I am insulated. I know it.
I live in a mostly pretty world.
Images that aren’t nice or pretty and don’t personally touch me are relegated to the back of my mind–that room I don’t visit often. The one where I keep the door closed. If I can keep ugly things behind that door, then its like they don’t exist at all.
Oh, but they do.
And sometimes they come close and the air around me changes. My heart begins to beat faster and I can taste the smallest bit of fear on my tongue.
It happened to me fifteen days ago.
Desperation came close. Unlike any desperation I have known, though I admit to having known only a little.
It keeps coming back to me, picking away at the insulation I’ve wrapped around me.
Since it won’t leave me alone, I thought I’d write it all down. Sometimes things have a way of making sense as words tumble out.
So I wrote this children’s book. I spend a good portion of my time traveling to elementary schools doing musical readings of it. I contracted with a school district in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where there are five schools.
On my first visit to a small town in the valley–a couple of months ago– I read for three of the schools. I traveled alone on that visit. I was slightly nervous given the amount of bad press border towns have received in recent years. Still though, I was excited to share the book with so many children. My library contacts gave me the name of the best hotel, so I booked a room there. I arrived just before dark and the girl at the front desk indicated I might want to just go on and settle in my room for the night. You don’t go out after dark there. I hadn’t had dinner, but I managed with a few snacks from the car trip.
I had a fitful sleep that first night.
I left early the next morning when it was still dark to head to the school. Morning dark seems less scary than night dark. My GPS misguided me and I wound up at the police station asking for directions. I won’t lie. Stories of dirty cops played through my imagination. A little too much CSI? Maybe. Regardless, those thoughts served no good purpose that morning, so I sent them packing back to the “imagination room”.
On that first visit, I heard plenty of stories. I was told most folks don’t ever cross over the river into Mexico even if they still have family there. They just don’t feel safe. However, they said, sometimes Mexico comes to them and bad things happen. They told some stories simply too gory for retelling. I didn’t let them penetrate through my insulation barrier.
Tony, a custodian, told me there was a place in town–The Bluffs–where I could look out over the Rio Grande River into Mexico. I went there and sat on a rock for about an hour. It was a cool, sunny day. Conversations with new friends had opened my eyes just a sliver about life just across that river.
Exactly fifteen days ago, I went back for a second visit. This time I didn’t go alone. My daughter came along to play keys for me. We arrived at the same hotel with our Chili’s Take-Out. This time we stayed on the first floor, which made me a little uneasy. Out the window in our room you could see the lights in Mexico–so close. The hotel seemed dirtier this time around. We passed over the complimentary breakfast the next morning after finding rancid boiled eggs in the refrigerator.
The schools in this little valley town are full of the most beautiful brown-eyed children and wonderful teachers, librarians and administrators. The children all wear school colors for their uniforms. They are well-mannered and they call me “Miss”. They have the most beautiful names. Most of the girls wear their hair in a ponytails with bows. The boys have neatly combed hair and seemingly love hair product! We laugh and gasp together at the story of Paloma the Pigeon. We talk about writing stories and drawing stories. I didn’t yet really understand the stories they could tell. They receive colorful feathers to use as bookmarks.
After we finished our first day’s work–it is still the middle of the day–I want to take my daughter to the bluffs to look over to Mexico. It is just around the corner from City Hall in the middle of town. We sit out on the same rock from my previous visit. The International Bridge is a block to our left. About a single story below us is a path that runs along the river separating us from what really is another world.
We had been there only five minutes or so when a group of maybe 12 appeared on the path, about 15 feet below us. My daughter and I looked at each other wondering what exactly we were seeing. She thought they were out for a walk, but they weren’t chatting like you might expect a bunch of friends would if they were out to enjoy the day. They were actually moving quickly and quietly, looking over their shoulders often. One of the men was carrying a young child. A few of them were having muffled conversations on cell phones.
The air began to change.
As they moved along down the path disappearing in the brush, we thought maybe we should go. We stood on the rock. The street behind us where we’d parked was no more than a dozen steps away.
As we turned to go, two men and a very pregnant girl hurried past us–the men on either side of the girl were pushing her along, but in a careful way we thought. A blue sedan came screeching up from the other direction. The back seat doors flew open. One of the men got in on one side. The other man quickly pushed the girl into the car, which sped off with the second man running after it to close the door. With the car gone, the man that was left behind immediately turned and walked in our direction as he spoke into his cell phone. I think he was oblivious to us, although two blonde-haired, light-skinned girls don’t exactly blend in with the woodwork in a border town.
Under her breath, my daughter said “Don’t look up– let’s just go get in our car.” Which we did. Our hearts were beating a little faster. By that time, the man on the phone was long gone. We were only about a block away when the Border Patrol came flying by us.
What had we witnessed? A kidnapping? A drug-related incident? A pregnant mother who wants to give birth in the U.S. so her baby would be a citizen? It had all happened right in front of our eyes…just right there. Close.
Whatever we saw, desperation was woven all in it. In the eyes of these we saw, in the hurried steps of their feet, in the nervous glances over their shoulders. In the sound of screeching tires.
It is during lunch the next day at the next school–a time shared with librarians and other school staff–that we hear more stories. They are of course stories with no names. They are shocking stories.
Stories of family members of students being kidnapped from this border town and taken to Mexico never to be seen again. Stories of a student whose father was one of “the 5 big guys” (a known drug lord) in Mexico. He’s dead now, we were told. Stories of a student I had read to on my previous trip being killed in crossfire when he went to visit family members just across the river. Stories of children who live in Mexico but come to school in the U.S. every day. At the end of the school day, they cross over the International Bridge into Mexico where they are greeted by armed and hooded Mexican police who can offer very little real protection to them. Then there comes the story of a student who witnessed the decapitation of his uncle.
I don’t want to believe this.
The stories are told in hushed voices to my daughter and me. Fear of retaliation is part of daily life here.
After lunch we have one more reading.
When these children enter with their shy smiles and neatly combed hair, I see them differently. I am about to read them a story of Paloma the Pigeon–a story of an innocent child who dares to hope–a story that will fall on the ears of so many children who have been robbed of their own innocence. Their eyes have seen too much. Things they will never “un-see”. They already know desperation. They were born with it.
But as I begin to read, I watch the emotion in their eyes. I watch their faces rise and fall with the story and I understand that desperation cannot drown out hope. It just can’t.
In fact, it is desperation that leads us there.
So I came home.
But a little less so, perhaps.
Because what you know, you can’t “un-know”.
And what you see, you can’t “un-see”.