How to Be, Part IV b: Más Reflection

Continued from July 29, 2014 post, How to Be, Part IV a: Reflection

Just as love had drawn me into my journal, fear kept me out.

My long-distance love and I broke up over winter break my sophomore year. Instead of writing in my journal, I wrote long, anguished letters to him. Fortunately, he rarely wrote back, which freed me up to do and write other things like schoolwork and applications for summer jobs and travel grants. His silence freed me up to begin imagining, every now and then, a life without him. What if we never got back together? What if we never spoke again? What if I found someone else? What if he did? What if I went somewhere far away, a place where nobody knew him, or me, where I wouldn’t wait for his call?

A journal should be a mirror where you can stick your stomach all the way out. (I borrow this phrase from a fellow writer in my graduate program. I don’t remember her name or the exact context, but I remember her saying that every writer needs this kind of “mirror” for her work, especially in those fragile, early stages.)

The universe, with support from Harvard’s Fellowships Office and the Catholic Student Center, answered that last question in the form of two travel grants, one established in memory of a graduate who loved to travel and the other in memory of a graduate who’d committed his life to helping others. I didn’t mention my broken heart in my applications. I asked for financial support to visit and know Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

I chose Guatemala because I wanted to learn Spanish, and though my ancestral roots are Mexican, I didn’t appreciate at the time that Mexico was more than the village thirty miles south of Deming, where my grandparents bought cheap, non-prescription penicillin and Mennonite cheese at The Pink Store (and that even this had its beauty). I chose Guatemala for the photographs I’d seen in the Guatemalan Rainbow calendars my brother sold at an import shop in Mesilla. And I chose it because the friend of a friend who’d agreed to help me put together a proposal for a summer of purposeful travel had spent a decade in the Western Highlands and said that Guatemala was the most beautiful, most tragic place she’d ever been.

I confess I was drawn to the tragic. My life had felt pretty comfortable up to that point. I remember food stamps and blocks of butter that my dad said was better than the stuff they sold in the store because it was real. But I’d never gone to bed hungry. I’d never had to flee my home. I’d never feared for my safety. I wanted to walk with people who had. I wanted my heart broken by something bigger than me. I think I wanted to be like Jesus (though minus the crucifixion).

I spent the first two weeks in a Spanish-language immersion school, studying four hours a day, and living with a family whose three-year-old appreciated having someone in the house who’s vocabulary was more limited than her own. The friend of a friend led me to other friends who helped line up volunteer opportunities at two group homes, one for girls who had been abused and the other for disabled children, both run by Catholic nuns who still wore habits.

Two questions followed me that summer. The first evolved over time from “What part of the United States are you from?” to a puzzled “Where are you from?” as my skin got darker and my tongue remembered my Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents.

I traveled light in those days, leaving my host family’s house with only the journal, a pen, and a few quetzales folded in my pocket for the panadería or the mercado. And that led to the other question.

“What are you reading?” my language instructor, Walter, would ask, gesturing toward the important looking book on the table between us. “¿Qué ‘stás leyendo?” from the cashier at Café Baviera, where I’d order manzanilla and pay de manzana, and hide away in the upstairs dining room decorated with red and white checked tablecloths and dichos painted high on the walls.

“No ‘stoy leyendo,” I’d answer. “’Stoy escribiendo.”



Published in: on September 19, 2014 at 1:22 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. siempre ❤

  2. love your blog michelle, awaiting the next entry!

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