Self-reflection is a built-in element of travel. It stirs within the traveler each time she is asked why she travels. “What is the purpose of your travels?” In the short two weeks I spent traveling through Central America, I was posed this question no less than ten times on customs forms alone. The response now formally documented with the Salvadoran, Honduran, and Nicaraguan governments — or perhaps tossed away in some wastebasket somewhere — takes the form of a little “X” next to the word “turismo.” It’s the same answer I gave to the stern-eyed customs official at the airport who, with raised eyebrows, asked why I was traveling to such a remote part of El Salvador.
But is the purpose of travel ever really just “tourism”? For the tidiness demanded by bureaucracy, I was content to leave it at that, but when new friends along the journey asked my travel companion, Taylor, and I why we were traveling, I couldn’t resist giving a different answer. When asked, “So are you just on vacation, or what?” my typical response was to give Taylor a knowing glance and say something to the effect of, “This is my soul journey. I didn’t want to make it alone, so I called up my friend and said, ‘¡Vamos!’ And he, being a good friend, responded, ‘¡Vamos, pues!’”
This is my soul journey.
Soul Journey is the name of one of my favorite Gillian Welch albums. In her stripped-down, plaintive drawl, she sings about family, isolation, brokenness and being broke, and being at the end of the line. The album has been my anthem as I have waded through the muck of post-college life, trying to make sense of how to be the person I want to be without the built-in community and consolation that came from being in a place as vibrant and overflowing with love as Xavier University. In many ways, I have failed at being that person. As Welch cries out in her hit song, “Look at Miss Ohio,” “I want to do right, but not right now.” In fear of failure, fear of isolation, and, most deeply, fear of “getting stuck,” I have been putting off “doing right.” Maybe part of why I was afraid to make the journey to El Salvador alone was because I knew I would have to confront the source of a lot of that fear.
When Fr. Frans van der Lugt, S.J. was assassinated in Syria earlier this year, I wrote a post reflecting on his martyrdom and the renunciation of privilege by way of the parable of the rich young man. In my own life, I find myself “walking away sad” like the rich young man from the vocation to justice and peace not only because of a reluctance to renounce material possessions, but, more profoundly, a reluctance to renounce inherited privilege. When I traveled to El Salvador two years ago to spend a summer there living among poor peasants and listening to their stories, I had not yet come into that reluctance. Eagerly, I threw myself into relationship with the people I met, with stubborn conviction that our mutual dignity would make our friendships easy — or at least as easy and intuitive as any other friendship I had. It wasn’t until the end of my time in El Salvador approached that the veil of romanticism began to fall away from poverty, as it always must and should.
The idyllic picture of rural poverty which before had dominated my imagination began to fall apart. Peaceful countryside scenes filled with poor yet happy children with bare feet gave way to the negative underside of those scenes. The deep woundedness of a postwar people, the utter lack of work opportunities, the ingrained sexism, and the internalized sense of nothingness rather than personhood — I could see it present all at once, shaping each interaction I witnessed. I, with much self-importance, envisioned myself on a precipice, clinging with one hand to the privilege and sense of self worth I inherited and learned while being pulled with the other into this world, where la mujer vale un poco más que una gallina, pero mucho menos que una vaca — where a woman is worth a little more than a hen, but a lot less than a cow. Something within me broke, something that would allow me to enter the world of the poor but maintain my sense of self, and I have been running ever since, talking the talk but trying desperately to put back together the pieces of myself that allow me to feel safe and autonomous.
Deep down, I know I have been looking for a sense of wholeness in the wrong places. In response to having my autonomy thrown into question, I have clung to an illusory safety that has only made me more afraid. In response to feeling isolated, I have externalized my need for community, distancing myself from the ultimate whose light must be found by looking both outward and inward. I have conflated love with feeling loved myself rather than committing to love others even after the initial consolation gives way to deep desolation.
I will give myself credit for one thing. Even though I have gone through life in the last year dominated by fear and absorbed utterly in myself, I have been patient with myself and trusting of the process. I will sit in this fear because it is real. Making an option for the poor can be life-giving and exhilarating, and that is all I had known of that option before, but the undeniable reality is that it will also be frightening and isolating sometimes. I have to face that fear and loneliness, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do, even as I’ve been running from them.
In “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” Gillian Welch sings, “Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet soft and low, when I’m broke and I got nowhere to go.” Toward the end of my soul journey in Central America, I had the chance to visit with a friend who has been in El Salvador for more than thirty years now. I laid my fears before John, and he told me that this life can indeed be a lonely one, but that he wouldn’t trade it. From John to my community in Nicaragua to my dear friends in El Salvador, Central America received me gently, making me a pallet soft and low in which to collect my brokenness and ponder it before tossing it in with the brokenness of the world around me. At the end of the day, we are all broken already, together. My flight to an imagined sense of safety only has sustained an illusion that my brokenness is somehow different from that of the people whose lives are a daily grind of suffering. As I return from El Salvador, I pray for the courage and humility I have so often lacked, and for love, whatever that means. I’m praying with Gillian today in the words of her song, “I Made a Lover’s Prayer”:
I made a lover’s prayer.
I made a lover’s prayer.
I made a lover’s prayer.
Help me rise above
What I’m thinking of,
Just a little more love,
Just a little more love.
In this blog, I mentioned John Guiliano, who is the director of Tamarindo Foundation in Guarjila, Chalatenango, El Salvador. To learn more about El Tamarindo, visit their website here.