I was born in a travel trailer.
Well, I was born in a hospital. But I spent many of my early months–both pre- and post- natal–in a little travel trailer on the top of a mountain in the Flat Tops wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My parents were there because my father was a logger, and that’s where the trees were. My mom bathed me, and later my brother, in plastic dish tubs on the slab of tree-trunk that served as our front stoop. My best baby pictures feature a rosy-cheeked baby almost lost in a sea of wildflowers.
This isn’t a Peace Corps story.
This is: Yesterday, I discovered that the two children who had mysteriously appeared in my back yard with the beginning of the summer are in fact the daughters of the young couple who live there.
Against the back wall of the compound, there’s a little two-room, concrete shed. Our landlords use one of the rooms for storage. The other houses our neighbors. It took a while to figure out what “neighbors” meant. At first, I thought it was just the one girl, barely 4’6″, a student at the neighboring university. A few months later, a boy appeared, to much speculation. Surely our landlady wouldn’t approve of a live-in boyfriend?
No, they were married. A little weird to an American eye, but okay, sure, they’re both students, they probably really need a cheap place to live near the school. But how is it, after 14 months of living so close that I can hear their indoor conversations and midnight trips to the outhouse, I’m only just discovering these two little girls, ages perhaps six and four?
Somewhere, I failed at something.
It’s not like I somehow missed two little kids for a year, incidentally. The girls probably live with a family member–a grandma or an aunt–during the school year. But still, how do you not know your neighbors have children?
Here’s the thing. You know when you sign up for the Peace Corps that it’s going to make you confront the fundamental inequities inherent in the “developed/developing” dichotomy.
(Incidentally, how I hate the term “developing”. It implies some sort of upward climb towards the inevitable glory of freedom and prosperity, like all of these poor foreign people will soon be just as happy and free and healthy as We Americans. “Developing” makes it so easy to dismiss the morass of environmental, social, and infrastructural factors in the way of that climb. It smacks of “differently-abled” to me–terms that sugar-coat the struggles of a minority are, I think, almost universally used to salve the conscience of the majority. I don’t have a better term to suggest. It just bugs me, is all.)
Anyway, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That squirmy thing in your stomach when you think about Those Less Fortunate. The one mothers of a certain generation called on when they invoked the starving children in China. The one no one really wants to think about.
And of course we don’t want to think about it! You rely on that car. That internet connection keeps you in touch with friends and family. Your smartphone is a lifesaver.
Confronting the reality that your fortune well exceeds another’s induces this weirdly possessive guilt. You feel terrible, and you know it’s not fair, and you’d love to fix it. But you’re also gripped by the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t want to lose the things you have. You justify.
I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I’ve heard some variation on the following: “I know air-conditioning is [expensive/bad for the environment/etc.], but in [Florida/Arizona/Texas/etc.] you really need it.”
My friends, I’ve been in the Philippines for twenty months, living, like most of the population, without air-conditioning. I’m coming to you with a hard truth: You don’t “really need” it. It makes your life immensely more comfortable and, if you’re old or young or ill, much safer. There are lots of good reasons to run an air-conditioner. But perhaps you should take a moment to examine your definition of “need”.
So, back to my neighbors. I’ve always told myself that I’ve avoided engaging with them out of respect for their privacy. The personal space allotted to them consists of: a) half of a concrete shed, furnished with a bunk bed, two stools, and a rickety table; b) a roofed area outdoors with a counter and a small wood stove–their kitchen; c) a single faucet belonging to an apartment that isn’t even theirs, from which they can haul water to; d) a concrete outhouse with no electricity and no running water.
In their position, with so much of my life happening outdoors in someone’s back yard, I would want as much privacy as possible. So I didn’t pry.
But what if that’s just an excuse? Doesn’t my life–this big apartment with its refrigerator, flushing toilet, indoor kitchen, and mere two occupants (two! in all this space!)–seem rather extravagant by comparison? I love and crave those things (personal space, indoor plumbing, unspoiled food). Isn’t it rather uncomfortable that literally in my backyard these people have none of those things?
The kids pushed it over the edge for me. Suddenly, this isn’t a young couple–this is a young family. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but it’s there. So on my way home from a trip running errands, I picked up a handful of Filipino popsicles, called “ice candy”.
It wasn’t until after I delivered the ice candy to the little girls and their mother–how many years younger than me? I don’t even know–that I started thinking about my own mother. She spent a lot of my childhood raising two children in trailers. I mean, we always had a house, but there were lots of times when if we wanted to be together as a family, we had to go where the trees were.
For me, memories of those months are mostly of the sawdust-and-mildew smell of a logger’s trailer, and sleeping at the foot of my mom’s little bunk, and reading the same chapter book over and over. I couldn’t tell you what my mom was feeling. Was she bored? Lonely? Worried about our health? I got bronchial pneumonia during one of those winters, and in a small space with a propane stove carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant danger. But mostly, I just don’t know. I wasn’t old enough or observant enough to know what that experience meant to her.
I see my mother in young Filipina with her two children in her too-small house. I mean, they don’t have much in common. My mom married at 30 and had me fourteen months later. Without resorting to speculation, observation suggests that my neighbor was still a teenager when her older daughter was born. But aren’t they still the same? Young families, trying to make their way in the circumstances they find themselves in. Just quietly pressing on.
Here’s what I’ve learned in Peace Corps: We need a hook. As long as our compassion is colored primarily by guilt and discomfort, how are we supposed to get anywhere? We have to find that link, something that surpasses the internal conflict of wanting-to-care with wanting-to-have. That bridge from Other to Us.
Guilt is a worthless emotion. Worse than worthless, actually: it arrests movement. It encourages deflection, excuses, ignorance. My exhortation, as a Peace Corps volunteer: Forget the guilt. Find your hook.
What comes after that? Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned in the Peace Corps: Just take the first step. You’ll figure it out as you go.