Caminante, no hay camino (Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking)- Antonio Machada (Spanish poet 1875-1939).
This week, while I was taking one of our ladies home after the Stitching Change sewing class, on the way she shared with me some of her frustrations over her continued health problems and her worries about her young son not being able to find a job. I noticed that she was emotionally and mentally tired. I felt her pain and wished that I could fix all this brokenness and the poverty. Her stories took me back to the goodbye words a friend of mine gave to me as I was getting ready to come to the USA 15 years ago. She said, “I’m so jealous and happy for you that you’re going to Julia Roberts’s land.” We both laughed at what she said and I accepted it with gratefulness!
Like many young women, I was also very fascinated by the American way of life and I was envisioning the US to be a country where most people live like Julia Roberts, meaning everyone can afford to drive any fancy car they want to drive, live in a fancy house, go places without having to worry about money, and afford to wear trendy clothes. With this high assumption of wanting to experience paradise, I came not knowing what awaited me. During my first year, most of the things I encountered surprised me in good and bad ways. I was really surprised that I couldn’t find any tall buildings like I saw in the Hollywood movies back home. The tall buildings could be seen only from a distance, a place they told me was called downtown. I was also very surprised by the huge gap between the wealthy neighborhoods and the inner city neighborhoods. It was shocking for me to see many homeless people walking on the street. “Where is the Julia Roberts’s land?” I wondered then. Why was there so much poverty in one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world? That was very bizarre to me, and it still is, so I set out on a quest, wanting to understand more about the poverty in this rich country. When I got my first job offer to work with inner-city youth and their families, I jumped at the opportunity.
I first came to learn about life in the inner city in America while I was in India. During my 8th grade year, I read a book called Run Baby Run: The Explosive True Story of a Savage Street Fighter Turned Crusader (December,1968) by Nicky Cruz. What stood out to me from the book was the living situation of poor immigrant youth like Nicky Cruz, who was a native of Puerto Rico surviving in New York City. Nicky Cruz was a gang leader, drug addict, alcoholic and hardened street criminal, but, during one of David Wilkerson’s crusades in New York City, he accepted Jesus Christ, left the gang, and even overcame his addictions. Nicky Cruz became a new, happy person. I thought it was just a fictional story, but I came to find out that poverty, violence, and drugs do exist in the inner-city of Kansas City, Kansas just like it exists in other places. However, that is not the whole story of people in the inner-city. I also learned that young and old, weak and strong, encouraged one another and tackled their life struggles together. Time and again, I saw people taking care of one another, grandparents, parents and children working together to make a living like all of us do. There is no doubt that most of the families I worked with faced the above-mentioned challenges, but they worked together to meet those challenges. I have seen young people who encountered violence, even witnessing their friends being killed in a shooting, but they continued to strive on, not willing to give up. For many of them, what the late Spanish poet Antonio Machada wrote is true: Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. In many of their life situations, there seems to be no way forward, but I have seen these ordinary young people make ways by simply believing and hoping in the goodness of life. The beautiful thing about the way they live their lives is they never think to face life alone, they seek out friends, parents, grandparents and teachers, and even call out to the universe or God to help them. Maybe that is the reason why they are surviving life’s challenges without losing their souls.
Working with this community, I have come to experience what my parents have always taught me and my siblings: Life in this world exists by interdependence. We are all interrelated, and good things happen when we decide to do things with others. I had been to places where I would rather not go if I am alone, but, in solidarity with them, I had come to a much deeper level of relating to others and to the world. I had learned to listen to their stories without trying to fix their problems. I had learned to be honest with my own limitations and weaknesses. I had learned to practice compassion and empathy even in the hardest and darkest moments. I also learned that the most important thing in life is not how much wealth you can offer to each other but a simple human connection that emerges out of compassion for one another and the rest of the lives on this world.
Many of the women that I am working with in Stitching Change are my former students’ moms. I got to know them through their children, and I’m very fortunate to be able to continue this relationship. Now I am experiencing a different relationship dynamic with them. With their children, my main job was to provide them a safe and caring place where they could come and learn life skills. With these women, it is more about listening to their joys and struggles of how to keep their families together emotionally, spiritually and financially. Many of them have problems to take care of but I’m happy that at least they have created a time to step out of their homes and come to Stitching Change classes to be with a caring community and share laughter as well as their pain with the rest of the group. I know in my heart that every time they leave the class, they’re happier and more hopeful for their lives! Will these short moments of happiness and hope fix their worries about jobs and family sustenance? I don’t know, but it at least lessens their burdens. Sometimes, our life challenges seem overwhelming, but those challenges also call us to do the best we can and to hold on to each other so that our souls will be alive even in the midst of difficulties. Because we know that it is only by doing life together we can create a new path without losing our soul.
My quest for wanting to understand why many people are suffering in this rich country may never have a simple answer, but, by being with this community, I’m getting a glimpse of it. It may be that to find meaning in life it isn’t important to get the correct answer to our life matters but simply to live the question. And, if we are lucky, along the way we might, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Or we may simply let good things happen by counting the small miracles of each day.