Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Death of the Car

When we sold my mother’s car, she posed in front of it for a last picture. She looks so sad. She has her eyes closed, and the beginnings of tears which are not visible in the photograph but which I know were there, evidence of her anguish at losing this valuable part of her life. She herself described the loss of her wheels as a nail in her coffin, dooming her to a short future without the freedom to travel independently. In my heart I resonated with this loss, feeling my own dependence on my car and the freedom it gives me. It is true that we need the car as we need our limbs. Her life will be unbearably limited without it.
My mother’s generation had a special relationship with the car. They developed the car culture, the car world. Hers was the first generation to identify so strongly with the car. In the suburbs, the car became the sole transportation in her generation, the ubiquitous, irreplaceable mode of travel. Her car, her wheels, her busy life. So many images of the car are twined like a braid in my mother’s life.
My mother’s car was a mirror of her personality, from the huge station wagon we had when she drove her five children around, to the sporty Saab sports hatchback, chic when she purchased it in her seventies, but a pathetic ruin gathering dust by the day we sold it. On that day, she could not even start it as the battery had run out, and it had sat unused for six months. Yet we felt like we were cutting off one of her limbs to sell it. A swift decision occasioned by a surprise offer from a mechanic willing to take it off our hands and sell it for scrap metal. She felt like she was being sent to the junkyard along with the car.
When I was very small, the golden station wagon carted us everywhere. I sat in the “way back”, which along with its own seat, and no seatbelts, had inexplicably, its own power window control. Lucky kids could operate their own electric window, introducing puffs of air from the exhaust pipe, and possibly risking falling or jumping out while at high speeds. We, however, were not allowed to operate the window. My mother had it turned off by the mechanic, for safety’s sake. She promised me that when I turned six, she would turn on the electric window. But by then my brothers were four and one, and the promise did not come true.
So many stories revolve around the family car. The gold station wagon was the car that my brother Bruce actually did fall out of, when they headed around a corner, in the midst of a backseat tussle with his brother. Luckily he landed in the bushes, with no harm done. In those days, kids perched on the front of the wide bench seat, turning their own pretend steering wheel or toy that was hooked over the front bench seat.  How many times did I hear “Sit down, boys, don’t stand up on the seat!” while we were driving down the road.
This was the same car that I used to learn to drive; in effect it was my first car. I remember careening down the impossibly dangerous Jamaica Way into Boston. It was on those trips that I learned to take care of the front half of the car, and let the other cars look out for the back half, a habit that I overcame only when I moved out of Boston.
One day on a visit to the doctor, my mother left my brother Chris, then a preschooler, in the parking lot, and apparently was so busy with the rest of us that she left the keys in the car. Chris quickly discovered how to lock the doors from the inside, and was only persuaded to unlock them when the scary pediatrician came out to the parking lot and ordered him to with his meanest demeanor.
The gold station wagon was also the same car that killed our family’s dog. He followed us as we headed out the driveway and was clipped as we turned onto the street. I remember the police carting him towards the house, holding the dog’s front and back paws in his two hands, the head lolling back. For a long time, I held that last gruesome image of my dog in my heart, my first experience of personal tragedy.
Dangerous cars, fast cars, cars bringing an incredible freedom to a new generation of post-WWII Americans. Families going places fast, nuclear families taking care of their own.  Highways crisscrossing the landscape, replacing trains. Carbon levels increasing inexorably, but unexamined in those early days when metal and chrome were king. The car: a rusting hulk that must be carted away, a family member that must be ripped from the arms of its family, dying before we learn how to create a life without it. December is death and old habits that die hard. Maybe with the spring we’ll learn new ways to live that do not destroy our earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another trip to a country no one wants to visit: Prison

 Recently I conducted another workshop in Spanish at a Massachusetts medium security prison, co-facilitating with inmates Luis and Miguel and community member Betty (names changed). We all took on equal facilitation powers, which in itself is revolutionary in the prison setting. Most of the prison educational programs involve blackboards and desks facing front. In our program we sat in a circle. The facilitators took equal responsibility for sharing leadership.
The inmates who signed up for the program did not get any reduction in their sentences, unlike in most of the programs offered at the prison. As a result, they signed up because they were truly eager to learn the skills offered, how to resolve conflict more peacefully in one’s life. Luis and Miguel received their training in the program several years ago and have been offering the program as volunteer facilitators since then to other inmates, to help them in turn learn new skills.
What is the program? It is called the Alternatives to Violence Project. It is a curriculum that was designed by Quakers and prisoners at Green Haven Prison in New York in the 1970s to respond to the Attica prison riots and try to have a positive impact on life among the incarcerated. The program has since expanded to a number of prison and community settings and has found uses internationally, through a related program especially designed to help reconcile perpetrators and victims after a period of extreme violence, including in Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya. It is useful for healing after conflict, and for understanding the roots of conflict. It is a program that asks the same of all of us: to practice non-violent methods of dealing with conflict in our lives.
It might be expected that someone who has never been personally involved in the criminal justice system would find it unsettling, to say the least, to sit down and share one-on-one with an offender experiences of trying to resolve conflicts non-violently. At first, I felt some fear, anger, and resistance to sharing with people many of whom have admitted to have done terrible things. I also felt concerned that my place of privilege in life has spared me from having to deal with the terrible decisions that most of the inmates have experienced. How can I, who has never had to stand up for my rights physically, preach non-violence? Non-violence is indeed a tough sell in prison. Yet what I found is that there are islands of non-violence even in a place like this medium security prison. Those who have taken the Alternatives to Violence Project, or AVP, constitute one such island. And the results are life-changing for many of the inmates who participate.
After having facilitated the program in English in partnership with inmates, I found that there was an unfilled need to offer it in Spanish. Many Latino inmates do not feel comfortable speaking out in English in such a workshop, and they asked us to help them offer the program in their own language. After we had offered the basic workshop in Spanish several times, we were asked to offer the advanced one. So I found myself in a windowless room in prison with Luis, Miguel, Bonnie and 13 other Latino inmates.
I learned some remarkable stories from the inmates with whom I worked. Javier has a roommate who is Native American and who has a history of homelessness. Javier had joined the Christian church in prison and was writing inspirational songs for church. His roommate asked whether he could also write some songs, and Javier stayed up most of the night helping him compose a song. The pastor of the church did not encourage the project, and as the time approached, he asked frequently whether the Native American inmate would be able to carry the project forward. Javier bought his roommate jeans, a new shirt, and clean sneakers. He told the pastor that his roommate would do fine, that he was well prepared. He said to him, “Father, what would Jesus do here? I’m counting your questions. I have told you three times now that he will be fine. You don’t need to worry.” On the day when the song was offered, there was a full three minutes of applause. The prison congregation was moved by the beauty and inspiration of the song composed by Javier and his Native American roommate.
Luis killed someone at 18 in a drug deal, and was given a long sentence. When he was released on parole, he very much wanted to visit his victim’s family. He did so, and was invited to a tearful reconciliation with the victim’s brother. He told the story during our workshop, and the inmates were visibly moved. He was able to do something that they all clearly yearn to do: to apologize and be forgiven. In his case, the victim was someone in his home community, so as a result it was more likely than in other situations for him to meet the family of his victim. Luis is held in high esteem in his prison community, in large part because he has been lucky enough to have had this experience.
It is striking that the yearning for reconciliation is a large part of most, perhaps all, inmates’ lives. They want to heal relationships with family members and other loved ones. They want an opportunity to apologize and be forgiven. This became most apparent when we conducted an exercise called Magic Carpet. I had steered clear of this exercise previously, concerned that it would be too challenging for the inmates. It turned out to be the most important one we did. In Magic Carpet, participants write down the words that they would most like to hear from important people in their lives. This could be their loved ones or – and they adapted the exercise to include this – from their victim’s family. Those who have trouble writing describe verbally to another inmate the message they would like to hear. They form partner groups, and each pair has an opportunity to sit on the Magic Carpet (a block of newsprint in the center of the circle) and hear from their partner the words they have written. Their partner kneels behind them with a hand on their shoulder while they conduct a dialogue in the voice of the chosen individual.
What I heard blew me away. Participants were truly able to suspend their disbelief and “hear” the words they so wanted to hear as coming from their deceased parent, their estranged teenager, or their son. Spontaneously, a dialogue began, in which the inmate conversed openly and with great emotion with the person they had chosen, and their partner entered into the simulation, inventing the words that the person might have said had he or she been present. It was a beautiful opportunity to communicate one’s deepest emotions with an important person, and much love was shared. “Te quiero, papĂ­.” “I love you, daddy.”It was truly amazing to observe this level of emotional openness inside prison! I myself did not participate in the sharing part of this exercise due to lack of time.  Yet I considered how meaningful an exercise it would be for all of us to experience. Everyone has made mistakes in their lives for which they yearn to apologize and be forgiven. Even if we do not have the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven by our loved ones, we can forgive ourselves, and that is a good part of the journey.
My intention here is simply to shine some light on a dark corner of our world. Most of us do not have any idea what happens behind those high walls that surround the prison. Given what we often hear, we assume that it is a brutal place where people cannot ever relax or trust each other, where everyone is completely alone and at risk of being victimized by others. Yet I have experienced a sense of community being built, people who are trying their best to build a new life and move away from a violent past. I have observed people who help hold each other to a high moral standard and support each other towards doing good. The prison system is a vast, wasteful empire which is not built to encourage rehabilitation. Some recent reports in the Boston Globe and on National Public Radio indicate that perhaps we are ready to move past vengeance and towards rehabilitating lives, even in prisons. I certainly hope so.

Friday, September 28, 2012

More time in a foreign country: the criminal justice system

Last week I offered another workshop at a medium-security prison in Massachusetts. Entering the prison feels like entering a foreign country. Different rules are observed than for the outside world, and the visitor must comply with these to enter. Arrival at the prison is according to a strict schedule, but entering is capricious. If you are late because of traffic, you may not get in at all. Yet delays in being allowed in are frequent, due to employee schedules and frequent disturbances.
When you enter the prison you leave everything personal behind, and you are subject to a body search. Clothing requirements are very strict. The rules point in the following divergent directions: nothing that looks like a prisoner, nothing at all revealing. No metal of any kind, even an underwire bra. My pockets are emptied, my cell phone and wallet are locked up. I am allowed one pen and a few pieces of paper which I need to facilitate the program. I feel oddly glad for my identification card which gives me only a number and marks me as an outsider, free to leave.
Upon entering, I feel immediately the oppressiveness of the prison, with its multiple doors and TV screens, its looming walls and grey 20-foot fences.  How would it be to live here for years on end? The prisoners wear a uniform of monochrome sweats, t-shirts and sneakers. It is human nature to try to define oneself as an individual, yet at first glance there is a sad sameness to them all.
I do not intend to exonerate people who are doing time in prison. Awful crimes were committed and restitution must be done. But one wonders, after observing the system for only a short while, whether this is the best way. I am working with a number of felons who feel genuine remorse for their actions. One fellow killed someone when he was 18, an acquaintance, in a drug deal. After a number of years, he was finally released. He had been trained in the program in which I am working, Alternatives to Violence Program or AVP. As a result of the program, he had done a great deal of personal work and he wanted to apologize to his victim’s family. He visited the grave, where he had the opportunity to meet the victim’s brother. The brother refused his proffered handshake and instead reached out his arms, giving him a big hug and sharing with him that he had forgiven him.  This moment stands out as one of the blessed moments in his life. He talks about it as a spiritual moment. In his words, “a huge burden came off me”. He has told his story countless times to fellow prisoners. It is hard to overstate the impact of this story on his fellow prisoners. They listen, rapt in their attention. They ask questions. Some of them are moved to tears. I can tell that they all yearn for forgiveness. It is most likely their deepest dream, and one that few are likely to accomplish.
This story stands out because it is so rare. There are strong rules against a perpetrator having any contact with a victim’s family, unless the victim requests it. In our system, perpetrators and victims cannot come together to apologize and forgive. A central part of restitution is not allowed to take place.
I think of my cousin who was murdered, and the probationary hearings that have taken place to assess the prisoner's status and determine whether he should be released. My family attends these hearings, and what we are yearning for is a sence of repentance. It has not yet come. I look for his name among the participants of AVP. Maybe one day he will take a step towards goodness.
We need to give more thought to solutions that have been used after horrific crimes were committed, to help to knit society back together. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid regime, the gacaca courts in Rwanda, public apologies including that in Australia after the horrific treatment of aboriginal peoples there - all these are examples of restorative justice. We could and should incorporate these solutions into our broken justice system.
After a day or two in the workshop, the prisoners invariably start to talk about the workshop participants as a community within the prison. They talk of greeting each other in the halls or on the grounds. "Hey Jackpot Jay! Wepa La Machina!" They talk of feeling safe in the workshop and trusting each other. I envision these little seeds of trust infusing the prison with more light and grace. They talk of strategies for avoiding violence: when someone cuts in front of them in line, when a roommate kicks the door each time he enters. These minutiae seem like minor irritants to us on the outside, something that we would be able to rise above. And yet how many of us have heard our friends quietly exclaim: "I hate the way my partner chews!" We all can learn strategies for walking more peacefully in our world. When I share strategies with a small group of two or three prisoners, I can see that we are more alike than different in how we are affected, and  can learn to cope with, the stresses in our lives.
Some of the comments that pierced my heart in the workshop:

 “One day I’d like to see the sunset again.” (This from a man who carries a photo of a sunset on the beach among his most precious possessions.)
“In a second, my life completely changed. I’d give anything to change it back.”
“If I only knew before what I know now, I wouldn’t be here”.
A cynic would say that these comments are made in the presence of outsiders, to impress them and change their attitudes about prisoners in the system. This may be. But they know that we have no power to affect their situation. They receive no reduced sentence for participating in the program. They are clamoring to be part of it nevertheless. We trained 18 prisoners this time, and there is a list of 26 who are eager to take the next installment, the advanced training. Then they would go on to become trainers and teach others to find alternatives to violence in their lives. Their interest cannot help but be genuine. And it is a moving experience to be part of this, to see people whose lives have been broken reach for grace.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Martha's first trip to Haiti, May 2012

They say that if you stay a week, you have lots to report. If you stay a month, less. And if you stay a year, you realize you cannot possibly summarize it all, so you say nothing. I stayed a week in Haiti. Some of my comments follow…
May 16
The journey continues, el camino sigue adelante. I find myself sitting in a quiet yard at night in Blanchard, one of the countless densely inhabited communities of Port au Prince, Haiti. There is no electricity tonight but the sky is providing plenty of it in the form of a heat lightning show. Every few seconds the fluffy clouds are lit up by lightning, after which the clouds recede into the dark night sky. It looks like a movie is about to begin. In the distance people are singing, part of a religious church service. Nearby, the other volunteers are laughing and chatting in the dark, planning their work for tomorrow.
I’m here to assist Partners in Development (PID), an NGO that provides child sponsorship, a medical clinic, and the program I’ll be helping with, a microfinance program that provides small loans to individuals to help them build a business and provide themselves a living. The programs are run out of a simple concrete compound in the residential neighborhood.  I arrived today, in time for dinner. So far, I have much to be thankful for. First, a clean bed with a mosquito net.  Second, running water in the building. Though it is the rainy season, the ground is dry with no mud. Gravel and grass coverage in the quiet courtyard promise escape from the mud, even if the rain comes as it probably will soon.
The team is a great mix of ages and abilities. A solar energy group who will put panels on the roof this week, a counseling group providing post-trauma counseling, a physical therapist and our microfinance group.
Over the wall comes the mellifluous sound of Haitian Creole being spoken. Besides the microfinance work, my other hope is to learn more of this beautiful language. It is like French with a twist, like a twist of tropical lime. Many French words just receive a little alteration to become Creole. The written form can be worked out like a puzzle by anyone with a good knowledge of French. Understanding the spoken language is a different story, however.  It is a very streamlined language, with short syllables each of which has a function. Past marker, subject pronoun, indirect pronoun, each quick sound has a role to play. I speak it haltingly as a result.
May 17
Yesterday we had a full day learning about the microfinance program here, meeting with the staff and brainstorming ideas. As expected, the progress was very slow and disjointed. But the staff were beyond kind in helping us with all our requests. We are trying to get a handle on what THEY think is wrong with the program and what could be changed, not just our own ideas. It’s very easy to jump to our own diagnosis and suggestions. Another challenge is that the Haitian staff are not experienced with summarizing their work, so that it appears that less is done than is actually the case. For example, Jean Ones summarized the loan processing for us but did not tell us right away that he gives all the clients receipts and  inputs all the borrower activity into Quickbooks the same or the next day. He keeps excellent records!
A family that benefited from a PID business loan and home
A business owner
At the end of the day we visited some of the 54 homes that have been built by PID and some of the microfinance clients. PID has made a tremendous impact on the neighborhood. Though people are incredibly poor, there are bright lights where people were assisted by PID: vendors with a full display of products, houses that provide clean and adequate shelter for families.
Pictures I did not take:  A woman organizing a wheelbarrow full of emerald green bananas and mangoes to sell. She was wearing a bright orange dress and her brown skin was shining bright in the late afternoon light against the fruit. Another picture: three little girls who had set up their front stairway as a pretend store, with miscellaneous old bottles standing in as items for sale. They sat quietly waiting for customers, staring straight ahead, as do their elders.
Some of the PID houses
Last night, I worked late into the evening on the reporting system for the small loan program.
May 19
Today was very gratifying. Early in the morning, we met with the entire microfinance team for the first time. We were able to tell them about the PPI program and explain how to use it. (PPI, Progress out of Poverty Index, is a very abbreviated questionnaire, adapted to specific countries by Grameen Foundation, that gives a quick and accurate estimate of the level of poverty of a household. Such an objective measurement is useful for measuring program impact and for determining which programs would be best for which households.) The staff connected right away with the possibilities of the PPI to compare groups and to measure improvement in a group over time. Then we went to visit some families who have received loans and we conducted a pilot of the PPI program with them. The team asked them the questions on the survey. It was great to interview some of the households who have received loans and to learn about the impact of the microfinance loans on their lives. When we came back to the office we tallied the results. They confirmed what we would expect from the visits – the households that seemed better off had higher scores on the survey. The staff got excited to see the results and were talking about how they could use the survey to improve the program.
In the afternoon we took a break. We hired a “tap tap” (local bus with benches) and drove to the center of Port au Prince where we saw the museum and visited a handicraft market. The museum was very touching with an excellent survey of Haitian political history. So sad to be reminded of the oppression that has followed Haitians during their entire history. One of the most moving displays was the list of heroes of the revolution. Many of the names were first names only, because they were people who were escaped slaves. Others were indigenous names, some of the few Taino people who had survived the European invasion. Then to see the stream of presidents from modern times, from the Duvaliers to Preval, to the current President, Martelly, and many others who lasted only a few months.  Martelly, a former popular singer, is generally well liked and is called “Tet Cale” or shaved head. Political hopes appear higher than they have been for some time. And yet, in the elegant reflecting pool outside the museum, a man was doing his laundry. Right behind the museum with its flags flapping in the warm breeze was a huge tent encampment, housing people who have not yet found homes, more than 2 years after the earthquake. Many of the tent camps have been dismantled home by home, as people find more appropriate dwellings.  

When we came back, two girls who live nearby went on a walk with me – we went to “flaner” or stroll around the neighborhood. They introduced me to lots of people and it was really fun. We laughed and talked a lot. They were so sweet and welcoming to me and helped me though my Creole is not very good.
May 21
Yesterday we went to church and then to the beach. The beach was as expected: not particularly refreshing or calming, but an interesting cultural experience. On the ride, I got to talk with Marcelline, one of the PID staff who would like to go to medical school. She is wonderful.
Later, I visited with the Oden family on the corner. They have five kids. They lost their house in the earthquake and had to live in the yard several months before they could rebuild. Mme. Oden wore a crisp sport shirt on the weekend, and her husband had clean pressed jeans. Their children were so polite and welcoming. They showed me their photo album and the children made their beautiful rooster dance for me.
May 23
I’m in the airport awaiting the plane home. It was a busy final two days. Each night I stayed up late putting together directions for the staff on some of the new systems, and writing a final report on what we visitors from the US and the Haitian staff came up with this week. As we wrote, ideas changed. We came up with a new program, micro-franchising, to help families who have no assets to begin a business. The staff will offer them a packet of products to sell and they will receive a commission. I look forward to returning later to see the progress .
As we fly out of Haiti and I see the raw, denuded hills with tiny roads snaking up them and the  little villages with their tiny tin roofed houses, I’m thinking about what I’ve learned since I last saw this view, a short week ago. First comes the notion that I have some small amount of first-hand experience of a place that I had thought of so often but was a complete unknown to me. Once you have been someplace – even though it may have been to visit only a few small urban neighborhoods – it is no longer a complete unknown. The map of Haiti makes some sense to me now.
The shocking pictures of Haiti after the earthquake – we saw nothing that looked like that at all, thankfully. There were some few buildings, including the symbolic Presidential Palace across its elegant front lawn, that have not been touched since the earthquake. We passed numerous large buildings that are in complete disrepair, and many that are closed. But much of the rubble from the earthquake has been carted away and land is being, if not rebuilt, at least re-used. Some building ruins serve as informal shelters to people who have set up tarps under them to sell merchandise. Private enterprise seemed to be very strong everywhere we went. The street markets are organized into departments: mattresses, then bed frames, then wooden furniture, then electronics. I tried to support the economy by buying some artwork to resell in the US to benefit PID.
Most overwhelming was the sheer scale of the city, and to my eyes, the lack of any defining features to make the scale understandable. I am not alone in this. I am traveling back to the US with a Haitian man who grew up in Port-au-Prince but says he no longer can find his way in the city at all. The population has grown from 100,000 to almost 5 million, about half the national population of 10 million. It is incredibly dense and for the most part, extremely poor. The city has grown very quickly, each new disaster bringing hungry people to the city to try to make a living or find help. There is no central organization, few major roads, and no government systems that I could see. NGO projects stand out: hospitals, clinics, solar lighting fixtures, and the like. The roads are mostly dirt, limiting speeds to 5 MPH.
What stays with me most strongly are the people I met. People with such fortitude to bear incredible hardship, yet with a sense of humor and compassion for others that is incredible. When we discussed program ideas, the staff frequently brought up the importance of the organization’s mission, helping the poorest of the poor. With frequent power outages and the incredible heat, it is hard to concentrate on one’s work. But they carry on and they have achieved so much. First thing every morning, there is a large crowd of people standing under the tree in the courtyard waiting to be seen in the free clinic. The dispensary is full, well organized, and the staff operate efficiently to see everyone. This morning we traveled around the neighborhood, visiting the families who have received a recent shipment of water filters. We visited them to see how they are faring with the filters and whether they are being used properly. Monsieur Genoit, an elegant older gentleman who is at the heart of the PID organization, led us to each house that had received a filter. Even without any street names, he knew exactly where to go. We were able to advise people on how to keep the tubing clean. Most were using the mechanism perfectly and were appreciating having clean water to drink.
What could I do that might be useful in Haiti? I am so glad to have been able to take this short trip, to experience Haiti and to be able to consider what I could do that might be of some value. One of my fellow visitors, a Christian student from Messiah College, remarked that it is so important to quit looking at the valley where we are but instead to look up at the hill that is our goal. Good advice, indeed.

Laura and Mom in the Badlands and with the Lakota people

We stumbled out of the van, dazed. The sun blinded us. It filled the sky so we had to look down at the gravel at our feet. The prairie stretched out all around us, with only a few hills interrupting the flatness of the landscape. Every now and then, the grass would rustle in the wind, but for the most part, it stayed still and silent in the heat. One by one, we walked up the dusty gravel path towards the top of the hill, towards an arched entrance flanked by concrete columns and a large blue sign explaining the history of the “Massacre of Wounded Knee.” The chain link fence that surrounded the cemetery at the top of the hill was ornamented with brightly colored cloths. A small stone monument stood beyond the entrance, portraying the names of the men, women, and children massacred by the United States Government one hundred years ago in that very spot. I had never learned about this incident in my history classes, yet here it was, proof that these deaths were not completely forgotten.
            We wandered around the cemetery in silence for a few more minutes, looking at the broken down grave stones, decorated with soda bottles and pictures, flowers and flags. As I was exploring these unkempt, weedy grave stones, I began to realize for the first time my complicity in this massacre, and all the other ones my government had made against the Native Americans in the years before and since. It was on this day that I started to more fully comprehend not only my country’s foundation in centuries of exploitation and oppression of a people, but my own reliance in this system as well.  For, as my existence had been shaped by my country, I was undeniably guilty of benefiting from its actions. A few days before, I had boarded a plane to Denver with my mom, excited for the upcoming two weeks of community service on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, imagining something similar to the community service work I had done with the recycling team at my school. But just two days into the trip, I began to understand the complexity of the situation I had entered. I was suddenly a little afraid of what the people I was supposed to be helping would see in my presence. Would they look at me and see just another rich, white person, invading their land and stamping out their culture? At twelve years old, I was still very much a child, obliviously stepping into a complicated adult world.
            The group we were traveling with consisted of three adults: my mom, a Quaker man coordinating the group, and a younger Native American woman. My mom was my mom, a sometimes embarrassing, but very confident and friendly woman with light brown, curly hair. Our coordinator was a heavy, serious man, who, being probably in his late sixties seemed to have diminishing patience for the teenagers in our group. The young woman had short black hair and an intimidating, stormy temper. There were also four teenagers in our group, including myself, a thirteen year-old girl and two sixteen and seventeen year-old boys. We had all met up in Denver, Colorado and traveled by van up to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, constituting a boring drive filled with long, rolling hills, cows, and lots of corn.
This drive finished in the Wakpamni district of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We drove off the main road to a dirt one and soon after, pulled up to a long square concrete building, with a corrugated tin roof. The building was isolated in a field, but a little further down our dirt road, we could see a gate that opened into a community of mobile homes. We lugged our suitcases out of the trunk of the car and brought them in through a small kitchen on the side of the building to the room where we would be sleeping. It was completely empty, except for one wooden folding table and a few plastic chairs.  It would have easily fit twenty or thirty people, so the seven of us spread our sleeping bags around the room. The cracked concrete floor was painted red, giving the already dim room a darker, more ominous feel. I learned later that when the building wasn’t being used to house community service groups, the town used it as the local morgue. These were the kinds of things that floated by me on the trip, something that I’m glad of, because I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep otherwise.
Many of the people I met on the trip left a lasting impression on me. There was Sky, a fifteen year-old who had wandered over to our building on our first morning on the reservation. He brought his two dogs, a big hit with the teenage girls in our group, and asked if he could come along on some of our trips to see the reservation. We explored the reservation’s history museum and its community college with him, and one very hot day, he took us to go wading in “the white river”, a shallow river whose water actually ran white because of the clay in the riverbed. Sky was constantly telling us jokes and getting us to laugh, helping us to look at the positive side of every situation.
We also met Sheryl, a friend of our coordinator, and a woman who was said to make the best fried dough on the reservation. She invited us over to her house for dinner one night, and, after frying wheel after wheel of delicious, soft, dough, she let us try what is to this day the best fried dough I have ever had in my life. It wasn’t only the amazing dinner she made for us that had a lasting impression on me, but also the warm smile with which she welcomed us into her home. I realized that I had little reason to be afraid of what the people we met on the reservation would think of me, because no matter how violent our two cultures’ histories with one another were, in the end, we were all just people trying to make the best of our lives. In this way, the similarities between our two cultures overwhelmed the differences. I stopped thinking about our two cultures as warring teams, as “us and them,” and instead, I started to see one team, one universal “us.
            Our service to the community ended up being the completion of a few manual labor jobs that the tribal leadership of the town needed taken care of around the area. One chilly morning, we woke up to find our coordinator enthusiastically loading our van with heavy-duty gardening tools. We were repairing a cemetery. The tools had been hard to find, especially the lawn mower, one of the many resources no one seemed to have on the reservation. But once a working mower was found, we were out on the cemetery, with the summer sun beating down on us as we donned thick gardening gloves and tried to yank stubborn weeds from the ground and from the cracks of gravestones. The smallest gravestones tended to be the saddest, memorializing the deaths of infants, such as “Freddy Running Horse,” who died at age two. The high numbers of these kinds of gravestones made me realize the poverty of the area, as our government couldn’t even seem to provide enough health care to lower the reservation’s rate of infant mortality, while back home, I had a hospital down the street from my house. These two contrasting worlds opened my eyes to the sheltered qualities of my own life, and I was able to see that poverty still exists in the United States on a very large scale.
Another day, we were asked to help clean up the ritual grounds for an upcoming Native American spiritual gathering, a job that consisted of clearing shrubs and building outhouses and sweat lodges. The ritual grounds we were working on were totally isolated from the world, nestled in between soft, grassy hills on one side, and the unforgiving landscape of the Badlands on the other. Our first day volunteering, we took a break from our work and picked our way down to the Badlands.
The sharp, dirt hills of the Badlands stretched up and fell down like drip-sand-castles. When I saw them, I imagined some giant hand scooping up a fistful of wet dirt and letting it drip slowly to the ground, creating spire after spire of steep, twisting mountains. Sunlight rained down on the peaks, and shadows welled up like puddles in the valleys. We stood on the edge of it all, where the dry, crunchy grass slipped to dry crunchy dirt, hard and red under our feet. Our hosts had told us to be careful: people had gotten lost in the maze of canyons, had gone out exploring and never come back. So we stared out into the jagged mountains, striped with millions of years of dirt and we didn’t say anything for a few minutes, amazed by the foreign beauty of the scene, so different and new.
This image stayed with us as we continued working on the grounds for the rest of the day. As we were about to leave, our hosts asked us if we wanted to join a sweat lodge they were doing in preparation for the spiritual gathering.
We had to wait until after sunset had painted the edge of the sky pink and filled the falling sun with a fiery red, until all of the colors melted into black, speckled with so many stars.  In the middle of a field sat the two sweat lodges we were to use, one for the men and one for the women. They had frames made of sticks and they were draped in blankets to create a dome that was about six feet tall and six feet in diameter. Outside of the two lodges, a campfire had been built, around which we told stories and jokes while we waited for dusk to fall. When it had become completely dark, we entered the sweat lodges. It felt like we were entering a dark, warm cave. There was a pit in the center of the dome for the fire, and a hole at the top of the dome to let the smoke out.
My mom and I sat down cross legged around the pit, along with the other women in our group and our hosts. The coals were heated, and a bucket of water was handed in through the blanket flap that was the entrance to the sweat lodge, which was then closed. An old woman leaned forward and threw water on the coals, creating a sizzling sound that died out. She repeated this action until the air around us felt heavy and hot, and more humid than anything I’d ever experienced. The sound of the water on the stones was calming, like breathing. The woman then started praying in the local tribal language of Lakota, praying, she said, for our ancestors. “Mitakuye oyasin,” she said, “we are all related.” She and the other women started to sing Lakota songs, singing in their ancestors on the seven winds from the seven directions of the world. I listened, feeling myself become completely drenched with sweat, feeling the world concentrate into our safe and dark dome. I tried to pray, the best I could, for our shared ancestors, for each name carved on to the memorial of wounded-knee, for each small grave in the cemetery we had cleaned. Finally, once they decided we’d had enough of the heat, they let us climb out of the lodge. The cold night air met my skin, refreshed me. I felt lighter and cleaner than when I had entered.
On the trip to the Reservation, I learned how easy it was to get wrapped up in anger and guilt about past and current injustices. I saw many people on the Reservation who had lost hope, lost even their own self-motivation, after having been denied respect for centuries by an invading force that mercilessly  took their land and ignored the requests of their people. I learned how easily I could let my own guilt about my government and culture’s actions overwhelm and intimidate me from trying to change the situation in which I play an integral role. But this trip taught me the value of working through these complicated feelings of anger and guilt and starting to mend the relationship between two seemingly contradictory cultures. The people I remember meeting on the trip were not the ones who were disheartened and bitter about their situation, even if they were rightly so, but the people who persisted against all odds to stand up for their rights and continue to have pride in their traditions. They did so with such a positive attitude, that despite all of the centuries of differences between my culture and theirs, I felt immediately welcomed into the community. Lakota beliefs explore the concept of a simultaneous past, present, and future, a continuous moment of creation, in which all beings are interconnected. This concept helped me to replace the words “us and them” with a universal “us”, and realize that while we cannot change the actions of the past, we can mend and celebrate our relationships in the present.