I leaned down and introduced myself. Shy grins. Knowing looks. They trusted each other. Me? Verdict was out.
I get it. I was different. Very different. Size. Shape. Color. Sound. Movement. But it was more than that list that made me feel like an outsider. They deeply loved each other. In this scene of mystique and bubbling questions, they naturally drew in towards each other. A little one touched her arm. Another leaned his dusty forehead on his brother's back. Yet they were curious enough to allow me close to that circle.
I thought about what it would be like if somebody new and different came to visit my town. What looked like a doorway to culturally comparative imagination opened to a concrete wall.
No one would know.
No one would care if we had a visitor.
My eyebrows furrowed as I quickly glanced down - stowing away the uncomfortable thought for later investigation. I shook their hands, smiled my affection, and kept walking toward the compound.
"Peter! PETER! Do you have the water?"
The accused came tumbling towards the fire pit, slopping jerry can in hand.
3 goats, with their heads held high and back in passive disgust, trotted ahead of a twitching branch, held by an even twitchier young boy. Meanwhile, a scrawny little girl struggled to keep her drooping skirt up as she chased a targeted chicken.
A far off drum beat set the rhythm as life glided around the fresh flames, bustling towards the collective goal of dinner. It was amazing to watch. Everyone had a part. The babies had to be still. The toddlers had to gather. The kids had to haul. The adults had to create. The meal was a collection and reward of all the energy put into it.
"Is it true?"
I squinted and remembered the seared-in question from yesterday. On the bus.
"Is it true that Americans go from their cars to their houses and don't even have to walk outside?"
In verbally struggling through that moment with a fellow American, my coworker wisely summarized, "We care more about protecting what's inside our walls than what's actually inside them."
I blinked in the building smoke. An older man took his place in the only seat by the fire and began telling stories. The little ones released from their chores, scampered to his feet and settled in to be swept up in his tales. The men and women smiled at each other, not so much because something great had happened, but just because. Just peace. Peace on the other side of toil. You could see in their eyes that these people had been through it all - together. They had worked towards tenderness. Without the protection of walls, rooms, and doors, they had each other. In that vulnerable colony, the hard work of forgiving love was necessary for survival.
Flash forward to the Washington Dulles International Airport.
My backpack was heavy and I couldn't decide how I felt.
Still feeling ripped from the place where I came alive, but knowing I was halfway to home and the people that taught me what life is in the first place. I stepped off the jet bridge and caught my breath.
Is this really where I live?
Color was gone.
Everyone's eyes were down. Glazed. Shifting, but dead.
Staring into palmed light, desperately avoiding the feeling of loneliness.
My heart broke.
HERE. Here is poverty of spirit.
Back in that tall grass, I admit that I prepared myself to feel sorry for the villagers. Secluded, desolate, without.
But as I stood in the core of their movement, I was struck with pity for my own people. We have to earn community. We invite people to accept us. We make appointments to see each other. Trust takes a long time. Laughter comes later. Tears are received by a select few. We could skate through untouched if we chose. And in that freedom is the responsibility of choosing togetherness.
We ask why life feels hollow. Yet we keep widening the spaces around us.
Here, each life was stretched to the seams of several others. Full.