even if

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Hope is a rabbit caught in a trap, terrified, unable to free itself. A shadow passes overhead and Hope’s heart flutters frantically, begging fate to not let this be a hawk.

The world is dark and hope is weak. It disappoints, and it does so consistently. At some point it is easier to smother hope’s light and put it out of its delusional misery.

We set our expectations with pessimism and try to smile when life lives down to our withered wishes. It seems most prudent to squeeze our eyes shut against the winter wind, seeing little through our dry eyes.

And yet life conspires against us: we must hope.

We fall in love. We cannot love if we squeeze our hearts shut in case of disappointment. But we can deceive ourselves: we can care, we can feel affection. But love? Doubtful, as long as doubt reigns. Our hearts must unfold to be battered by the possibility of pain before they can feel love’s tender touch.

And life deceives us again — what of children? We bring new lives, helpless squirming bundles of id, into the world. We cannot have backup plans for them. We cannot raise them with the mindset of having Child B in case Child A dies or somehow doesn’t turn out right. All a parent’s hopes must be bound to that child.

Hope has no modifiers, no maybes or what ifs. There can be even ifs or althoughs or in spite ofs, but those are not an avoidance of the truth. Those are strength in the face of disaster. Can we live like that, with even ifs instead of what ifs? Can we finally learn to love?

for lack of a quote board

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My life doesn’t make any sense. My friends don’t make sense. This is a transcription of a very short segment of a real-life conversation that occurred about four minutes ago.

Jai: He’s Dick van Dyke in an old man costume. He’s so young and spur.

Christine: So young and what?

Jai: So young and spur.

Erica: That’s… not the right word? Spur?

Christine: Like to spur on?

Erica: That’s a verb. You just adjective’d a verb. I just verbed a noun.

Christine: I don’t understand what’s happening. My brain is exsquishting.

Jai: So you can make new words?

Christine: I was just combining them. I’m so confused. AAH!

Jai: AAAHH!

Christine: AAAAAAAH! I LIKE TO MAKE THINGS A CONTEST!

Jai: Potato!

Christine: POTATO! SO MANY POTATOES!

hi, I’m Erica, and I call people to make money

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I don’t want to talk to you.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I call nearly 100 people in a shift, and the majority don’t answer. I am so used to hearing four rings and an answering machine that the click of you picking up the phone disorients me.

I might be chewing something (unprofessional but still entirely possible). I might be laughing with the caller who sits next to me (highly likely). Then, after 36 answering machines, you answer the phone. My entire body tenses as I gulp that last bite and seamlessly transition from hysterical laughter into a calm “Hi, is John available?”

I’m not opposed to talking to you, believe me. But apparently you might not feel the same way.

Believe me, if you don’t want to talk to me, it’s okay to just let your phone ring. Your sneaky technique of picking up your handset and setting it back down is disappointing. I know you have Caller ID. I know you don’t want to talk to me. It’s nothing personal. And please, please don’t just pick up the phone and walk away. I will sit there, saying, “Hello? …hello? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Hello?” Because if you are actually there and I hang up, that is bad. Muy malo. If you don’t want to talk, either be a man and tell me so or just don’t answer.

As long as I’m advocating voicemail, let’s talk about that.

Your cute voicemail, recorded by your adorable child, does not do warm fuzzy things to my heart. In fact, quite the opposite. The shrill stuttering of your spawn hurts my ears, is incomprehensible, and makes me want to kick puppies. Record your own voicemail. Your kid can do it when they can form grammatically correct sentences on their own. Not until then.

If you’re recording your own voicemail, here’s a word of wisdom. Never, ever, ever ever begin your voicemail by saying, “Hello?” I will have a conversation with your answering machine and endure several seconds of miserable, terrifying confusion as I try to discern if you actually answered or if I’m introducing myself to a plastic box. In this same category are the opening lines of “This is the Smith’s!” or “Hey… this is John.” In lieu of these confusing lines, an efficient and effective alternative would be to say “Sorry, John and Pocahontas are not available, but if you leave a message, we’ll get back to you!”

For the rare times when you and I do actually talk, I have a few requests.

Don’t hang up on me. I know it’s tempting to just press “end” or set the receiver down, but I am not a robot. If it’s the beginning of the call and you realize you either don’t want to talk or don’t have time or whatever the reason might be, just say, “Hey, excuse me, I really don’t have time to talk right now. But have a good rest of your day!” Or something like that. Then you can hang up. I like feeling like a human being, and that doesn’t always happen.

If you are upset that I called you, hanging up on me doesn’t solve your problem. If you can restrain your ire for long enough to say, “Hey, could you remove me from your calling list? Thanks so much. Have a great day!” I will not call you again. Notice a theme here? You don’t need to dramatically hang up or raise your voice to communicate your frustration. Do so with a kind word, or at least an acknowledgment of my humanity, and I will think nice thoughts about you as I remove you from our calling list.

I have an agenda for our call. I have a script in front of me, even though I probably only use it as an outline. If you’re in a hurry, tell me that at the beginning of our call and believe me, I will speed through the things we need to cover. Saying “I know why you’re calling. I’ll give you $25. Send me the form in the mail. Everything else is the same” is awkward, throws me off, I might forget to tell you important information, we might not have the right address on file for you. If you’re going to take command of the call, at least let me do the things I need to do before you hang up.

In my job, I take prayer requests. If this makes you uncomfortable, please tell me that when I ask. I will not pressure you. Because I work at a Christian institution, that is part of my job. It is, in fact, the part of my job that I consider to be the most rewarding. If you have a very serious prayer request, feel free to share it with me. Rest assured that it will remain confidential. If you have happy things to share, please tell me. Calling can be a difficult job, and I love to have my evening brightened with stories of amazing ways that God is working in people’s lives. Very rarely, I talk with alumni who after sharing their own prayer requests, ask me if they can pray for me. Those are the calls I remember. After I ask you for your prayer requests, it takes me completely off guard and restores my affection for humanity if you ask, “And is there anything I can pray about for you?”

Working at a call center is a difficult job. It requires energy, a clear speaking voice, concentration, extensive training, persistence, and patience. Since I began working in this position, I have found myself treating all call center workers and telemarketers with ridiculous amounts of respect and patience. I am not asking you to listen to the spiels of people who are trying to sell you vacuum cleaners. But if you do not want to talk, please tell them that before you hang up. Honestly wish them a good rest of their day. Give them a moment to respond. Then hang up. (If they keep talking at you, so be it. At least you tried.) Be a reason that they smile when they hang up the phone.

Have a fantastic rest of your day!
Bye now.

what is freckles?

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Today is a good day. All I have done today is sit in an interpreting course for eight hours. Today is a good day.

One thing I love about this 40-hour continuing education course is the diversity. There are 20 individuals taking the course, and between the 20 of us, the languages represented are Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Hmong, Russian, Karen, Spanish, and Farsi.

The class was divided into trios to do role-plays. In these role-plays, one person acted as the provider (doctor, nurse, social worker, etc), another acted as the client (limited English proficiency individual), and the third person acted as the interpreter.

I was sitting with Tesfai and Alemayehu, two Amharic speakers. When they were acting as the client and the interpreter, everything worked out fairly well, because my role as the provider was to speak English and not understand the client. However, our instructions were to take turns acting the different roles. I do not speak Amharic, and they cannot interpret Spanish.

As we proceeded to read from the scripts and interpret for each other, I was reminded of how passionate I am about languages. At one point, Tesfai read the script in English, Alemayehu translated into Amharic, I responded in Spanish, Alemayehu read the English translation of what I said, wash, rinse, repeat. It was exhilarating.

At one point, the script called for me, a frustrated medical patient, to ramble incoherently. I rambled angrily in Spanish for a few seconds. (Neither of the Amharic speakers were fluent in Spanish, but we all enjoyed hearing each others’ languages spoken.) At the end of my ramble, I slammed my fist on the table for punctuation. Tesfai pulled his glasses down to the bridge of his nose, stared at me over them, paused for a moment, and then said, “No entiendo.” (That means “I don’t understand” in Spanish.) After a second of stunned silence, we all burst into laughter from the incongruity of Tesfai speaking Spanish.

During a ten-minute break, Alemayehu scooted his chair closer to me. “Can you tell me how it is to say ‘Good morning’ in Spanish?” I smiled and explained that ‘buenos días’ means ‘good morning.’ “Can you,” he slowly asked, “write that down for me?” I carefully wrote out ‘good morning = buenos días’ at the top of his notebook page. “So Spanish uses the same alphabet as English?” I affirmed that yes indeed, they both have the same alphabet. At his inquiry, I explained the grammatical structure of the phrase. I wanted to ask him to teach me a phrase in Amharic, but at that point, he thanked me graciously, stood up, and walked away. As he left the room, I heard him mumbling the phrase “boonos dais” under his breath. Close enough.

The most glorious moment of the day came during a medical role-play. Tesfai was reading a list of medication side effects. “Nausea, vomiting, dizziness.” He gave Alemayehu a chance to interpret into Amharic, then continued. “Hair loss, darkening of skin, freckles–” his forehead wrinkled and he looked at me inquisitively. “Freckles, is that when you have the breaking of the skin? What is freckles?”

I poked the spattering of light brown speckles on my cheeks. “No, these on my face are freckles,” I grinned. I held my left hand out, pointing to two more. “And here on my hand.”

Tesfai beamed and threw his arms wide. “Ah, freckles!” After a moment of contemplation, he leaned over and whispered confidentially to Alemayehu and me, “Some words are tricky!”

fighting for contentment

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I am restless.

Academic life is a murky bog, and I am trying to make my way across without getting slurped into it.

A strange tension divides me these days; a part of me is restless and distracted while another part of me is content and at peace. These two exist simultaneously.

__________

My muscles quiver, longing to do something, to leap, to run, to dance. I am alone in a cold room with a tile floor and lockers full of musical instruments. I stretch my hands up as high as I can, enjoying the release in my back. After a moment of stretching, I turn in a half-circle, unsure of where to go.

I bring my computer to the other side of the room and lay down on the floor, plugging headphones into my ears. I navigate to the playlist entitled “RESTLESS.” My extensive playlist collection is prepared for any circumstance. As loud music assaults my eardrums, I sprawl on the tile, taking in the sensation of cold against my arms and legs.

At that moment, a friend unexpectedly peers around the lockers. “Erica? What are you doing?”

I grin self-consciously. “I have too much to do, so I’ve reverted to seven-year-old mode. I just want to do something. Something not academic. I want to be out on the prairie. Riding a horse. With facepaint on. Spearing a buffalo.”

My friend nods wisely. I feel awkward leaving my ramble hanging, so I dismissively mumble, “…but what can you do?”

He stops for a moment, then replies, “I know what you can do.” I raise my eyebrows. “When you leave this room and walk down the hallway,” he advises with a rakish grin, “find the first person who looks sturdy and fight them. Just tackle them to the ground.”

I have not yet reached the point where instigating meaningless brawls is necessary, but I must admit that the suggestion is tempting. Finals week, perhaps.

__________

I sit on the couch, my laptop balanced precariously on my knees. A yellowed textbook rests on my legs; its pages smell like vanilla and dust and sunshine. A warm shiver of guitar fills the air. A hand gently rests on mine while its owner absent-mindedly reads an academic article on his computer. I glance up from my textbook, take a sip of freshly brewed coffee, and smile.

Presentations, research, and assignments loom dark on the horizon. And in the middle of the turbulence, there is peace.

lullabies

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I stand on the owl rug in the kitchen, my hands scalding in soapy water as I scrub my breakfast dishes.

My roommate Jai’s gravity-defying hair pokes around the corner, closely followed by the rest of her. “Do you remember our conversation last night?”

I rack my brain. “No… did we talk?” I am a bit concerned; did we have a serious conversation and I somehow forgot it?

“Well,” she grins,”You talked…”

Her preamble hooks me, and I take the bait. “What did I say? Was I sleep-talking?”

“No, you were definitely awake. You started –” she chuckles– “by telling me that you wanted a lullaby. I couldn’t hear you, so I leaned over the bed to listen. You said you knew I wouldn’t sing you one.”

My eyebrows are creeping up toward my hairline.

She continues with a mischievous grin. “You started mumbling that you didn’t know what my singing voice sounded like, that you couldn’t think of it. Then you were saying, ‘Jai, you are so cute! How do I know you’re real? You’re too cute to be real!'”

The spoon I was washing has slipped, unnoticed, back into the soapy water. “No way. I didn’t actually say that.”

“You did so! You were so worried that I wasn’t real, and that you had just made me up inside your head!”

There is no point to this blog post. Rest assured, dear reader, that I have some deeper thoughts brewing that will eventually bubble into reality. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this fluffy vignette. 

[Just now as I laughingly typed up this blog post, I remembered something. I remembered that right before I went to sleep last night, Jai sang me a lullaby. Do better roommates exist? I think not.]

so it begins

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I’m going to spend the next however-long-it-takes going through the stories and moments I recorded in my journal in Central America. I have this guilty feeling like I should start at the beginning. However, I am choosing to ignore that misplaced guilt and starting at the end.

These moments which I will begin with are vignettes. They are, for the most part, snapshots that combine to form a larger context, and should be understood together. And now I’m going to stop describing and elaborating and just write.

Honduras
4.7.12

I am perched on top of a picnic table by the boys’ dorm, idly holding this journal (obnoxiously pink) and staring off into space. A drenched Geczon saunters toward me carrying four shiny, rough-stemmed green coconuts in his slim brown arms. His soggy shirt clings to his little-boy belly even as rivulets of water slide over what will soon be broad shoulders. I exclaim, “¡Qué fuerte sos!” (“You are so strong!”) He smirks at me, lips curling up and eyes narrowing. For a moment, I see my sister’s smirk overlapping his. He brushes past me and brings the coconuts into the office.

We are walking from the girls’ dormitory to the comedor (dining center). Sayda and Pamela are each hanging on one of my arms. They are young women, not little girls, and my arms hurt. I am frustrated, too. I had just finished rehearsing a dance with a group of girls. It was a collective authority-test on their part, and in the end, I walked out. So here we are. Sayda tries to yank me off the path. I continue walking forward, unmoved. She puts on a mocking voice to hide her fear, and says, “¿Por qué estás enojada conmigo?” (“Why are you angry at me?”) I say, “No estoy enojada. Estoy triste. Extraño a mi familia, y sólo tengo dieciocho días más aquí, pero no quiero dejarles a ustedes.” (“I’m not angry. I’m sad. I miss my family, and I only have eighteen more days here, but I don’t want to leave you guys.”) She punches me in the bicep, then squeezes me tight, saying, “Mentiras, vos.” (“You’re lying, dude.”)

There is a despedida, a farewell party, happening tonight for one of the short-term mission groups. Soon I must lead the group of girls in the dance. I will soon be happy and sparkly and bubbly. Now, though, I am frustrated and angry and deeply sad. I sit on the edge of the concrete platform where the men process the dry red beans. Under my feet, where the concrete meets dirt, green tendrils grow up from discarded beans. My arms wrap loosely around my knees. My shoulders shake and I try to muffle any noises I might be making. I hear tentative steps behind me and ignore them. Hands alight on my shoulders like a butterfly. I am afraid to move in case they startle and fly away. A voice. Munguía. One of the boys; one of my favorites (can I pick favorites?). “¿Qué te pasó?” (“What happened to you?”) I put my hand on his and sit in silence. It is humbling to be the one comforted.

The frame of my bed creaks amiably as I sit down. Monserrath stands in the middle of the floor, shifting her weight from one foot to another, head ducked, arms stiff at her sides. Estefani presses play and the music begins. Shyly at first, then more exuberantly, Monserrath dances for me. She carefully performs a simple routine that she must have choreographed earlier. A scar shines under her cautiously downturned eyes; the cheap blue barrette behind her left ear holds back her rough honey hair. I, the Grinch, feel my heart expanding and it threatens to burst out of my chest. “Levanta tus manos,” the song says, “porque Dios confía en tí.” (“Lift your hands because God trusts you.”) The guitar’s last notes shimmer in the sticky air. Monserrath, my problem child, my headache, finally looks at me. This is her wordless apology. This is her plea for forgiveness, and I know that she will be my headache again tomorrow. I cannot control the smile that cracks my face. I raise my arms and throw them wide in invitation. She runs to me and throws herself into my embrace.