Monday, March 29, 2010

Dancing with the devil on your back

Friday marked the first day of Holy Week here in Puerto Cabezas. It's called Viernes de Dolores, or Friday of Pains. As far as I an tell, it's like a pre-party to the crucifixion in the Catholic Church. In the rich bacchanal culture of Puerto, it marks the beginning of a week long celebration on a strip of the beach called La Bocana, which Lee alleges means “estuary.” As co-religion teacher at two catholic schools, I of course dutifully took my place with my dance group in the mini- carnival that marked the beginning of the week's festivities.

We started with a parade around the major streets of the city with all seven dance groups riding in pickup trucks. My group got to ride in front on the fire truck, which was awesome but a bit noisy. We all disembarked at the BICU, a lo cal university, and danced in the street from the BICU down to the stage on the beachfront, where we all performed. Dancing Palo de Mayo around the bend in the road and seeing the ocean in front of us and all the people waiting and all the cabanas that had been built for the festivities has to be among the more amazing experiences I have had. For second, I thought is this really my life? For serious? I think I've been caught in some kind of wormhole that spit me out halfway around the world. Then I realized I had, and that wormhole was called Cap Corps.

The celebration was a beautiful way to let out the frustration that had been building up in me all week. I usually split the religion class with Rumalda, the religion teacher at Maureen Courtney. With Semana Santa approaching, however, her normal inclination towards the didactic swelled into a feverish pitch that lasted for the entire class. With the celebrations in the Bocana paralleling the highest holy days in Christianity, she had to make her preemptive strike on behalf of temperance before the vices had fully arrayed their forces. She railed against alcohol and dancing. She employed a particularly vivid story about a past Maureen Courtney student who had disappeared from La Bocana, to turn up four days later further down the beach with his throat slit, as a cautionary tale against the evils of vagrancy. And of course the coming holiday brought out theology that I found problematic. Rumalda asked the fourth-graders what the two most important days of Holy Week were. “Ummm...Resurrection Sunday?” suggested one student.

“No,” she replied. “Thursday and Friday. Thursday is important be cause it is the day Jesus was arrested. Friday because it is the day he was crucified.”

When we were coming back from dancing at La Bocana, I saw the Catholic procession observing the stations of the cross, as they do every Friday during Lent. Among them was Rumalda and a few other teachers, all solemn and reflective, and there I was still in my bright, rather revealing dance costume. Ever the coward in the face of potential religious recrimination, I hid behind the dance building until the procession passed. I knew it was unnecessary. Not being catholic, I am considered out of their jurisdiction. Any potential moral turpitude on my part is someone else's problem. And I could always explain that my tradition doesn't observe the Friday of Pains, and that would stand as valid. But I just felt beaten down by the week's tirades, and I couldn't face the moral disapproval that, in that moment, the procession represented for me. I think that's why a lot of people aren't Christian here. It's not that they don't believe in God. They just can't bear to be that moral. As one of my tutees, who I'm told is also a gangster, explained,

"Christians can't hit people in the face when they offend them. I want to hit people in the face. It's much better."

Maybe it helps people to know there is redemption to be found in so much suffering, rather than from so much suffering. I can't do that much meditation on pains. I don't even plan to attend Good Friday worship this year. Normally, I am a fan of the observance. It is a day for me to meditate on the ways in which crucifixion still goes on in the world, and how Jesus still suffers with us. Here, I see so much crucifixion, in every begging widow and every tale of children raped. I don't think my spirit can take a day devoted to it. Sometimes every day feels like Good Friday. I can't escape the glorification of violence that I see on Good Friday. I don't think the filter in my head that keeps disagreeable theology from wounding my spirit will be able to keep out the elevation of crucifixion as the act that saves us, rather than resurrection. this Good Friday, should dance practice take place, I will dance, as I do every day. I will dance even more strongly than ever, because I know that Jesus does not stay dead. It is at the song says:

“I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It's hard to dance with the devil on your back. They buried my body and they thought I'd gone, but I am the dance and I still go on.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Miskito-Catholic Sacred Narrative

In religion class today, the Catholic Miskita teacher I collaborate with offered the following story as part of her explanation of the sign of the cross:

Lucifer was the greatest of all the angels, but he sought to be like God, so God banished him to the earth. He fell from the sky, and when he hit the ground he broke into many pieces. Some of the pieces became the evil spirits in the water, that are the mermaids, some of them the evil spirits in the wind, and some the evil spirits in the wilderness, that is the gnomes. So now we make the sign of the cross to ward off the evil spirits.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Magic Pennies

At the beginning of the year, a couple of the teachers and I realized that, between the three of us, we knew the Magic Penny song in three different languages. We sang it at the opening convocation, and at every faculty meeting thereafter. Multilingualism is one of my favorite aspects of Puerto Cabezas. "Happy Birthday," for example, is always sung in at least Spanish, English, and Miskitu, even in Creole communities that express disdain for the Miskitu presence in Puerto. It always reminds me of the Pentecost.

Love is something if you give it away
Give it away, give it away,
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It's just like a magic penny;
Hold on tight, and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, you'll have so many,
They'll roll all over the floor.

Dale amor a tu prójimo
Dáselo, dáselo
Dale amor a tu prójimo,
Y lo recibirás.

No es como el dinero,
Que se guarda para no gastar.
Préstalo, regálalo,
Y regresará a ti.

Latwan laka uplara yayasma,
Yayasma, yayasma.
Latwan laka uplara yayasma,
Bara kli manra balbia.

Lahla baku apia sa,
Karna atkaia tikaia apia wisi
Len muns tiks bara uplara yas
Bara kli manra balbia.

How do you fit so many syllables in the Miskitu version? By singing it really fast. Also note that there is no magic penny in either the Spanish or Miskitu versions. Still, Pentecost.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dear Next Door Neighbors,

"Come" is a terrible name to give your dog, especially when you have more than one dog.


In college, I made the observation that compassion fatigue might be more aptly termed compassion psychosis. After living in Nicaragua these past few months, I have decided that they are two distinct phenomena. Compassion psychosis arises from facing an overwhelming amount of need and not knowing what to do about it. I knew this well in college, where I was surrounded by talk of injustices and outrages and urgent needs in the local community, the country, and the world. In Puerto Cabezas, I struggle with the knowledge that many of the kids I work with are undernourished and witness violence in their homes. On the street, I'm always being asked for food and money. Jesus' command to give to all those who ask of you continues to haunt me and infuriate me. He must have been just as surrounded by poverty as I am. How on earth could he have lived up to that mandate? How did he avoid people becoming dependent on him, seeing him only as their savior, the cure for their ills, not another human being with his own need for relationship and compassion? If Jesus simply is the savior of humanity, it seems like an impracticable example for me to follow.

With an ever-expanding consciousness of the great needs in the world, I want to be compassionate and share the suffering of so many people, it feels like nothing I do will be enough. Instead of looking to where I am making contributions, I'm always looking to where I'm not making contributions, and my sense of myself as a compassionate person evaporates. I get so wrapped up in all of this suffering, I cannot be present to the needs that I can respond to, right in front of me. That's the psychosis.

It seems to me to the solution is focus; I must concentrate on those needs that are in front of me, that I can respond to, and leave the rest in God's hands. There's a good reason the people here seem much more willing to leave burning issues of poverty and injustice to God. There are simply too many of those issues for any one person to face, and the strain of poverty prevents the development of a community that can confront its own poverty effectively.

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, comes from being overly present to the needs in front of me. Listening to peoples' stories, building positive relationships with people who have so few positive relationships in their lives. I can do this, and I know by doing it I am making some small transformation in myself and in my world. A young friend tells me that she got drunk and had unprotected sex with a relative stranger, so I offer to accompany her to the clinic to get tested for AIDS. She didn't know that there was still a possibility that she was pregnant, after taking a test immediately afterwards, and broke down and sobbed for 10 minutes in the nurse's office. I know all I have to do is be there. I don't have to offer advice. This is entirely within my capacity. And yet, upon arriving at my home, I feel so drained of emotional energy I can only collapse in my hammock and stare at the ceiling.

The only response I have to this is to dig deeper into my spiritual life. This Lenten season, I have been reading the Psalms like a dope fiend. They have been a wonderful vent for my frustrations and articulation of my hopes.