Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Vera piled the thin, silvery black fish on my plate. Their beady little fish eyes kept staring at me. As a distraction, and for revenge, and because I was hungry, I focused on the technique of eating them: first pinch the head between my finger and thumb; then take two precise bites — one on each side — and a few nibbles to steal all the meat from each. But removing the meat just made their unblinking gaze more grotesque. On a small side plate to my left grew a mound of floating heads connected by frail, centipede-like spines to thin tails.
In Albanian, Vera means “spring”. She was the spunky, dark-haired matriarch of the family I’d been living with for four months in Shkodēr, Albania, while I worked with a local Protestant church to distribute food, mattresses, and clothes to Kosovar refugees. Two weeks after I’d moved in, the Serbs had pulled out of Kosovo, putting an end to the conflict and the nighttime rumble of NATO bombers flying overhead.
The refugees had stayed in town for a few months, but eventually returned to their scorched homes. The morning after this dinner, I was leaving Albania to go to Kosovo myself. But tonight I would listen to a carefully calculated petition. I knew the agenda, because Vera had spoken of her plans to my Albanian friends, who in turn had told me. I dreaded what was coming, but Vera and her family had given me much, though they had little. The least I could do was listen.
Vera had olive skin, an athletic body, and a handsome jaw. There was an intensity to everything she did — whether scrubbing the floor, poking fun at my strange American ways, or making dinner for her family. She was about thirty, though, like everyone else in that country, she looked older than her years. In the evenings, when I came home exhausted after a full day of handing out supplies, she would say, “You my brother; I your sister.” She pressed me for English tips and laughed at my few Albanian phrases.
I was accompanied at dinner by an Albanian friend, who translated. Vera’s seven-year-old son, a fragile leaf who liked math and had sunken raccoon eyes, and her four-year-old girl, a cute little terror, were banished to the bedroom. It was the only time I’d seen them behave without their first being stung by a switch broken off a tree outside. Vera’s husband, with whom I’d drunk beer and watched the European Cup (he cheered for Germany), was at work on the night shift as a security guard.
Since I’d arrived for dinner, Vera had been avoiding my eyes and watching the floor. The table was loaded with fresh bread, a steak of sweetly cooked fish, a plate of the silvery black fish, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, beer, and raki, the local grape brandy, as volatile as the region’s history. The room was decorated with stuffed animals and knickknacks. The faint pink paint on the walls was peeling.
Soon after we’d sat down to eat, Vera looked at the table and told me she had a large lump behind her left ear. It was cancerous, she feared. She asked me to touch it, though I can’t remember if I did. The doctors had told her that there was nothing they could do, that her only hope was the West, that only America could save her now.
I was America. I was wealth; she was poverty. With that made clear, Vera talked to my friend in Albanian and left me to decide, in effect, whether she lived or died, whether her little girl, who liked singing and dancing to Spice Girls videos, would become a motherless child.
I ate more of the small fish. The damn things kept staring at me.
After I left Albania, I spent two months in Kosovo and then returned to a good job and an apartment in idyllic downtown Princeton, New Jersey. In the three years since I returned to the States, I’ve had little contact with the friends I made in Albania and Kosovo — people with whom I shared meals, laughed, played chess, and worked. Nor have I contacted or learned anything about Vera. I remember her shaking in fear and panting for breath one night after she had biked through Shkodēr’s unsafe streets to drop off dinner for her husband at work. She joked with me about her fear, but didn’t deny it. I remember turning down the offer she made, in front of the kids, to show me the family Kalashnikov. I wonder about her, her family, the lump behind her left ear. I know I should have done more, but instead of being one small battle I could help win, her situation represented to me an overwhelming global reality that I didn’t have the strength to take on.
For me, that night has since simmered down to a single, unrelenting question: When people are starving or dying of disease, is it justifiable to do anything other than drop everything and try to get food into their mouths or antibodies into their blood? Of course, people will die anyway. But how unspeakably selfish is it to go about improving my life by a hair while someone else is losing her entire head?
Yet I haven’t abandoned my middle-class lifestyle. I still buy CDs, work full time, eat out, and so on. But I’m not happy. Whereas earnest late-night discussions of the world’s ills over a philosophical beer once felt important, now they play out as farce, a mockery of those we pretend to care about.
I’m embarrassed that my existential crisis sounds like the essay question for an Ethics 101 midterm. But I try to answer the question nonetheless. First, because I’m angry with the poor and the suffering: they’re making my food taste worse, my music sound half a note off, my orgasms feel even more fleeting. Second, and slightly more nobly, because I want to know how to live — namely, to what extent I should help. Third, because I was taking the blame for Americans that evening, and I want to spread it around.
A few days before that dinner, after I had moved out of Vera’s house and was sleeping at the church where I worked, Vera had dropped off a plastic bag overflowing with gifts for me: a bottle of homemade raki; a ceramic candlestick holder painted in soft blues and pinks; a package of yellow, green, and orange highlighters; a little blue-and-white stuffed bunny; an undersized and slightly stained white T-shirt; and a blue velvet music box with a miniature plastic ballerina inside, spinning in an eternal pirouette.
I thought of this touching, characteristically Albanian assortment of gifts as Vera continued talking to my friend over dinner; I understood few of her words but all of her meaning. Inside me, a new war broke out, pitting my compassion and sympathy against my increasing resentment and anger, an irrational reaction to . . . what? Her manipulation? Her desperation? Her simplistic but accurate assessment of the situation? Then Vera found the evening’s refrain and paused for translation: “I am glad you are not sick. I would do everything for you.” She came back to it throughout the night. The mound of heads, spines, and tails grew on my plate.
As I sat there nibbling the fish and sipping raki, the gifts she had given me a few days before came to seem like cheap Trojan horses. Inside them hid symbols that now sneaked out to attack. The candle, flickering on the verge of burning out in the pink-and-blue ceramic holder, was her life. The orange, green, and yellow highlighters underlined the economic statistics that sealed our respective fates. The white shirt was stained with my complicity. The music-box ballerina was me, dancing out of the situation and back to a land of sanitized hospitals and medical insurance. The toy bunny was a symbol of virility, mocking the dying mother. The raki would leave me with a low-frequency hangover that lasted long after this evening. Gifts, indeed.
While these strained symbols spun in my head, Vera suddenly pushed back from the table, opened the door to the other room, and yelled something. The leaf of a boy floated in and gave her a white plastic bag full of pictures. Please, no, I thought. Vera had picked up some of NATO’s wartime strategy: hit them with everything you’ve got. She reached into the bag.
Not long ago, on my walk home from work in Princeton, I bought a copy of Inferno, by James Nachtwey, a massive book of photos taken in various places of war and extreme deprivation. It cost $119.25 — more than many Albanians make in a month. The photos are black-and-white, beautifully composed, and uniformly nightmarish.
I bought the book to prove I’m not scared to look at a bulldozer spilling over with dark, skinny legs and arms on its way to dump the newly dead onto a massive pile of decomposing flesh. I bought it hoping to connect the dots between the flesh-draped skeleton of a man in Sudan crawling toward his grave, the bullet-splattered brains on a Bosnian street, and my one-bedroom apartment in Princeton. I bought it as a book of icons, because I want to see God, to glimpse the reality of a world beyond, where there are no more tears or death. I bought it as a diary of my fears. I bought it as a means of self-flagellation, a whip to display on the coffee table. I bought it as a mirror. I bought it as a compass.
I haven’t looked at all the pictures yet. They make my flesh tingle and my stomach creep up my throat and my head throb and my watery eyes ache.
I have a photo from seven years ago when I lived in a hostel in Strasbourg, France, with a group of young French professionals and refugees from around the world, mostly Sudan, Sierra Leone, and other sub-Saharan African countries. Five of us became especially good friends: three Sudanese Muslims, an atheist Serb-Croat from Sarajevo who had deserted the army, and I, an American Christian who worked with a local charity. When it snowed — the first snow the Africans had ever experienced — we played like kids, throwing snowballs at each other and sliding on the slippery sidewalk. We played animated games of ping-pong and chess. We talked religion over post-sunset meals during Ramadan. At a New Year’s Eve party we danced together to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.” The three Africans made fun of the Serb-Croat and me: “What wrong with you? No can move your bodies!” I introduced the Serb-Croat to coconut rum, because he needed something to help him sleep. I have a picture taken the night before I left. The five of us are sitting on the Serb-Croat’s bed, and he’s holding up his bottle of rum and threatening to show the Muslims’ imam the picture and tell him they’ve been drinking during Ramadan.
The next morning I talked with one of the hostel managers who worked with immigration. He told me that the Serb-Croat would probably get a visa — maybe temporary, maybe permanent — but that the Africans’ outlook wasn’t good. Odds are, if they haven’t been deported by now, they’re being exploited somewhere for cheap labor, living with roaches, struggling to get by, trying to dodge police and racist thugs. I’m sure their faces still light up sometimes, but in the darkness.
I’ve known others like them. They’re now part of my history. Dead or alive, well or not, they’re mere memories, unfinished stories, cause for reflection, fodder for an essay.
The first picture Vera pulled from the crumpled plastic bag was of herself holding a dirty little boy in a tight embrace. He was an orphan — her favorite at the orphanage where she was employed by a U.S. charity for about seventy dollars a month. In the next picture Vera stood beside a blond American couple who were holding the little boy. Vera looks proud in the picture, like a meaningful member of the group, though later she would realize she was just a prop, a bureaucratic step along the way.
Then came the pictures of the same boy in his new home in the States. Vera tossed one after another onto the table, next to my plate of staring, discarded fish heads: the Albanian boy surrounded by plastic toys in bright primary colors; the Albanian boy eating hot dogs at a picnic; the Albanian boy dressed in a rainbow T-shirt, posing with his new classmates; the Albanian boy lying in a cozy bed, dreaming the American dream. And so on. My friend translated for Vera an article clipped from a U.S. paper about the adoption. It described the harrowing adventure the American couple had undergone to rescue a poor orphan from the clutches of Albania. The adoptive mother had sent the photos, the article, and a note promising regular updates; she hadn’t written since. “Why hasn’t she written?” Vera asked me.
I didn’t answer. Guilt by association had stolen my ability to speak.
A couple of months earlier Vera had told me, in halting English, an abridged version of this story. I’d thought it was the story of an orphan who had moved across the ocean to a better future, and of the caring orphanage worker who was happy for the boy, though saddened by the separation. Now I understood it was a story about us versus them, about despair versus hope, about the fear of an untreated lump versus the miracle (for some) of modern medicine.
The night was wearing on, and, as usual, the local hoodlums were starting to shoot their Kalashnikovs. I listened, trying to discern whether it was a malicious volley or a solitary drunk shooting at the moon.
During the refugee crisis, the safest place around Shkodēr was a refugee camp run by the Austrian army. It was a ten-minute drive north of the city, patrolled by perfectly sculpted, twenty-year-old soldiers ready to shoot their machine guns with deadly precision. One afternoon when the crisis was in full swing, a few volunteers and I went there. We took a soccer ball.
We started kicking the ball on a field beside the camp, and about twenty boys, ages ten to fourteen, came out and joined us in a game. A few of the boys on my team were good. We clicked. We made the extra pass and scored creative goals. It was sport at its best: generosity, grace, companionship.
After sixty sweaty minutes of play, we told them we had to go. The boys gathered around to say goodbye. As I hugged the first boy, he kissed me on the tender, sensual part of the neck; I felt suddenly disarmed, and less lonely. The next boy kissed me in the same way, and the next.
As we walked out with the boys still at our sides, we passed a tent in which a soldier was lecturing thirty men about land-mine safety. The next time those boys played soccer in the fields behind their homes in Kosovo, the celebration of a goal might be punctuated by an unexpected blast, their slender legs reduced to bloody stumps. But for the moment, they didn’t care about land mines. We’d had a wonderful time playing soccer, and the memory of a shot past the goalie into the left corner of the net was still fresh. They were happy and waved goodbye as we drove away. That’s what I wanted from Vera.
Anticipating a pass coming to you and then kicking the ball into the goal involves an exquisitely complex physiological process of seeing and reacting. The retina receives light reflected by the incoming ball and converts that light into chemical energy, which activates nerves that conduct the information from the eye into the higher regions of the brain. The brain, responding to the information, tells the leg when and how to swing, and the body how to balance and support the leg’s motion. All the while, the brain continues to take in information gathered by the retina, ready to make the necessary adjustments.
If the mechanics of scoring a goal were designed by a Creator, then how painfully ironic is the seeming lack of coordination between what God sees and how God reacts. Is God blind, or merely waiting? Is God staring passively down on us, with eyes like those of the fish? Is God dry-eyed or weeping violent, thunderstorm tears, or perhaps the gray drizzle of disappointment?
Jesus wept. If it weren’t for his tears, I’m not sure whether I could believe his message. After that evening with Vera, Jesus’ words sting. When I was growing up in south Florida, my attention gravitated toward those who were richer than my family. Other families had boats, and mine didn’t. Other families had backyard pools, and mine didn’t. My friends got cars when they turned sixteen, and I didn’t. Now that I have seen who is rich and who is poor, Jesus’ stories read differently.
In one, a rich man dies and goes to hell. From there, the rich man begs Abraham (apparently the gatekeeper before Saint Peter) to send over the poor man from heaven to put a soothing drop of water on the rich man’s tongue. On earth the poor man had lain, with dogs licking his sores, at the rich man’s gate. Sorry, says Abraham. No can do. The rich man get into heaven? Good luck driving that Lexus through the eye of a needle. You didn’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the prisoners? You can go over there with the losing team.
One of my past professors claimed that my sensitivity to such stories is as much about bourgeois guilt as any religious anxiety. Fair enough. I wore a blue preppy uniform to high school and went to Europe for my senior-class trip. From my college dorm, I looked between palm trees, over the warm salt water, to Palm Beach. I now live in Princeton, a silver-Mercedes-SUV kind of town.
But my current concern is not fundamentally motivated by guilt and anxiety. It’s motivated by sight and imagination.
My parable goes like this: If I were starving and watching my wife and children waste away into skeletons under a blazing African sun, caught in the merciless jaws of gnawing disease and hunger, and I knew that, besides donating a small percentage of his income to charities, some guy in Princeton was not doing everything in his power to feed my wife and fill my children’s distended bellies, then I wouldn’t make even the shortest of trips from heaven to deliver him a soothing drop of water in hell — even if both Abraham and Peter granted permission.
The beggar I passed on the street in New Delhi six years ago must have been in bad shape, because he made a lasting impression on me even after I’d been numbed by three months of ubiquitous destitution in India. He stands out in my memory, with his ugliness and his moaning. He earned my sympathy, but definitely not my love, which would have required that I see him as an equal.
The first time I saw him on the sidewalk, my eyes darted fearfully away. On this trip I had looked, with curiosity and embarrassment, at disfigurement and elephantiasis. But this was different. I suspected his eyes held a truth for which I was not prepared. Over the next few days, I passed him several times, and each time I wanted to be able to hold him in my arms and stroke his face, as Mother Teresa would have done, but instead I looked quickly away and tried to think of the Taj Mahal’s majesty or the gifts I had to buy for friends and family.
On my last day in the city, I gave the beggar some money — a bill or two, probably four or five dollars, which seemed a decent amount in India. It was a payoff. The terms of the deal were: You let me avoid your eyes and treat you as though you were on a level just above a dog, and I’ll give you money. It was a perfect deal, because it reinforced our respective positions, allowing me to hide behind pity while he could buy some food.
Somehow the beauty and richness of our lives have to coexist in harmony with the mauling of a Kosovar boy’s leg by a land mine, and the disgusting sight of an Indian beggar, and a lump behind an Albanian woman’s left ear. Of course, they don’t harmonize. Amos, at the end of the book of Scripture with his name on it, takes a rest from being a mouthpiece of God’s wrath toward injustice and offers a vision of harmony. He implies that no one will know true happiness until everyone knows happiness, until everyone shares in the bounty. Joy can’t be hoarded; happiness withers and dies in a personal savings account.
Maybe that’s sentimental and unrealistic, but it’s true — at least for me. The unhappiness of others has governed my own happiness. Visiting Mexico, for example, or the Dominican Republic, often leads people to be more thankful for what they have, and to better appreciate the blessings of the country in which they live. But seeing extreme poverty has the opposite effect on me: I now find it almost impossible to be thankful, because the plight of others haunts me.
On my twenty-minute walk to work, I pass through a pristine 250-year-old university campus. I walk by three jewelry shops, several stores with racks full of designer clothes, and about ten restaurants whose entrées cost twenty-plus dollars. Occasionally I shop in these stores and eat in these restaurants. Sometimes I feel disgust; more often I feel vaguely displeased with myself for not being more disgusted. If Amos’s insight is true, we are all — not just the destitute, though especially them — far from knowing real happiness. That will come only when everyone shares in the riches, when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13).
Vera kept topping off my glass of raki every time I took a sip. She had finished showing me pictures of the orphan and for a while had said little to me except the occasional “I am glad you are not sick. I would do everything for you.” For a finale, though, she pleaded, begged for my help. I was impotent, angry, depleted, sad. I told her about a Canadian doctor who could examine her the next time he was in town.
It was late and time to leave. The night had closed in like a casket. My friend and I would ride our bikes with silent urgency to the church, where we would sleep.
For months I’d spent my nights locked up in this little house in this isolated and violent city. Everyone avoided the streets after dusk because they became unsafe. My routine was to come back to Vera’s at sunset, play with the kids, and then go upstairs, lock the door, read for a while, and fall asleep. On two or three nights, after I had been asleep for some time, I awoke suddenly to what I thought was a knock on my door. In my frazzled state, I wondered if I had really heard anything. Was it my imagination, or was it Vera, come upstairs for comfort, to lie in my bed while her husband worked the night shift and the kids slept downstairs?
I never answered the soft knock, if there was one. Nothing ever happened between Vera and me. Nonetheless, at this final dinner I felt like the guilty lover who had enjoyed the affair and now wanted to fade into the night without cost, without accusation, without having to look at each other one last time: It was good while it lasted; let’s leave it at that. But Vera wouldn’t let me off that easy. She wanted more. She said things about our relationship that were true, but better left unsaid. Silence had made my playful tryst with her family possible. Now that these words had been spoken, we couldn’t look each other in the eye. We left each other feeling empty, broken, and angry.
As I mounted my bike and said goodbye, Vera became cheery again. At the time, I thought it was a weak final effort to manipulate me, or perhaps to gloss over her manipulation. In retrospect I know it was an attempt to regain some dignity. Now I was the one brooding, looking down, kicking the gravel as I ached to push my pedals and accelerate into the night. By not looking at her, I was trying to avoid her naked desperation — and trying to avoid thinking about the Sudanese refugee friends I had so easily left behind; avoid worry over the boys whose tender lips had touched my neck at a refugee camp; avoid the tangled mess of a human being on the sidewalk in New Delhi; and the demanding stories of Jesus; and the eyes of those fish that got up off the plate, their centipede-spines wiggling back and forth, and swam after me as I biked away.
But the cost of my escape is great. While avoiding brutal truth and grueling need, I also miss out on the possibility of a profound happiness that’s available only if everyone shares in it. Maybe I could still find that happiness if I give myself to others in a way I never have before. I want to live differently. I want to live so I can see, so I can look into the eyes of the beggar crumpled on the street in New Delhi. And so Vera can look into mine.
I was moved by Kent Annan’s struggle with the limits of compassion in his essay “When the Hills Flow with Wine” [September 2003]. I recognize in his words my own anguished attempts to come to terms with the world’s suffering.
Annan’s frustration and despair at his inability to make the world over into the comfortable place he knows in the U.S. is the despair of the survivor who, after the battle, the plane crash, the earthquake, cries out, “Why them and not me?” There can never be an answer to this plea. That ache is our suffering. Annan’s resolve to stare back into the face of death and suffering is the correct response. All that is wanting is acceptance of the burden.
When Mother Teresa was asked why, in the face of overwhelming odds, she continued to attempt to relieve suffering, she replied, “God does not ask us to succeed. God asks us to try.” The Buddhists say something similar, but speak of not being attached to the results of your effort. It’s all in the doing. To desire to rid the world of that which upsets us is ultimately an egotistical desire to control what is beyond us. Accepting and immersing ourselves in the world’s pain, as Annan does, is compassion.
I would council him, though, not to cast away joy. When I visited the Dominican Republic, I was amazed at how joyful the people were in the midst of incredible poverty. I had expected them to be depressed and waiting to die. I am not trying to sugarcoat poverty, but merely point out that it does not exclude joy, and neither should we.
If the Buddhists are correct that we choose the circumstances of each incarnation, then the world’s suffering people demonstrate immense courage, the courage to bear pain, in order to teach us something. We need the courage to keep our hearts open and to pay attention.