So what’s your story?, a question that has always left me scrambling and wondering how one story could even begin to summarize the essence of who someone is. Maybe my problem with this question stems more from the fact that I have always been a story teller. Whether it is verbalized, written, or through artistic expression, every day I am noticing and attempting to encapsulate the stories of my life.
And maybe it is for this reason that I believe one’s story is more so a spider web of thousands of intersecting stories glistening and reflecting the little rays of light that make up we are. But I suppose if I had to choose just one story from my life, it would begin along the back drop of a bright blue Jamaican sky and fade off with police sirens in the distance. Yes, I suppose this would be my story…
I had stepped off the plane surrounded by excited tourists brimming with big hats, overpacked bags and no intention of ever setting foot where I was going. I practically floated out of the airport on my altruistic hopes of changing the world in the three short weeks I had there. It was my first volunteer trip.
One morning, our group was walking to the local school with the lesson plans we had prepared. I could feel the sweat beginning to run down my back and trickle between my shoulder blades. The humidity of the mountains left me constantly sticky and my skin had started to smell like pineapple because of how much of the fruit I had been consuming.
I had nervously shuffled my feet on the dusty floor of the classroom as the students stared, frowning and seemingly confused at the children’s story I was reading to them. A woman from the school leaned over, “Sorry. They don’t know what elephants are…” she whispered as she pointed to the one of the characters in the children’s story. I felt my face get hot, I hadn’t thought of that. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Someone else jumped in to help and began explaining an elephant by comparing it to a donkey. I watched as the students’ faces softened accompanied by some understanding nods.
I lifted my gaze to the rectangle window cut outs in the walls to see older children who had sardined themselves into the space, vying for a spot to see and hear the lesson. Their eyes were wide and curious. I could feel their eagerness and desperation as they leaned forward, practically falling into the building. Their tattered t-shirts were covered in that rich, red dirt and their flip flops looked as if they had been broken and mended hundreds of times. I knew that they were older children with no money for school fees or who had dropped out to help work for their families. It wasn’t the first time I had seen the effects of poverty. It was, however, the first time my altruistic ideals had been anchored in the ugly, sad reality of the way things were. It was the first time I felt small in the midst of it. Very small.
Walking back to where we were staying, our group took the scenic route near the beach. Along the way, we passed the outside perimeter of an “all-inclusive” resort. The looming walls revealed only tiny passing glimpses of the inside but even the swaying palm trees within appeared fuller, tended too. More tended to than the children with the broken sandals.
As we walked, I watched those palm trees moving in the breeze and I felt a little angry, but mostly, defeated. For a moment I imagined myself if I had come to Jamaica under different circumstances, if I had come on the other side of the vacationing walls. I imagined myself lounging, holding some fruity drink, admiring the turquoise calm waters. And if I was there, would I ever wonder about what was outside of the compound? Would the glamorous experiences of the resort be enough to cloud any fleeting concern that may arise in my consciousness? Would that me know that most all of the “all-inclusive” resorts are privately owned exploiting the beautiful beaches and allowing little, if any, money to the local people and economy itself? Maybe. But maybe that-me would just sip her cocktail and choose to forget.
In the distance, sirens began to howl and I shook myself from my daydream as local children ran ahead to get closer to the scene. I could feel the prickle of adrenaline rush under my skin as we were informed there was yet another murder that day. I glanced back at the walls. Would anyone in the resort be able to hear the sirens? Would they ever find out someone else had lost their life to the endless community violence plaguing the area just outside of their vacationing walls? Probably not.
My stomach churned as I envisioned myself in the resort again, relaxing under the shady palms and dismissing the faint sirens in the distance. But I have spent most of my life in those walls. I have allowed the walls of mediocrity, comfort, and routine to creep up and swell around my vision. My mind was suddenly awakened to all of times I have chosen blindness instead of realizing the suffering and responsibility I have for the most vulnerable people of the planet. And as the sirens faded into the thick summer air, I became different. This new perspective changed not only how I saw things, it also changed me.
I had come to Jamaica with ideals of peace and social justice, but the most significant part of that trip was the moment when I declared war. It was that day that I started a battle against the walls of comfort in my life. A constant fight to free myself from the haziness and attempt to see the world in a way that it truly is and, most importantly, the impact of all of my choices on others.
I imagined the vacationing-me again. But this time she hears the sirens. This time she rises and moves towards the walls. She looks different, stronger. She is focused and intentional with every step as she tosses the fruity drink behind her and leaves the resort, never looking back.
And I know that there are millions of stories that have shaped me and given meaning and perspective and value to my life. But if I had to choose one story to be my story, this one alone comes pretty damn close.