This week Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday.
Only one of those is a ‘real’ event based in history and tradition. The rest are created to serve our consumerism, or in the case of Giving Tuesday, to help off-set our consumerism.
All of these labelled days reminded me of a poem I’d written years ago.
Long before children, my husband and I saved for months to enjoy a customized tropical vacation in a foreign country. It included several days of small group adventures far outside of our security-protected lodgings. Once outside of the city, we bounced along back roads in the open air of a huge truck our ‘host’ retro-fitted with comfortable seats. From our perch we watched the changing landscape, drank local beer and sang along with the continuous loop of Jimmy Buffet songs as we wound our way through the countryside.
On the third day, I noticed something on our way out of town. Perched into the dry hillside, corrugated aluminum and wood assembled ramshackle huts. At one particular sharp turn where vehicles slowed, people gathered in shaded areas along the edge. One small girl stood nearly in the road holding a dirty paper cup. Even though she was small, she never moved out of harm’s way.
Every single time we passed, she was there.
Once I saw her, I couldn’t unsee her.
Before that trip, I’d never experienced what people label “third world” poverty beyond television or photographs. Our host wanted us to focus on the ocean view, yet each time we passed I noticed more and more. This wasn’t a few homeless people on the street. It was an entire community existing in desperate poverty. It went far up into the dusty hillside. Generations of people with no options, no support, and no opportunities lived for coins tossed from passing vehicles.
I was speechless and horrified.
For the first time, my eyes and heart witnessed something I had known existed but had no capacity to understand. How many other things had I been able to overlook because of my circumstances? My privilege? My color? My address?
We returned from the trip tanned, rested, and full of stories about our adventures. I shared the good stuff–afterall, it was an expensive trip!–but I couldn’t shake the girl holding the cup. It’s been over 20 years, and I still clearly see her in my mind’s eye: her knobby knees, her too short dress, her dirtied face. Eventually the irony and inequity assembled into the following poem. With so much happening in our world right now, it seemed like a good time to share it.
She stands in the midst of the busy road
all 30, maybe 40 pounds.
Wind from passing vehicles blowing her threadbare dress.
Hair and skin the color of dessert and dust.
Distant brown eyes
She stands in dry heat, diesel fumes, and danger
at the curve while
vehicles of visiting gringos slow for the turn.
One arm extends to collect
coins thrown toward
her dirty paper cup.
She stands every day as we pass,
hurrying to our next Exciting Adventure!
From my cushioned seat I see the same dress,
same cup, same eyes.
She stands. We pass.
And I wonder.
For months we saved money to
Escape to Paradise!
Where she sifts through sand and dirt
collecting cast-off coins
so she can eat
and live another day.