to his face.
The gentleness of love and kindness crossed
The deeper rows that grief had carved in place,
Despite which, his expression never lost
A look of seventy years’ staunch content—
The strength where tears, but stronger joy, have met.

Grandma wrote us all an email about him, though, and she quoted another poem, by James Weldon Johnson, intimating that those lines on his beloved bald head have disappeared by now:


Weep not, weep not, He is not dead; He's resting in the bosom ofJesus............................ And Jesus took his own hand and wiped awayhis tears, And He smoothed the furrows from his face, And the angelssang a little song,An Jesus rocked him in His arms, and Kept a-saying: "Take your rest,Take your rest." Weep not--weep not, He is not dead; He's restingin the bosomof Jesus.

Well, Grandpa, we love you. Happy birthday and merry Christmas! I can imagine they will be!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Thanksgiving-leading-up-to-Christmas is traditionally a good time to get all sappy about family, so I would like to say, as unsappily as possible, that I think my family is astounding. I've known this all along on some level, particularly regarding my parents and my brother and sister-in-law (even though all of them moved out of state or country after I moved back. Their reasons for doing this are also amazing and laudable, but in order to keep the tone light, let me just say: thanks, guys). However, this year I've had the opportunity to get to know some things about some of my extended family that just make me--well, I guess proud to be related to them is the best way to describe it.

During the summer I made a visit to my grandmothers who live, conveniently, in the same retirement home. I spent the morning with my mom's mom and found out that she once followed an inner prompting to write a note to a man in her church, and that the note arrived on the day he had decided to commit suicide. Humanly speaking, that note is what saved his life.

In the afternoon I got to hear again the story of how my dad's parents helped start a Christian school in New Jersey. It started with something like eleven kids, one teacher and a whole lot of metaphorical roadblocks. Now its student body is in the mid-hundreds, and they just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary or something.

Then there was the visit to Auntie Susan, about which you know. I've always found her amazing, but going to see what she does in person was so inspiring.

And then last weekend I celebrated Thanksgiving with Uncle Ted and his family. He and Auntie Libby have gone through the wringer in the past few years, because of a whole lot of things not least of which are their daughter's--my cousin's--mystery medical difficulties. You would think they had enough on their plates, but instead they just pulled out more plates. I mean this literally, because they have also taken in two of their daughter's friends whose home situations are not currently supportive or supportable. The Thanksgiving table was full of teenagers and young twenty-somethings (and some others of us that don't fit that category) and it was fun and warm and everyone seemed very grateful.

My other aunts and uncles are amazing, too, and my cousins, and I could go on and on, but these are the examples I've seen most shiningly this year, and I just had to celebrate them. It was a happy Thanksgiving. I have a lot to be grateful for--not least of which is my family.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Weather Report

Today I had to scrape frost off my windshield. I'm not sure that I'm altogether happy about this, but let's face it--Thanksgiving feels better when it's cold. I'm sure I have more momentous things to write about than the weather (though I'm less sure what they are), but this is a busy week. So for now I'll just say--I'm thankful. For a lot of things. And I hope you have a happy--and thankful--Thanksgiving, too.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Yesterday, 17 November 2006, the thermometer got up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, yesterday I did some housecleaning.

I'm not sure which of the two things is more remarkable.

Let me just say, though, that it felt like May rather than, as one small child in church put it the other week, "Almost-Snowing." I wore a short-sleeved t-shirt. I also wore a long-sleeved t-shirt under it, but that's only because I lacked the faith that, in November, I wouldn't be cold without it. I wouldn't have been cold without it. I cleaned the bathroom with the windows wide open, and I felt mightily confused.

Fortunately (?), today when I woke up it was only 30. And the sun's still out.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


About a week and a half ago, something happened that made me think I was going to need to pull out the following poem. I wrote the poem two years ago in the throes of dying dreams and a broken heart. Although my current situation is far more disappointing, having been in many ways vastly more realistic, the poem has turned out not to be as necessary for sanity as I expected. However, in rereading it to find out if it would be, I realised that I quite like it, so I have decided to put it out here for broader consumption. You may, of course, already have encountered it two years ago, but that’s all right. You may also have forgotten that you did.

A Door in the Desert
by JAG
© 2004

How did I end up in this desert?
Somebody said—
Somebody promised…
If I would only walk just a little further
And climb just a little higher
And try just a little harder…

Who was that?

I thought it was You,
But maybe it was just my longings
Trumpeting me into the wilderness
Where I sit in the mud of my tears,
Leaning against
A shut door in the middle of nowhere.


My God, my God,
Why have I forsaken You
--when there You stand,
holding wide the door of Heaven
in the wilderness
where You found me weeping?
--when there You stand,
face blazing, sword flashing,
as if You
tore death to shreds only yesterday,
which maybe You did?

Your wedding invitation
Reeks of joy
From beginning to end,
But the revelry I wanted
Was smaller and meaner,
And joy mocks the seriousness
With which I take myself.

You didn’t blast through Hell,
My name carved into Your hand,
So I could stay there wearing
Mourning, and mourning
The fistful of desert
I clutch to my chest,
The treasure of bitterness
I keep for the day
When I will hurl it
Into Your glowing face
With all my little might.

But when I do,
You’ll laugh with delight,
And thank me,
Though I should be thanking You,
And fill my empty hand with Yours
And lead me through the door
You’re holding wide
I thought was shut.
And on the other side
I’ll find what I’d never dreamed to ask,
And that my new name
Carved into Your hand
Is not bitter,
But joy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New Rant

I haven't had a completely pointless rant in a while, so here is one: Why is it that people are currently so fond of using the word "inferred" when they mean "implied"? Books are being published with this error. It drives me crazy--right up there with "orientated." No need to add syllables, folks. "Oriented" used to be just fine, but the "orientated" camp has become so entrenched that now you can find "orientate" in the dictionary. Sigh.

It's taken me the better part of a month to describe to you that my Costa Rican vacation, which I had been approaching rather gingerly at the outset, ended up being just-the-thing. I got to see some local "reality." I got to do a little bit about it. I also got to see some great (non-human) natural beauty, too, and I got to relax. We spent my final weekend in a cabin/hotel on the beach at Jaco.

Over the mountains on the way there we stopped at Doka Coffee Plantation for a tour, for obvious reasons. Our tour guide gave us a coffee tasting first, and I impressed myself by being able to compare tastes of four different roasts and a peaberry coffee, with coffees I know from Starbucks. Auntie Susan said to our tour guide, "My niece works for Starbucks. Have you heard of it?"

"Actually," said the tour guide, "We sell 75% of our beans to Starbucks." Suddenly I remembered why the name Doka was familiar. I took an excessive number of rather geeky pictures of coffee-processing with which I will not bore you (or myself during the upload), and felt clever because I knew a lot about the process to begin with. Every once in a while one needs to feel clever, I find, even if the feeling isn't accurate.

The day had managed to stay beautifully sunny and glorious much later than it had any of the other days--until we got in the car to continue our journey to the beach. The rest of the trip was hair-raising for a lot of reasons, and probably would have been worse if I could have seen the dramatic drops off the side of the road in the dark and the rain. Sarita pushed on valiantly until we got through the mountains and then pulled over so Auntie Susan could drive the rest of the way. At which point the roads became wide, straight, well-paved, and dry, almost like magic. Fortunately Sarita missed the experiential irony of this, as she fell sound asleep almost immediately in the back seat.

The beach was lovely--and that is about all I have to say about it, because we didn't do ANYTHING--except go for a walk, get pleasantly and occasionally pummeled by some waves, and read in hammocks and lounge chairs. And then it was time to go home. So--happy and wistful and rested--I did.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Rest of the Week

As you can tell from the previous posting's photos, the day deteriorated into something akin to a monsoon, as well as some traffic of well-nigh cataclysmic proportions, due to a fountain overflow in the city or something. But the outing had been utterly lovely.

I spent the rest of the week having leisurely breakfasts with Sarita, looking at the birds that frequent the feeders in their orange tree. Then we'd usually do some random for-the-benefit-of-Jenn-the-tourist things in the late morning, heading to Carpio in the afternoons where I would help Auntie Susan again with activities mostly involving kids. There was another kid's club, louder and rowdier than the Pavas one, but no instant migraines involved.

One afternoon, I kept an eye on some children during a women's Bible study. The kids were old enough to understand that my own understanding of Spanish was fairly limited, and that my ability to reply was even more so; however, this did not deter their attempts to communicate with me. They would chatter on and on about something as long as my aspect registered any sort of comprehension, and as soon as I glazed over, they'd find something new to talk about.

Before that, though, we visited one of Auntie Susan's friends in her home. Olga and Auntie Susan have a Bible study together on a regular basis, but in this instance, Olga, who had nevertheless answered all the written questions for the study ahead of time, didn't have much time for actual study. She was understandably distraught. Some time ago, she had allowed some relatives space on her already cramped strip of land, and now they were trying to oust her from it. Don't ask me how you can get into a genuine legal battle over squatter's rights, but Olga is in one, and even though the facts and the witnesses seem to be in her favour, her relatives somehow have the ear of the judge. Olga is trying to trust God and forgive her relatives even though her already tenuous living situation is even more in jeopardy. I tried to think about if I were poor enough to live in what is essentially a tin can, and had four or five kids living in there with me, and was about to lose the can as well. But I couldn't.

I especially couldn't over the weekend. Being a North American on vacation in a developing country is weird. You can see poverty. You can even touch it a little bit. Then you can escape. Actually, if you're only on vacation, eventually you have to escape, because it's not like you have the right to live there or anything. Plus it was a holiday weekend in Costa Rica, and Auntie Susan and Sarita were going to take a well-deserved break, so we packed ourselves into the car on Friday afternoon, and headed to the beach.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Does This Story Have Pictures?

Do Not Descend Into the Crater

Even though the sun came up in all its glory on Tuesday, we weren't very surprised when we got to Poas, one of the local volcanoes, that the entire top of the mountain was socked in with fog. The guy in the booth at the entrance to the park warned us that they couldn't guarantee that we'd see anything. They probably have to make disclaimers like that for fear of lawsuit-happy and I-want-my-money-back-happy North Americans. We said we understood. When we got to the lookout point where we were supposed to see the crater, all we saw was a grey void, and a little sign perched perilously between land and nothingness, warning us to go no further.

As we stood there, however, the fog began shifting, and we could almost imagine we could see something. It felt like I imagine it would feel to look for Nessie. The monster we were looking for was breathing smoke though, so combined with the fog, it didn't seem likely we'd see much more. Then the clouds shifted again. And again. And again, until finally we could tell that we were, indeed, looking into a volcano.

We oohed and ahhed and felt sorry for the tour group who had left the vicinity two minutes before the unveiling. Then the clouds came back and the crater disappeared as before. So we set off through windy, but paved, jungle pathways, under twisted limbs, and a little higher up the mountain to see the crater lake, which was the volcano's previous location for letting off steam, as it were. When we got there, the view was just as opaque as it had been below, but once again, as we stood, the clouds shifted back enough for us to see the lake and the forest reflected in it on the other side.

We left the park with a sense of luck or blessing, and headed off next to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. It's a sort of mountain resort, but they also have a restaurant, wildlife exhibits, and a trail along which one can see five waterfalls. In spite of the dreariness, everything we saw was in living colour. Not to mention that the bathrooms at the restaurant were some of the coolest I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I chickened out of taking a photo in there, too, because the cleaning lady was in there and I was afraid of what she'd think . . .

The rest of the day can only be described in pictures. In my experience, however, blogger may heartily assert that it has uploaded one, yet leaving it invisible. I have not yet deciphered html well enough to programme it into each post by hand. And at this moment blogger has, apparently, decided that three photos are quite enough for this post. So I will show you the rest of that Tuesday tomorrow.

Across the Ravine

Across the ravine from Carpio is another, similar, settlement known as Pavas. CfC has been involved there longer than in Carpio, although it appears that at least Auntie Susan spends more of her time in Carpio. Still, on Monday afternoons, she runs a kid's club on the other side of the gorge. If we had had some sort of rope bridge (or the faith of Indiana Jones), we could have made our merry way across the chasm in five to ten minutes. As it was, we had to drive all the way out and along and around, and it took much longer.

The kid's club meets in a multi-purpose building built by short-term teams for CfC, and it started with a game of Uno. The club, I mean--not the building. It is much easier to play Uno without language than to try to teach English without it, by the way. After that, Auntie Susan taught the kids something out of the Bible, and then we played a game, during which a kid's skull collided with my jaw when we both went for the ball at the same time. I'm pretty sure the kid was okay, and my jaw only felt jarred, but my head registered an instant migraine and I had to sit out for a bit. I use the term "migraine" loosely; I have been prone to them at times, and this felt like one, but the intense pain subsided in about fifteen minutes, settling quickly into a barely-discernable, dull ache which lasted about a day and a half.

By the time we went home for dinner, I had nearly forgotten it, and was looking forward to a day off the next day. I mean, come on. It's tiring to spend a day trying to talk and listen in a language you don't actually know.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travels with My Aunt 3

It takes something like two buses to get from San Pedro to Carpio, along with a potentially detouring little walk through a pedestrian shopping area, and when we reached the clinic, there were already people waiting to be seen.

I don’t imagine that Carpio is a garbage-city the way there are garbage-cities in, say, Egypt, but it kind of is one in that there’s a giant dump right at the edge of it, to which trucks are constantly trundling. From what I could see and understand, this barrio is an area where people who are considered to be refuse live, too. A lot of them are illegal immigrants from Nicaragua. The Costa Rican government doesn’t really want them there, and won’t issue them any papers to make their stay more comfortable, but it’s hazardous to live next to a dump, so they just kind of pretend they don’t know that there are scores of tin-and-board shacks crammed with people, all right next to the waste area. Most of the people in Carpio, says Auntie Susan, still have hope, unlike in various similar settlements. They still want to work hard and earn their livings. Christ-for-the-City has a clinic in the midst of all this, and that is where she works.

I spent the morning mostly hiding out in a storage room, putting labels on bags of children’s vitamins. Children’s vitamins have this almost irresistible smell—somewhat cloying and acidic at the same time, a little dusty, and really quite awful, but did I ever enjoy taking those things when I was a kid. I was sorely tempted to open one of the packets and take one, for nostalgia’s sake. Then the bag would only have had 29 supposedly-animal-shaped tablets in it, but they could have used that one for February. However, I restrained myself, and in the late morning, Maria came to take me to The Refuge.

Maria is another worker with Christ for the City, and she teaches English to adolescent girls coming from abusive backgrounds. I was supposedly going to help her with this endeavour this day. After giving me a tour of The Refuge’s “campus,” we went upstairs and she allotted me six girls to coach in English. This was a fine idea, except that the girls she assigned to me knew the least English in the class, and I definitely knew the least Spanish. Furthermore, I am a little more familiar with a semi-immersion-based approach to language learning, and these girls appeared to be tied to their books. Which were in English. Which they couldn’t understand. Which I couldn’t explain to them.

Overall it was an exercise in futility, I think, though the girls were very patient with me, so what could I be but patient with them? Still, I couldn’t help noticing a couple of them completely giving up on trying to communicate, instead taking notes from what Maria was writing on the board in another part of the room. I returned to the clinic for lunch, feeling like I wanted to be disgruntled again—or still—but having really enjoyed interacting, albeit patchily, with those girls.

And I was in awe at the work that was going on there. It seemed like these Christ for the City people just got ideas, and then they did them. I used to want to run my own coffee shop, where we could have ESL classes and maybe a counselor-in-residence or something, as well as live music and the art of local artists, and, oh, yeah—coffee. Before that I used to have dreams of working in or running an orphanage. But I don’t know how to start things. How do people start things? And I’m disorganised. And I’m not good with administration. One thing about all the projects going on with CfC is that it seems like the people with the gifts for the ideas just turn up. So far every person I thought could and would want to help with the coffee-shop idea, for example, has moved away or I have lost touch with.

So I’m working at Starbucks, and I know there are things going on there, behind the coffee as it were, that God is doing. But you know—sometimes I just wonder why I’m not working with girls who live in one-room tin sheds and whose older brothers abuse them.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Travels with My Aunt 2

The next morning was Sunday and sunny. Which I thought odd, for rainy season. By the end of the week I had observed that “rainy season” in Costa Rica apparently means something like “constant rain and fog in the mountains, and rain everywhere else only between 3-9 p.m.” But at the time I was a novice.

I peeked around the curtain, which was making a half-hearted effort at keeping out the sun, and saw . . . the back of the house . . . and the top of the orange tree . . . and the mountains . . . and a church, whose bells were joyfully calling people to worship. It occurred to me that maybe after a while those bells, which were probably only exquisite-sounding to someone like me who didn’t hear them every day, might have had the general feel of a school bell telling kids to sit down and be quiet, after a while. But I, for one, was going to enjoy them.

Auntie Susan, Sarita and I were going to church, too, but not the one with bells. Not the one Auntie Susan and Sarita normally go to, either, it turned out. I had been getting all geared up to attend a lively Latin American service where I understood one- to two-thirds of what was going on and didn’t know any of the songs, but I’ve done that before, so I was kind of looking forward to it. However, my two hostesses had long wanted to visit one of the international (i.e., English-speaking) churches in the city, as one of their colleagues will soon be attending there and they wanted to check it out. I provided an excellent excuse.

The church surprised me by seeming both familiar and totally out of place. After leaving the highway, we meandered up a dirt road, past people staring at us from the windows and doors of their corrugated tin shacks, and into a parking lot at the crest of the hill that was better-paved than any of the roads I think I encountered on the entire trip. In the middle of the parking lot, as if it had landed their like a UFO, was a modern, North-American-style church building, surrounded by potted plants—and some unpotted ones surrounding the perimeter of that parking lot.

Walking inside, I felt like I had not left the States at all. But I had—I knew I had. I had just spent over eight hours on a plane the day before, hadn’t I? Plus it was October and I was actually warm, instead of pulling out sweaters. I spent the morning in a state of cognitive dissonance, wrestling even more with my feelings of the night before. If I wanted this vacation to be convenient and comfortable and all about me, why was I so cranky about the North-American-ness of this service? Not to mention that I was supposed to be worshipping God with these people He had made to be my brothers and sisters (whether I knew them or not). It was, in a way, irrelevant what my preference was. The point was—well, God. What was my problem?

After church we got in the car and drove up one of the mountains, even though it had begun raining up there (according to the Law of Rainy Season), just in case we might be able to see a good view of San Jose from up there. I'll let you decide whether or not we did.

Upon descending again, Sarita steered us to a steakhouse for lunch. I was famished, but I think even if I hadn’t been, I would have wolfed down that meal, in spite of its enormity. If David and Emmylou had been there, they could tell you about it in much more descriptive detail than I. But let me put it this way. Only once in my life have I had a meal that was so delicious that it made me cry. (I’ve had plenty of meals that were so spicy they made me cry, and they were good, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) This meal was a close second.

The rain was coming down fairly uncompromisingly even in the lowlands when we got out of the restaurant, but we set off for Cartago after that anyway. I’m not sure how a Catholic country can have something like a “most Catholic city,” but apparently in Costa Rica, Cartago is it. The basilica was packed with people at mass when we got there, so Auntie Susan and I scurried with our umbrellas from the car to the doorways and peered in at various angles for a while, before heading back to the house for supper.

Auntie Susan said I was going to the clinic with her at Carpio the next morning, and that we needed to leave by 7. I was okay with the timing, since my body-clock was still two hours off. But I was nervous about the clinic and English classes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Travels with My Aunt

In this version of the story, the narrator (that's me) is definitely the sketchier of the two. Also, my aunt is actually my aunt. Apologies for anyone who hasn't read Graham Greene's book by that title, and was planning on it. Of course, if I were really sorry, I wouldn't have said anything . . .

My flights to Costa Rica were two of the pleasantest airline experiences I have had in years, and even the layover in Dallas was well-nigh enjoyable. Nice airport they've got in Texas. I mean that part of Texas. So far the only part of Texas I've ever seen--or really care to, at this stage of my life. Even still, I was a little out of sorts when I landed in San Jose. This had more to do with what was going on in my head than with external circumstances.

This, more or less, is what was going on in my head:

I'm in Costa Rica. It's warm, but it's raining. Why did I come to Costa Rica in rainy season? This is my vacation. I went through a whole lot of hassle with these tickets, so this trip better be good. I don't want to have to do anything. But I'm going to stay with my missionary aunt and I said I'd help out. How can I help out? I'm only here for nine days and I only hablo un poquito de espanol. Plus, I don't want to help out. I want to lounge around for an entire week and I want this to be all about me. I want to see pretty scenery and go to the beach and maybe get tan for the first time in probably fifteen years, even though I should never get any sun at all because my dad's side of the family has a history of skin cancer. I don't want to mess with any poverty.


What is wrong with me? I'm supposed to be a missionary, too. I thought I was going to spend my entire adult life in a country where I did not originate. I thought I was going to help poor people. I thought I was going to save the world. Now I spend my life serving specialty usually-caffeinated beverages to yuppies (and one guy who lives in his car, and one bearded lady) and people who used to be yuppies (even if the "y" no longer applies) and I'm disillusioned by it but I've absorbed enough of the culture, apparently, to be self-absorbed and not want to have to do anything inconvenient when I'm taking a break from the culture I've absorbed that I'm sick of. (Don't try to decipher that last sentence, unless you think like me--which, fortunately for you, you probably don't. Just take it as an indication of how my thoughts work, especially when I'm disgruntled.)

Basically, I was feeling a distinct lack of compassion and motivation, and also feeling guilty for the lack.

Auntie Susan and her roommate Sarita have been sharing lodging and working among the impoverished for decades. They arrived, smiling, at the airport and bundled me into their rickety Honda, and I felt even grouchier. These two amazing women represent to me a fate I both admire and dread. They are well-adjusted, mature women, neither of whom have ever been married. They have, nevertheless, deep and purposeful relationships and a sense of community. (At least, it seems that they do.) They love Jesus and follow Him intentionally and are changing the world--their little corner of it. Describing all the nuances of just how that awakens simultaneous longings and terrors in me would be too complicated and boring for anyone not living inside my head, but you can probably intuit the overall reasons behind my internal reactions.

We drove through San Jose for what seemed like ages and probably was. I discovered, in my brief time there, that it is a large city for such a small country, and that there are no quick trips anywhere. Furthermore, the potholes in the country at large make Auburn's roads look like well-funded highways. I wasn't really thinking of the potholes that night, though. Mostly I was just gaping out the window as Sarita trundled the car along and Auntie Susan in the back seat told me what I was looking at. The city was busy, and both foreign and familiar. I could understand what I was reading on the signs--sometimes because they were in English, but sometimes because I seem to have more Spanish packed away in my subconscious than I realised. They kept telling me what things meant, and most of the time, I already knew. San Jose seemed like a place I had never been before (even though I had, when I was 2 and 5), and also like all the cities I've seen all over the world.

Finally we reached the part of it called San Pedro, which was more residential, and then we arrived at Sarita's house. We were barked at by Canela and Chipis, the two slightly-larger-than-large-furry-slippers dogs who take up residence there, dodged the raindrops through the garden to the door, and entered the warm and homey interior. Dinner was ready and waiting, and I was still hungry for it, even though I had eaten about five times already that day. I don't know why traveling makes me so famished and exhausted, when I don't actually do anything all day. Plus there were fresh avocados. And Auntie Susan is a good cook.

After we ate, my body said it was 11.30, even though there it was two hours earlier, so I went to bed.