Tuesday, March 19, 2019

One of My Sweet Friends
I close my eyes, resting my head in my hands. It is mid afternoon, the time of day I escape to the back of the hospital chapel, retreating for my "holy nap." After a morning of presence and engagement with profound human suffering, I need time to crawl in to my metaphorical womb, the place where life begins and grows—lovingly caressed and nourished in the unsullied waters of life. I began there. You began there. The multitude of differences, pains and joys all began there.

While resting, my mind is drawn to the echoing of children's voices, small beings playing chase in a captured area at the far end of the hospital corridor. The sound is recognizable and universal–found anywhere children have access to one another. Excitement and laughter dance towards me, unbroken through their innocence and joviality. My mind lingers in this playful moment—mother and her child—awe and splendor dissected from the reality of pain and limitations. 

Familiarity—My mind is drawn deeper—called by a memory hidden in the recesses of time and place. It is summer. My children are young. Picnic basket, chaise lounge, warm pool deck cooled by the playful splashes of water. It is hot, and I close my eyes, confident my children are safely swimming under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. The corners of my mouth reflexively tilt upward as I recognize the exhilarated voices of my children at play, rising above the chorus of "Marco...polo...Marco...polo." Voices of carefree imagination and boundless abandon reverberate across the water, like the echoes of the children at play down the hall from where I rest my head. The sounds of summer rapture are as recognizable as the smell of french fries and chlorine absorbed in to the sun kissed skin of my children at the end of a playful day.  

The chiming of altar bells breaks through my reverie; yet I hold on to the echoes of the children down the hospital corridor.  I summon the bells to wait, I need to stay with these young children a little longer. A lump develops in my throat that I feel is going to rupture at any moment in to angry sobs, "Why God. Why are these children so alone?" But God won't answer. I have asked this question multiple times, yet the space I leave for a holy response continues to remain silent. I have to imagine that the answer lies somewhere in the weeps of suffering that the Universe tenderly holds. It is the only answer I will accept; or the work I am doing, the work so many people are during across this vast globe, is part of some sick game from a masochistic power that I would never choose to meet. 

I leave the chapel, stopping at the end of the hall before returning to work. I smile as I watch the children's frayed green sherbet colored hospital gowns fly open, and their multiple bandages unfurl towards the floor; little bodies desperately trying to escape the garments of illness and abandonment, for this one moment in time. I watch as their mouths open with laughter, their bent and abused bodies giving all in the game of chase. Standing beside the warmth they have created, a response to  my "Why God?" question becomes clear. There is no answer to the why, except for humanity and the choices we make. Yet, in that moment, I witnessed something holy dancing in the eyes of the little ones. 

My Hospital Partner: Father Patrick
My brother from a different mother

I cannot think of a time I have been "othered." The only time I have felt slightly on the edge of the "other" is when I was the only white girl among 12 African American students in a race, religion and ethnicity class at Vanderbilt. But I chose to be in that class in hopes of understanding racism. Furthermore, not one person in that class had any intention of "othering" me; hence, this example really doesn't count. 

The urban dictionary describes "othering" as "any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody's mind as "not one of us." The etymology of the word connotes group cohesiveness, as in a tribe. Contemporarily speaking, the word is used in a derogatory or negative disposition— marking the "other" as somehow less human; juxtaposed against our superiority and rank. Society tends to categorize "others" based on skin color, socioeconomic or educational status, religious affiliations or countries of origin, or a plethora of lifestyles viewed as edgy or alternative. Being an educated white, middle class Westerner, I am the quintessential demographic for one that "others" others. Somewhere along my developmental trajectory, I was inculcated in a group whose status was crowned as the "norm," from which all "others" were...well..."othered."

Lately, the coin has flipped sides and I am discovering the pain of being "othered." I am interpreted as so completely different, that at times the ground below my feet feels unstable, resulting in a nagging sense of unease. Most offensive is the reality that with being "othered," I am robbed of autonomy and individuality, thrown in to the swamp of inescapable judgements, biases, innuendos and characteristics, assigned out of fear and ignorance.

I am "othered" in this country. I am presumed a rich, white, arrogant American woman with no worries or cares outside of what I want. More specifically, I am seen as a pompous ass who fortunately and conveniently wears a sign that states, "Walking ATM.Daily, I have no less than 5 people ask me for money for a "sick mother," or "10 sick orphans." More so, the lengths some people go to in order to get money is abominable. Adults use children as bait, laying them on a blanket with mangled limbs and profound birth defects, smoldering in the hot sun, in hopes of getting a few shillings.  

Maybe you can relate to the scenario: you are desperately lost in a foreign land. Initially confident that google maps has your back, panic ensues as, around the 30 minute mark, Siri and google maps stop jiving together. As a result, the mind becomes jittery and reactive while you struggle to pull yourself out of a never ending loop of the Twilight Zone. Looking calm inside raw panic beccomes an art form.

This was my experience on Saturday. I meandered for over 2 hours in an area of town so crowded, so loud, so foreign, and so far from my desired destination that I felt the brewing panic. Adding to my worry, was the "low battery" warning that decided to shine its light in that moment. "Shit, shit!" is all my mind could muster for about 10 minutes of my wandering.

 Cognizant of the importance of walking with confidence so as to not look like I am lost, (as I am simultaneously cussing at myself for not taking that self defense class I signed up for), I used each step to keep myself together — contemplating how the hell I was going to find my way out of this situation. My whiteness, and all the judgement and biases that came with my "otherness," made me easy prey. The call, "Mzunga" (white person) descended upon me from all directions. No less than two times, a passerby attempted to rip my bag off my shoulder, to which I aggressively responded with a pointy elbow to the side. Uninvited, various parts of my body were touched, and my ponytail was grabbed. Confusion mounting, fear took hold of my hand. 

I spotted a market that looked familiar. Ducking inside the entrance, I paused for a moment to see if Siri and Google had rejoined each other and established an escape route for me. The respite was brief as I looked toward the ambush of merchants rapidly advancing towards me; mouths open as they literally crawled over each other to get to me, "Mzunga... buy much can I sell you?" I became both dizzy and desperate as I attempted to push past them unscathed. With his large stature, a man blocked my path while he shoved a handful of bracelets and belts in my face. "How much," he coarsely demanded?  Exasperated, I stood my ground as I looked him straight in the eyes. Gathering the roll of panic with my survival instincts,  I yelled loud enough for the entire market to hear,  "Leave me the f--- alone!" 

Shocked stillness came on the heals of my outburst, even though I was fairly confident they did not understand a word I said. I didn't care. I felt better! The man puffed his chest a little more as he sized me up. Curling his lip in complete disgust, (culturally, women do not yell at a man in public), he preached to the crowd, "You are rich, we are poor." 

In a calmer tone, I replied, "How do you know that I am rich? Are you assuming this because I have white skin? Does this assumption of yours give you the right to hassle me and treat me this way?" Refusing to let anyone witness the tears forming, I pushed past him and made my way to the nearest exit.

 I eventually found my way back to the safety of the compound, exhausted.

"Othering" is abusive. While my experience was frightening and overwhelming, it was minor compared to the unrelenting and oppressive "othering" of so many, by people who somehow feel entitled to place individuals with any difference in an inescapable prison. 


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