Humane Planet

05 Oct

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33

I thought I was the only one who burned. But I went up on the roof and saw that every house was on fire. Unknown

Visiting, vacationing, touristing, traveling, living - these are the ways we experience other homes, cities, states, countries and cultures. Unless you are perpetually pessimistic or a foreign correspondent in a war zone or a very anxious traveler, most of the time you will not notice the negatives as much as you will the positives. Partly, I think, this is because we generally pay a lot of money to travel and we WANT to enjoy ourselves. Another influence is the trend in our culture towards acknowledging positive things and recent psychological research on gratitude and its effect on mood. Besides, most people don’t dwell in a foreign culture long enough to notice the cracks in the veneer. When we choose to return to a place we have visited in the past, it is either because it was such an ideal experience that we want to recreate or relive it or because the drawbacks were such that know we can tolerate them for the sake of all the good stuff. The trip we are on - 18 months of nomadic living and volunteering - is not what millennials refer to as “slow travel” (It’s the best and if you aren't doing it you are a hopeless consumer!!! Eye roll). However, it is definitely giving us time to get to know places and people and explore our spirituality and deeply held beliefs. As Christians, we are aghast at the recent (or not so recent) developments in modern American Christianity and its propensity to ignore suffering or blame the victim. As people who love travel, we know we need to pay attention to all aspects of the places we go. Some of the experiences we have would depress us if it weren’t for the knowledge of and faith in the Resurrection - that hope and the ultimate alleviation of suffering has been carried out through the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. We know that the antidote for suffering is faith, not prosperity. - S

We spent almost a month on the island of Alonissos, Greece. The servers at our favorite restaurant always give us an extra beer or a free dessert. They don’t chase the stray cats away. They don’t mind if we stay 2 hours playing a furious game of Scrabble. Our favorite server is a non-judgmental nutritionist who makes extra money waiting tables and doesn’t charge us for extra bread. She embodies Greek hospitality. She never complains about having too many customers or not enough. Her big, green eyes turn down at the corners but she has a friendly word for everyone. She wears the same shirt every day. Her name is Ioanna. Peter often remarks that those who live in small spaces have dreams deferred - We have both lived in places like these - Bemidji, Minnesota, Slateford, Pennsylvania. It is hard to have ambitions on a tiny island. Ioanna dreams of moving away and having her own practice and combining traditional foods with new research on longevity. But she graduated from her program two years ago and the only job she could find was working at this restaurant.- S

The terrace has a magnificent view over the Aegean sea, only the gate doesn’t close properly. One of the feral cats had kittens a few days ago. She is desperate for food. Any chance she’ll get she will sneak into the kitchen, jump on the counter, and lick the frying pan, anything she can get. Greece is full of cats, most are starved and  have their ears torn to shreds. When people will leave dishes with water out for them the cats stop hunting. When they leave for the winter, the cats starve. The world is like that sometimes, sometimes there is a feast and sometimes a famine. A little education and creativity could solve this problem but we have heard them say a dozen times that next week or month they will gather up all the cats and take them to the vet. - P

We spent almost a month doing a Workaway job at a chateau in Brittany, France. Our second night there, the hosts invited us to dinner but since we don’t eat meat we were asked to bring our own dish. Ahem. Hardly anyone at dinner was bilingual - the hosts’ French was abyssmal and the French guests, a server at a breakfast place and a factory worker for Bic, did not speak ANY English. Fortunately they brought Arthur! His name is Arthur because his mom is obsessed with the legend of Arthur that is said to REALLY originate in Brittany. Her name is Vivianne. Of course it is. She told us the entire legend of the lady of the lake in very rapid French and chastised us for not eating animal products. Also in very rapid French. Fortunately, Arthur was there to save the day. I do not know what the world would do without understanding and generous bilingual high school students. Greta Thunberg! Emma Gonzalez! Malala! Arthur! He made the dinner bearable and memorable with his shy attempts at translation, sneaking out to the back of the chateau for a smoke and sharing his Instagram account with us. We made up a game so we could learn the place setting vocabulary in French.  - S

In France , when we worked at the “manoir,” the guard dog was half eaten by lice. We threw stones near it to keep it as far away from us as possible. We were bitten by fleas and flies until we had to wear jeans and thick socks all the time on very warm days. Half the day, the cows bawled for relief of their swollen udders. Their crying sounded eerily human. We were not told that it would be a farm stay, but rather a classy chateau. It has put us off dairy for life. And Manoirs. And farms. - P

After we left the “manoir” we drove from Bretagne to the Dordogne valley and spent a few days in a city called Sarlat. There, they are very proud of the ancient delicacy “foie de gras.” You grip a goose by its neck just below the head,  then you use a broom handle to stuff corn mash down its throat. Just keep stuffing, no matter what. Soon, the goose’s liver will be a delicious blob of fat! I once read a science fiction novel by Ian Banks with a pretty realistic description of hell, but he left out the part with the broom handle. - P

One of the places we stayed to shake the proverbial dust off our clothes was Marennes Plage. Our hostess, Catherine, was the epitome of everything we love about French people. The house is three stories and the top floor is for their homestay that they advertise as a bed and breakfast. There is a very DIY glass porch area where she brings you breakfast every morning. There is a hot tub in the back yard and you are welcome to use the whole house as if you were a friend of the family. There were always people over, young friends of their daughter or couples with small children; there must have been 25 guests there in the three days we were there. It is the kind of home where they always make two or three extra steaks and the wine flows as easily as the conversation. Catherine is one of those people who exudes warmth. She tells you personal tidbits and you feel like you have been given a gift. She and her husband are earthy and visceral people who enjoy good wine, good food and the sunshine. They reminded us of Californians we know. Catherine shares everything, offers anything she thinks you might like. She gave Sarah ALL of her rooibos tea when she told her how much she liked it. By the time we met Catherine we were so shell-shocked from the manor that we felt like the whole world was full of mean, small, lazy narcissists. Catherine reminded us that the world is largely full of good people and a couple of angels. - S

When we left Alaska  our decade there seemed like a long battle with the devil. For a while we lived in a town house on the edge of the woods. Our neighbor, a young, single father, shot himself in his garage. The route between our house and the bus stop lead along an amazing stream full of meter-long red salmon in spring and summer. From the homeless camps in the woods one could hear desperate screams. There were always moose on or along the trail. A young native guy hung himself on the edge of the trail. His mom used to sit there and grieve. Next to the bus stop a Mexican-American woman died in a house fire in December. The house was boarded up with plywood. Her family came back and painted a Christmas tree and presents on it. Every night at 11:30 pm it looked like a zombie apocalypse as the homeless, the aimless and the lost marched steadily toward the mission on Tudor Avenue to get a bite to eat or something to tide them over until morning at the liquor store. Every car in our complex was broken into at least once while we lived there. We had to call social services at least twice a year. Once, a mother of a student sent Sarah a picture of her handgun because Sarah had helped her daughter get into college without her knowing. Peter had to miss classes to testify at a trial. We both had our fellow teachers tell the principal falsehoods about us in order to discredit us or get us fired. We both won awards for teaching. We had never met so many people who had been the victims of violent crime under the age of 18. We both worked at schools with tremendous potential but endless excuses. We had the best students of our lives there. It feels like a horrible betrayal to have left. - S&P

William, the guy Peter worked with at the Manor used to be a captain in the British army. He joined the armed forces because he was terribly dyslexic and very clever so school was hellish for him. When we talked to him we could see that he was very self aware and a terrific judge of character and that he knew how to fix just about anything. But his old wounds from countless teachers at 11 different schools throwing him out of class, telling him he was stupid, and laughing at his efforts had wounded him more than the war did. The armed forces were the perfect place for a guy like Will. He told many stories with a gleam in his eye. He fought somewhere in the Middle East against the Arabs. The British guys didn’t know why they were there fighting, the Arabs did and they are still at it. One day, Will and his buddies were shooting mortars at some place a little way from camp. Come evening they packed up, but the mortar plate was too heavy for the Jeep. They couldn’t just leave it there and they couldn’t take it. One of them had the bright idea to put a mine under it, so that’s what they did. When they came back in the morning the whole place was littered with bits and pieces of donkeys and humans. Will  liked to tell his stories about the war to Peter. He liked to hear Peter’s natural compassion for his part in a terrible act. He liked to tell Sarah his stories about school. He liked to hear that today, a good teacher would have found a way to get through to him and encourage him. He liked to hear us talk about kids in our classes who had problems like his. - P

One thing that all of the Workaway placements have had in common are that people are overwhelmed. They bought a huge property that they are too old to take care of or a divorce has rendered them helpless to bring in the olive harvest alone. At almost every placement, something has caused permanent rifts in their relationship with their children. Whatever the reason, they are just barely keeping their heads above water. Our host in Rhodes cannot listen to a full sentence without butting in and responding defensively to a perceived slight that she knows is coming. Every conversation we have involves the phrase, “no, no, that is not what we were going to say...” She jumps when we walk around a corner too quietly and she locks all the doors, even if she is just emptying the trash or running to the store. You can tell that deep down, she is a really fun person with a great sense of humor and a lot of energy, or rather, she was. Today, she told us that her ex-husband has been known to stop by and we should be very, very careful. - S

We haven’t watched a lot of the news lately but here in Europe, the continuing African and Middle Eastern refugee crises continue unabated. The same goes for the Mexican border in the United States. Few seem to have realized that the refugees are fleeing to the very places that caused the problems that have come to a head in their home countries in the first place. European colonialism in Africa, Reagan era policies in Central America, the senseless oil and faith wars fought with expensive guns purchased in Europe and the US - It has all come home to roost. - S

We are staying with a Christian family right now on the island of Alonissos and we talk a lot about Jesus. One of the guests spoke one evening about being blessed and how we as Christians are promised that we will prosper. Sorry, fella, that is not at all what we are promised. The Bible and the world it illustrates are full of suffering - not only suffering, but not a yellow brick road, either. - S

Jesus carried his cross. He didn’t ask for it. He carried it up. Step by excruciating step. Sometimes somebody helped him, wiped his face or took the load off for a little bit. Other times he couldn’t take the next step and he broke down. Sometimes he was ridiculed as he made his way. He did not promise us prosperity or an easy life, only eternal life and forgiveness. All over the world, people struggle. As white, educated Americans we know we have the odds in our favor. And yet we suffer. We strive to make things better but we suffer. If you are a creature on this planet you carry some cross up some hill. Not with any probability, but with earthly certainty. - P

Therefore, have faith in the resurrection. - J

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