I’ve always hated packing. Putting away Christmas decorations included. Loading life into a cardboard box every few months during college. On those awful, too-quiet afternoons, the things that should be meaningless—and have been for months—suddenly cry out with memory, with bloated significance, when held over the trash bag. But until now, it seems like all that I’ve had to pack is things, things, things.
The past two weeks, I’ve been trying to pack up my mind. My emotions, my saudades. But truth be told, the boxes of memories—of Portuguese words with no English equivalent, of images and smells, of voices and faces—will not be stacked in the corner of the attic, forgotten by the time I reach the bottom of the ladder.
No, they’ll be left in the middle of the living room, perhaps under a piece of glass forming a coffee table. Something to stumble over, to stub a toe on, to have a conversation about. They’ll make the living room feel transient, like I’m moving out soon, just passing through, because aren’t we all?
Dr. Seuss said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go!” Great. Except Laozi said, “The farther you go, the less you know.” For now, this is a vicious, priceless, life-giving cycle that I’m okay being caught up in. In the meantime, I’ll stuff everything together, tie down the loose straps on the backpack, and be ready to board a plane two days from now.
Sometimes we travel to get away and see something of the world. Sometimes we travel just to get away from ourselves. Sometimes we travel to convince ourselves that we are Getting Someplace.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews lists a number of gadabouts like Noah and Abraham, Sarah and Jacob, and the footloose Israelites generally. He then makes the point that what they were really doing was “seeking a homeland,” which they died without ever finding but never gave up seeking even so (Hebrews 11:14).
Maybe that is true of all of us. Maybe at the heart of all our traveling is the dream of someday, somehow, getting Home.
—Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking
I’ve got a week and a half left in Brazil. That was rather quick. There’s plenty I still haven’t done, seen, tasted, or learned, but there’s also plenty that I have. For that—and for those who have paid attention to this adventure with me—I’m grateful.
The goal of these coming ten days is to rest, to reflect, to chew on the recent past a bit (certainly, I hope, not at the expense of the present). If I’m going to enter the European half of this journey with a healthy heart, mind, and spirit, I need to start processing the coming transition ahead of time. Prayers appreciated.
"This cannot be real…” I thought to myself, feeling the smile on my face more than the pack on my back. I had finally arrived at the comunidade, just in time for the celebracão.
I hate to ruin this with a reference to Disneyland, but in all honesty, I felt a little like I had entered the world of the Pirates of the Carribean: in the early moonlight, sheets danced across high windows to frantic-but-jolly violin music—music that leaked from the wooden houses through warmly-lit cracks in the walls.
"What celebration?" I asked, Avadai, my roommate for the week.
"The coming of shabbat," he replied, with a calm smile.
And we rejoiced for the coming of the sabbath, like messianic Jewish heretics: on Friday night, as an act of hope for the imminent return of Jesus, who will someday bring shabbat and shalom to the world. It occurred to me that, as strange as it all seemed, it probably resembled an early-church gathering more than anything I’ve seen.
The lifestyle of the community was undeniably marked by the hospitality, generosity, mutual dependency, and attitude of service that Jesus demonstrated—a revelation of God. This community works together, planting food, producing things to sell, and sustaining a shared existence by pooling resources so that, as the book of Acts reports of the early church, all the believers are together and have “everything in common.”
What pains me about this community is that it waits to be discovered. There is some evanglism (that is, invitations to join the community of believers), but other than when groups travel to sell candles, tea, and shoes in street fairs, the community has basically isolated itself completely from the world outside. Forsaken it, I feel.
For this reason, I’m tempted to let my first thoughts on the community stand: this cannot be real. In order to thrive in absolute utopia (which is hardly an exaggeration), the community must be related to the world only in the business that it uses to sustain itself.
But I haven’t decided yet. Maybe this sect—this cult, even (they distinguish themselves from what the world knows as Christianity)—has really hit something in requiring that members literally leave all behind and enter into genuine, sacrificial community with God, with Yahshua (Jesus) and with each other. Something to think about.
I’ve picked my last coffee bean for awhile, though I’ll remember the smell for some time to come.
The pace of farm life was a healthy, restful change from the first six weeks in inner-city São Paulo. I harvested, roasted, and drank way too much coffee, had meaningful conversations with some real, simple folks, and I woke up every day to a sunrise over hills that rolled out farther than I could see.
That said, there have been plenty of poetic, literary moments in the past two weeks; moments worth writing about. But I just didn’t have the resources to do the writing. And since there’s more of this adventure to be had, the only solution is to let them ferment awhile—like good compostagem—and resurface when the smell becomes unbearable. Until then, I’ll try and continue writing about the present.
Desigualdade (disparity, inequality) has been on my heart and mind more and more; expect at least a few thoughts on that in the coming weeks. I’ll spend the next week or so in what seems like an Amish-ish sort of community that strives to worship Yashua (don’t worry, it’s just the way they spell “Jesus”). Then I’ll have another two weeks in São Paulo—where this whole mess began—which will hopefully include some serious, written reflection on the journey so far.
Thanks for the patience; if you’ve got a question about the last few poorly-documented weeks, shoot me a message. Otherwise, I’ll just keep on doing what I do.
Early one morning, certain man was selling coffee beans at a street market. Someone approached him and asked, “How much for a kilo of coffee?”
"Ten reais," the man responded.
"And how much for two?"
"…twenty reais," he answered.
"And for three?" the customer asked.
"Thirty reais. Do you not understand—"
"I’d like to buy all of them," the customer offered, grinning proudly.
"I’m not going to sell you all of them," he answered, decisively.
"Why not? Either you sell them all now and take the day off, or you sell them one at a time, and maybe not even—"
"I’m not here to sell coffee," said the man. "I’m here to live my life. To greet people passing by, to ask about the lives of neighboring vendors, to compare weeks. I’m here to call out prices, to scoop beans into bags, weigh them, make change, and wish customers a good day. Selling coffee is how that happens, yes, but it’s not what I’m here to do."
The customer paused a moment. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll take two kilos.”
"Twenty reais," the man smiled. He scooped the beans into a paper bag, weighed them, made change, and said "Have a good day, friend. Enjoy it."
—Adapted from a Portuguese version I heard a little while back.
The other night, I was supposed to be sipping wine on an outdoor balcony with some quite-well-off friends I’d met, perhaps discussing the unfortunate reality of disparity, but plans fell through. So, I took a walk.
In a not-unusual incident, I met a man who asked me for some money to eat. “Lets go!” I said, preferring to buy the food myself. We started, and Carlos mentioned something about buying food in the other direction, where his family lived. I asked if I could meet them, if he could introduce me. “You want to…? Meet everyone? Sure…” And we turned around.
Carlos now had some interest in his step. Once he knew that I considered him a person, Carlos was eager to describe the hardships and dangers of living on the street. He was wearing a dirty blanket with a hole for his head and a military-issue rucksack, out of which he pulled a police report from the night before. He said that a group of [a Portuguese word I didn’t understand, which he translated into “Wychie Pawer”] tried to attack his family with knives. The police got involved, and things settled down (I guess, as Carlos seemed to be alright).
When we arrived in front of the Centro Cultural (where I’ve spent many a daytime studying), I met his family: Samuel, who was about the same age and also wearing a blanket, and some other folks who had made their beds on rows of cardboard. Samuel told Carlos that one of the men from the night before had just passed by. They were worried that last night’s encounter might not be over yet.
Carlos turned to me. “It’s not safe for you to be here. You should go.”
"Okay," I said, reluctantly. "Is there something…something I can do? Could I go to the police station, and tell them—"
"And tell them what?" he said. He had a point. But I went anyway.
When I got to the police station, I told them everything I knew how, which came across with miraculous clarity.
"I want to be sure I’m understanding," he said. "There are people—street people, without a house, who live on the street—"
“People, yes,” I said. And he finished repeating what I had told him.
"Okay. I’ll call it in and send someone to check on it."
"Thank you," I said, and turned to go home.
But I didn’t. I passed the house and went back to Carlos and the rest of the people there, to tell them that I had done what I could.
"Have a seat," Carlos smiled, situating a piece of cardboard on the ground in front of me. "You understand the consequences…" It was a question of sorts.
"Yes, I do," I said, and we both smiled.
And I passed the time with them, chatting, sharing thoughts about the world, about disparity, about survival. And I kept my eye on the sidewalk, watching for people approaching in the distance. It hit me that for the first time in my life, I was specifically concerned about seeing white [whychie] people on the street, prejudging each light-skinned passerby by the reported actions of the terrorists who happened to share their (our) skin color. It relieved me when an approaching person had darker skin, while the fairer faces set me on edge.
After 45 minutes or so, no police had shown, which was absolutely no surprise to me or to the street folks. I said goodbye to Carlos and the family, said that maybe I’d be back, and returned to the house, the kitchen, the television, the bed—though not without stopping by the police station to drop off a bit of advocacy. My inhibitions low, my courage up, I let the officers know (in stupidly broken Portuguese, to be sure) that their inaction didn’t go unnoticed.
I don’t know how the night went for Carlos and the rest of them. I wouldn’t expect to hear about any of it on the news, nor from anyone at the Centro, nor from anyone at all. They hardly exist, these people—street people, people without a house, who live on the street. These people.