Some of you that read this blog don’t know me. You don’t know why I came to Paraguay, what my experience is like, what I do here and what this country has done to me. People constantly ask me what types of things I do here, what makes up my every day life, whether or not I’m getting work done, if I’m making a difference.
The truth is, I came here to save the world, but more so to find myself and learn things about myself that couldn’t be said in English. That couldn’t be said in anything other than the gutteral ejections from my throat when I take my first shower in a week and the water is cold and the wind is icy and the temperature is thirty degrees outside. Couldn’t be deciphered from anywhere other than over a hole in the ground where human fecal matter writhes with worms three feet below my bare ass. Or seen in anything other than the ever widening pool of milky white liquid on the kitchen floor that’s draining from the beak of a freshly slaughtered chicken who’s left foot would later protrude from my bowl of soup. It’s seeing an infant suck Coca-Cola from its bottle instead of breast milk, it’s a 75 year old man who I’d grown to love and trust slapping my ass and leaning in to kiss me.
And all that, it’s not even the hard part.
It’s as though I’d spent 22 years up until the day I stepped onto Paraguayan soil creating myself. That’s exactly what I’d done. I’d practiced and groomed my sense of humor, my wit, I was good at making people laugh. I took pains to present myself well, always fit and respectable and polite and professional and hardworking and smiling and just sassy enough to make people take notice. I wanted to be remembered and well liked and well rounded and intelligent and always appealing. And I was. For the most part at least. I made myself that way and I liked myself. I was happy. Well, then Paraguay happened and it’s like all those years of tweaking and adjusting and layering every detail about myself, everything about me, it all just melted. Like burnt flesh off white bones. And the skeleton left over? It wasn’t someone I liked very much.
I’ve had a total loss of identity, I’m floundering, and I recently realized it’s a way I’ve felt before:
When I was twelve I played football on a team of all boys. I was a tiny little girl, less than a hundred pounds. I wore a practice jersey with a bright pink target on the front, stretched over my miniature shoulder pads. I was painfully shy, didn’t know the first thing about football. I didn’t know the names of the positions, I didn’t know the names of plays or how to execute them. Moreover, the team of boys and the male coach didn’t know how to go about dealing with me either. I was an outsider and ostracized.
Why did I play? Well now that I’ve put myself through the ordeal all over again, maybe it’s because I think I have something to prove to the world. Maybe I’ve just got Short Man Syndrome.
The beginning was rough. I watched like a hawk and eavesdropped on everyone around me. I picked up the terminology quickly. Every scrap of information I gained anchored me a little bit more into the team. I learned who was fast, who was slow, who was dumber than I was, who I could outrun and I prayed ceaselessly to never be matched up against the worst of them. Luckily I was fast, faster than most of the boys on the team. This quite literally saved me from a squashed fate. Accept once. Dillon was faster than I was, much faster, and dashingly attractive in a down-home, blond boy type of way. The drill was for two teammates to lay head to head on their backs. One was on defense, the other on offense. The coach whispered a direction in the ear of the offender, handed over the ball and blew the whistle. It was a matter of quickness, the offender had to role over, stand up, and run in the direction he (or me) was told. If you weren’t fast enough to beat the defender, you had to find a way to get around him.
My heart beat so fast and my toes wiggled frantically inside my tiny cleats. The tip of Dillon’s helmet touched the top of mine as we lay on our backs and waited for the abrupt tweet. When it came I rolled to my feet and saw that Dillon was already standing, waiting for me. I started to run but I didn’t stand a chance. Dillon lifted me entirely into the air and slammed me into the ground so hard that my breathe was knocked out of me. And my pants were pulled down. As I skidded on the ground my pants were pushed below the edge of my butt. The boys laughed and I cried.
What did I think I was doing? What was I trying to prove? And to tack humiliation on top of it . . . Why didn’t I just quit? It was hard. It was hard physically but it was harder mentally. I was an emotional wreck, I lost weight, I dreaded practice every day. I counted down the days until it was over. Games were miserable and even though by some miracle I was starting as safety, I was so nervous playing in front of all the parents and fans that I could hardly remember the plays. Therefore it was totally unexpected when in the last game of the season, a green jersey from the other team rounded the line and came running toward me with the ball under his arm. He ran wide, toward the sidelines where my coach stood waving his clipboard and yelling at me, his eyes were as wide as mine. I was the only person who could get me through that whole damn season and I was the only person who could prevent the other team from scoring at that exact moment. I didn’t have a plan as I ran toward him, not particularly fast. The look on his face from behind his face mask was one of contempt and aggression. I understood that he thought he could get around me no problem, it didn’t rise in me some kind of determination or competitive edge. I would have rather been anywhere else in the world than facing off with him. I dove toward the ground like a swimmer and kind of clutched at his legs halfheartedly with my arms. My left shoulder hit his knees, not particularly hard. He grunted as he collapsed, well, more like folded over. As I stood up the look on my coaches face surprised me. He was a big guy, shy with a beard and a scar on his face, he was yelling at me, bellowing from deep inside, clapping his hands hard, his face was fierce and I could tell that it wasn’t just my struggle that had paid off, but it was his too, the strangeness and stress of having a girl on his team, the success and pride he might have felt having gotten me that far and through that tackle. The rest of the team gave me congratulatory high fives and slightly awkward back slaps and the rest of the game ended uneventfully. We’d won and now, finally, I could walk away from it all, I had tackled someone all by myself, I had prevented the touchdown and I had proven whatever it was that I’d set out to prove. I was done.
I’m not quite done with my stay in Paraguay, not by a long shot. But many of the same emotions that I experienced during football season are paralleled in this experience. The stress and isolation and humiliation and misery and pride and fear are all part of my life here too. Some days I can’t figure out what I’m doing here, and I know that my community doesn’t quite get it either, but something deep inside me won’t let me quit and I’m thankful that it’s one of my characteristics that didn’t melt off of me and is still intact on my skeleton of a personality. So maybe it’s not about how long I’m here, or who I help, or if I make a difference, or what kind of things I do. Maybe one day I will do something bigger and better and scarier and I’ll be able to do it because I had the courage to finish this. Just like maybe playing on a football team of all boys when I was twelve gave me the courage to do what I’m doing now. Maybe it’s all connected, who’s to know? Unless you do it.