Two years ago, Bob and I traveled to the Dominican Republic with World Vision. The experience changed me, and my life, in ways I could never have imagined or predicted. Changes that I struggled then to articulate and hesitate now to try and describe. All of the words I’ve been able to come up with, all of the names and labels for what happened to me there just don’t feel big enough, or bright enough, or powerful enough to get the job done. Call it a spiritual transformation, or a cosmic wake-up call, or an epiphany, and you’d be in the right neighborhood, but nowhere close to home. It’s like trying to explain a dream: what feels so vivid and intense for the dreamer can sound awfully trite and tedious to the listener. But if you’ve read this far, maybe you’ll bear with me.
There’s a patch of ground in Santo Domingo, not too far from the city center, that hugs the side of the river in full view of a busy highway. It’s a dumping ground for garbage, dank and muddy and prone to flooding in the frequent heavy rains. It’s also a neighborhood, if you can believe it. A neighborhood, that is, if you can imagine calling hundreds of precarious shelters slapped together from bits of corrugated metal and splintering plywood, homes. If you happened to be in an air-conditioned car, speeding over the bridge on your way to the airport after a vacation at one of the Dominican Republic’s luxury beach resorts, you might glance down in horror or pity or both. You’d wonder how human beings can live like this. How is it even possible?
It was a sweltering August afternoon, and we were slowly making our way through the maze of what I guess you’d have to call streets, though they were as narrow as hallways. Every bit of space that could be claimed for shelter was. Crowds of people thronged every passageway. Children darted in all directions. There were dogs everywhere, skeletal and weirdly dead-eyed, feral dogs nosing for scraps or crouched in what little shade could be found. The air was pungent with odors: garbage and sewage, animal waste and the rank, fetid river mud. And , so unexpectedly, the smell of something absolutely delicious cooking, maybe around the next corner. But it wasn’t the smell that overwhelmed: it was the noise. Imagine a constant roar, just an incomprehensible din coming from every direction.
It took a long time to finally make our way to the water’s edge. By that point, we’d attracted a horde of curious, chattering kids. They followed us in a swarm, one of them tugging on my hand to lead me to his “house”. I went inside and met his mom. Their home was one room, maybe 6 feet by 6 feet. The earthen floor was still mucky from a recent flood. Everything they owned in the world looked like it might fit in one of those large Rubbermaid containers that Target sells by the truckload to people like me for storing extra toys and Christmas ornaments. Through a translator, she explained that it was hard keeping house, what with having to take all possessions and evacuate every time the river threatened to flood its banks. Then she offered me a meal.
Outdoors again, in the baking heat, I sat down on the ground. Children clambered all over me and in seconds, three of them were jockeying for position in my lap. I was surrounded on all sides, the kids openly giggling at my appalling Spanish, little hands in my hair, stroking my arms, fingering the zippers on my daypack, tugging at my shoelaces. To my left, not ten feet away, was the skinned, gutted, and heat-bloated carcass of a goat. Nestling against me as snugly as my own child was a girl, maybe 6 years old, with perfectly aligned braids and a faded but starched flowered dress. She squeezed my wrist with her so-small hand, and in that moment – and there’s really no other way to put it and believe me, I’ve tried – it was as though the whole world suddenly shifted into its rightful place. Like the final click of the tumbler that springs the lock. And just like that, all of the walls came down.
The sensation of being cracked open was so powerful that I can close my eyes and feel it still. In an instant, I’m back in that place, in that heat and noise, the sheer cacophony of too many bodies in too small a space, engulfed in a sea of children, their eyes inches from my own. When I tell you that happiness is possible in an inferno, that joy can be found in a gutter, maybe you can’t conceive it. We who have so much can afford the true luxuries of the privileged: ennui, discontent, the nagging fear that someone else got the all of the cash and prizes that were meant to be ours. Our wealth may purchase roomy homes and plasma TV’s, but it doesn’t buy us a superior brand of humanity. It just makes the journey more comfortable. It’s unsettling to calculate how much a successful life owes to the simple good fortune of where and to whom we were born.
Those children weren’t born lucky, that’s all. They were born into crushing poverty, in an unforgiving place where human lives aren’t much valued, where they’re as expendable as the garbage that surrounds them. It’d be easier to turn away if they weren’t just like your kids. Just like my kids. It’d be easier to turn away if you could somehow blame their parents for making a mess of their lives. But then you meet their mothers and their fathers and their grandmothers – if they’re alive, that is - and there’s no escaping the truth: these people are just like you.
So the world cracked open, and me with it. The revelation is one you’ve heard about 10 million times in cheesy pop songs and overpriced greeting cards: love is everything. Just love. Love as a verb, love that expects no payback or reward. Love for no reason other than itself. Oh, I could just throw up typing this because I know how it sounds. There was a time, a period that stretches – oh, let’s see – for most of my life, that I would have either rolled my eyes at something like this or felt the queasy unease of knowing I was missing out on the party.
A spiritual demolition and rebuild like this doesn’t come without consequences. Returning home, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. The truth of my life, the price of my choices…everything was laid bare. My marriage, a pretty fragile concoction that relied heavily on denial , rationalization, fear, and my lifelong codependency swiftly unraveled. The pain was seismic. And, like the metaphor implies, continues to rock us all with tremor after tremor. That’s a story for another time, though. With a great, big glass of wine on the side.
In 10 minutes, I’m going to head to gate A16 at O’Hare and board a flight for Delhi, India. I don’t expect my life to change so radically again. One epiphany per customer, right? I’m just grateful to be here.