Friday, October 13, 2006


I’ve been visiting hospitals a lot recently. I went to see a church member (I’ll call him Joe) who’d had his gall bladder removed. He shared a large room with four other men, so visiting for family and friends was restricted to an hour at noon. While we visited, Joe’s co-worker stopped by to see him. Excited, he told us what he was learning about God, that he read the Bible together with Joe and a few others at work. Then he said to all of us, referring to Joe’s spirituality, “He’s running; I’m just taking baby steps.” I didn’t say anything because I was thinking, “Yesterday, Joe told his sister to lie—to claim she was the wife of one of his roommates so she could pop into his room for a few minutes before the operation.” Instead of “running up front,” I saw Joe as a weak, stumbling, blundering Christian; yet, his friend looked up to him and wanted to be like him.
The night before I’d stayed in the hospital lobby with Joe’s wife, waiting for him to leave the recovery room so she could see him for a few minutes before she went home for the night. While we waited she told me about Joe’s sister’s hard life: Her husband left her, her oldest daughter fought with her grandmother, and as a result, they lost their rent-free house (from the grandmother). She presently spends two-thirds of her salary on rent, leaving about $47 for food, electricity and water, and whatever else is needed (bus money, for instance, or clothes). She works for her brother-in-law who only pays the bare minimum and takes advantage of her situation to get the most work out of her that he can, and she is illiterate, has no legal documents or training to get a better job. Yet, when I met her, she was happy, upbeat, had invited Joe’s wife to leave the hospital for awhile and have coffee with her at her house, and afterwards, she and all her kids joyfully walked a mile and a half to take Joe’s wife back to the hospital to meet me at 11 p.m., walking through a bad part of town known for its drugs and thievery.
And while we talked, I could see that Joe’s wife saw herself as so much richer and better off than her sister-in-law. She said Joe sometimes bought food for his sister, then added, “but he can’t afford to give a lot.” I, on the other hand, saw Joe and his family as poor and destitute. Sometimes, they haven’t had much food to put on their table, either. They have no car, and live with their six children in a cramped, two-bedroom house. Joe has only a second-grade education.
It was after one in the morning when we finally left the hospital--Joe’s wife feeling rich and blessed, me like a millionaire.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shocking Spaces

Her gray head wagged slowly from left to right like an old Grandfather’s clock, sending an uncomfortable message directly to the pit of my stomach. Was that wag meant for me? “But I’m not even close to her,” my mind argued, “so why should she be upset?” I was pulling into a parking spot at Cub Foods when I noticed her putting groceries into the trunk of her car. She was parked directly in front of my space, and not wanting to scare her by pulling up directly behind her, I stopped—at what I considered a safe distance—and waited patiently for her to finish.
I had just flown in from Brazil only three days before and was spending the afternoon visiting my son and family. This quick dash to the grocery store had been prompted by a sudden urge to eat chocolate chip cookies—a desire stronger than my reticence at maneuvering my son’s old clunker through unfamiliar city traffic.
The gray-haired stranger took her time putting away her groceries, never once turning around to look at me, while my van rattled like a McCormick threshing machine. “If she’d only turn around and look,” I thought, “she’d see I’m not as close as it sounds.” Frustrated, I eased into my space as she walked around the front of her car to open the door on the driver’s side. I opened my car door and stepped out and it was then we saw each other ‘face-to-face.’ But before getting into her car she gave me another unsmiling wag. Shaken, I argued with myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong and determined it wasn’t going to bother me, but while I walked the aisles searching for brown sugar and chocolate chips I couldn’t get the wagging out of my mind. And all the way back to my son’s place, the scene kept replaying itself like a broken record. “What did I do wrong?” I repeatedly asked myself.
The answer came a few days later while shopping with my daughter Michelle. We had just exited the Brazilian Connection Store and I opened the passenger’s door on the right to get into the car. It was then I noticed an idling pick-up waiting to pull into the space adjacent to ours. But he didn’t stick his nose into the spot, as I’d done; rather, he stayed completely out of the parking space until I shut my door. “That’s the answer!” my mind shouted.
I remember when my husband and I first moved to Brazil wanting to back away a few inches when people would approach us to talk. They stood uncomfortably close, but thirty-two years later the close proximity feels normal. And, on our visits back to the USA we have been baffled by all the “I’m sorrys” we hear as we push shopping carts up and down store aisles not feeling we’d been offended in any way. But now I knew I’d had an epiphany. What had happened on the parking lot was an invasion of that gray-haired lady’s personal space—that invisible number of cubic feet (or inches) of space that surrounds each person like a bubble—and my proximity had punctured her bubble leaving her feeling vulnerable and violated.
But there’s an ironic twist to the space question. Like I said, when conversing, Brazilians stand closer to each other than Americans do, yet in most parts of Brazil, when visitors announce their arrival at someone’s house, they will not even knock on the front door. The visitor will stand back three or more feet and clap his or her hands, or in most cases, stand outside the fenced-in yard. Imagine then, how strange it feels, when a Brazilian is transported to the USA, and upon answering a knock on the door, finds someone standing close enough to kiss! Yes, in America one can stand close to the door and no one objects, but can not get too close in grocery stores (or in parking lots?). And why can Brazilians stand close to each other when conversing or shopping, but not dare stand close to your front door? Someone has said that culture is neither wrong nor right; it’s just different—and not necessarily logical.
The dictionary defines culture shock as “the alienation, confusion, surprise, etc. that may be experienced by someone encountering unfamiliar surroundings…”
If anyone should ask you to explain that, just tell them what happened on the Cub Foods parking lot that sunny afternoon in May.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


"Your license is expired, Ma'am." The tall, slim security person exuded serenity even as her almond-shaped eyes appraised me. I stared at her in disbelief, wanting desperately to prove her wrong.“
"It expired in 2005," she added, and promptly handed back my Minnesota driver's license. The cool, navy blue suit she wore matched her demeanor; no pity or emotion showing through her chiseled features. This was just a job. I peered at my driver's license. It was true. It had expired on the last day of October in 2005. My mind was reeling, searching for reasons.
"Do you have another ID?" she queried. "Yes," I said triumphantly, "I have a passport," and immediately dug trembling hands into my purse. I quickly zipped open one compartment after another--in vain. The man in line behind me pushed forward, showing his ID. Others followed and still I looked.
"Are you driving?" Her question caught me off guard. "No," I answered, surprised at how quickly that two-letter word slipped off my tongue.
"Umm..." a small voice inside me protested, "that sounded a bit deceptive, don't you think?"
"I didn't drive to the airport." I said then, feeling a little more righteous.
"Oh, where is my passport...GOD, pleease..." My hands whipped through the contents of my purse like an ATM machine dispensing dollar bills.
"Psst! You still haven't told the whole truth," the small voice insisted.
"I have been driving these days..." I began, looked at my interrogator and decided it was too complicated to explain: "You see, I live in Brazil...came to the States only a few days ago...grandkids..." She probably thinks I am really spaced-out--imagine! My driver's license expired in 2005 and I didn't KNOW??? There's no way she'll believe me."
"Ma'am, if you don't have an ID I will have to call security and they will search you. Are you okay with that?" Her voice sounded pleasant enough, but her word--search me--left a Gestapo-ish, KGB-ish echo lingering in the air-conditioned airport air.
"Let me look one more time," I pleaded. My panic level was rising as I now knelt down on one knee to get a better grip on my purse, on myself. "God???" my mind screamed.
And then the passport was there--in my left hand--like it had come out of hiding. And it had been there all along, safely tucked beneath my boarding pass and other papers as I wildly searched my purse and reshuffled its contents.
"Here it is," I said to the security lady, flashing my little blue passport at her like a trump card.
She smiled, took the passport from me, looked at my picture, at me and handed it back. I walked away feeling like I'd just passed my bar exams though I suspect now the real 'exam' was not about an expired license or a lost passport. It was a true or false pop quiz (it pops up when you least expect it!) administered by God himself. I had tripped up on the first question ("Are you driving?") but had set the record straight and I walked tranquilly down the ramp toward seat 13C on American Airlines flight 4378 to Chicago.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hey! I'm a blogger now!

Cari is tapping on her baby's back as I write.