Saturday, September 27, 2008


When I started this, I had no intention of it running into so many installments, but there has just been so much to tell. I appreciate the way each of you have been so patient and understanding.

I suppose we can say it's still Thursday right now, and we are still going about to one place and another, seeing the sights and shopping. At one point, we're all standing in a group on a sidewalk, waiting for our bus to find us. We have been mobbed, as usual, by street vendors, and a couple of our folks have bought from them. There are some young policemen standing nearby, and they call David over and tell him to instruct us not to buy from the vendors. Their manner was calm and friendly, but David later told us that failure to obey their instructions could conceivably result in seizure of our passports! Apparently, the Chinese government is trying to put a stop to the harassment of tourists by these vendors, fearing it may be detrimental to the tourism industry in general.

We discussed it briefly among ourselves, and decided it would probably be best not to have any more to do with the vendors and beggars, and I was quite comfortable with that. I certainly didn't want to lose my passport!

And then it happened. As we were all standing there, I noticed that those on the fringes of the group had fallen silent, and were stepping back, opening a narrow pathway through our midst. Through that little opening, I saw a man and a woman slowly walking, and I couldn't suppress a little groan when I saw them. Both were small, of short stature and slight build. The man's left arm ended a few inches below his elbow, and he walked with a limp. With his other hand, he held the arm of the woman.

It was the woman's face that struck so at my heart. She had been horribly, pitifully, hideously burned. I don't know if she had any hair, as she was wearing a little knit hat. Both ears were gone, just little ridges beside the openings on the sides of her head, hard to distinguish in the thick, rough surface of scarred skin. Her face appeared to have melted, like wax. There was no nose, just two holes in the middle of her face. Her right eye was either gone or buried under thick folds of scar tissue, but obviously there was no sight in it. There were no eyebrows. Her mouth was a grotesquely twisted slash in her lower face, and her neck was a mass of leathery, wrinkled skin.

It was her left eye, her only eye, which held my gaze riveted to her face. The upper lid was gone, and so a large expanse of the eyeball was visible. She had control of it, and it moved left to right, and back again, as she searched the faces of those of us who were unable to take our gaze away from her. It has been said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and I think that is right. In that single eye, protruding so eerily from that ruined face, I was able to see strength, an indomitable spirit, and justifiable pride. Her bearing seemed to say, "I have survived this. Could you have done the same?"

As the two moved through our group, they never said a word, never asked for anything. The woman simply held one hand cupped in front of her. If we wanted to help, she would accept it, but she would not beg. I couldn't stand it. I forgot the presence of the police, and hurriedly grabbed the first bill I got my hand on in my wallet. It was a $5 bill, such a small amount to an American, but probably a significant amount to her. I hope so. I pressed it into her hand, and that all-seeing eye swept downward for an instant, enough to see what she held, and then rolled back up and looked directly at me. For an instant, our gaze locked, and she rewarded me very generously with a quick, brief nod of her head. There was no gratuitous thanks, no judgment about the amount, just a dignified acceptance and acknowledgment of what I had given her. I wish it could have been much more, and I might have gone into my wallet again, but she and her companion were moving on through the crowd. I'm happy to note that others of our group gave her something, and I feel sure that everyone would have done so, given the time. It all took place so quickly, that the pair were gone before many of us knew what was happening.

I'm also happy to report that the police, who must surely have seen what was going on, seemed to be very preoccupied with something across the street, and never said a word to any of us. May the Lord bless them for that.

Afterward, I struggled with my feelings for a while. It occurred to me that our English language is lacking in some ways. There are just some things for which we don't have an adequate or appropriate word. What happened there with that tragic woman is a case in point. I can't find a word, I don't know what to call the exchange that took place. It wasn't charity. Now, charity is a very nice word, and it certainly has its place. It comes from the Latin "caritas", meaning love or affection. However, if one isn't careful, today it can carry a note of condescension, and that should be avoided. No one wants to be dependent upon the "charity" of others.

It didn't feel like charity to me when I gave her the money, it felt like a privilege. I am certain that she didn't feel like she was accepting charity. There was too much dignity in that eye, and in her posture. I think the closest I can come to a single descriptive word is "sharing."

Friday, August 13. It's time to go home. We're all excited and anxious to get back to our lives, but there is an undercurrent of regret, as well. This was felt most strongly as we left Mongolia, and the scheduled time in China was meant to help us disengage, to "debrief" as it were, but now, as we're preparing to leave for home, we're sharply aware that the whole experience is coming to a close. I'm not sure I'm ready for that.

We board our bus, arrive at the airport and get through there without mishap. Once on the plane, we all begin to realize just how tired we are, and sleep overtakes many of us. The flight to Chicago is long but uneventful, and we have a layover there. Soon, however, we're on another plane and after what now seems like a pretty short trip, we're in Dallas.

Jerry is there to meet Eloise and me, and brings me directly home. I pull my "hand-painted periwinkles" luggage into the house, and stand in my own kitchen again for the first time in nearly two weeks. Enough food in the pantry and freezer to feed me for weeks. Hot and cold running water, which is clean and drinkable. I walk through the rest of the house, on soft new carpet. I count two and a half bathrooms, and each fixture has its own water supply, it doesn't have to share a leaky, movable faucet with something else. There is a soft, comfortable bed with nice linens. There are ample towels, soft and fluffy. There is cool air blowing from a vent overhead, and touching a switch brings light. There are TVs, telephones and a computer. I cannot help but wonder, "Why me, Lord?" I think of the families living in tiny, cramped apartments or in some situations, in the space beneath staircases in Mongolia. Very little food, undependable water, certainly no air conditioning, no beds, nothing. Just a place on the bare floor to lie down to sleep, crowded with several other people. And I wonder, "Why not me, Lord?" I have no answer. I can only trust that He does.

After a hot shower that lasted about three days, I finally get into my own bed, and find that I'm unable to get comfortable because my little dog, my constant companion, is not there. She's with my granddaughter, and I'll get her very soon, but for tonight, I miss her. Once again, the disparity of it all hits me. There are people in Mongolia tonight who can't sleep because they're hungry, and too warm in the stifling space beneath those stairs, and crowded in with too many other people. I can't sleep because I miss my dog, who eats and lives much better than many of the people I've just left. The irony is painfully obvious.

Searching my heart, I really don't believe that God begrudges me the companionship of my little dog, and I think He expects me to take proper care of her, to feed her and provide for her. I do believe, however, that He also expects me to remember, to never forget, the needs of the people who have so little, and to help in any way that I can. This, I intend to do.

1 comment:

samraat said...