A pilgrimage of sorts...
Day 62 in Ocotal/Mozonte
July 28, 2012
A dear friend gave me a copy of The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau before I left for Nicaragua. I left it by mistake in the basement of the church where I used to go every Monday evening to be in community with people who inspired me, with whom I felt included and who became my friends. Another dear friend picked up the book for me and made sure to include it with some other things I was collecting on a recent and extravagant 2-day trip to Boston. A long journey for a paper-back book that now sits on the bedside table of my tiny bedroom in Ocotal, Nicaragua.
I started reading the book earlier this week, breaking my vow of "Spanish-only" literature to reconnect with something completely familiar - English words on a printed page. Cousineau asks the following: "Are you alive now at home? Are you going to stay in your coffin of mediocrity, [or] break out of your cage, and take a journey to discover this in order to find yourself?"
He writes the following of his experience when visiting Egypt for the first time:
"Something ancient and holy was unfolding all around me. It was what the wandering pilgrim-poet Basho called 'a glimpse of the under glimmer,' an experience of the deeply real that lurks everywhere beneath centuries of stereotypes and false images that prevent us from truly seeing other people, other places, other times."
He goes on to say that "Pilgrimage is the kind of journeying that marks (the) move from mindless to mindful, souless to soulful travel...by definition it is life-changing."
And change is painful and today I feel the pain...a little sad, a little melancholy. I can think of nothing specifically that could have triggered this, but writing feels like the right way to honor the feeling and give it a form that I can witness.
Everything is going well. I am doing interesting work that sits right at the intersection of what should make me happy and what the world needs. I teach my first full-day workshop on Monday in Spanish to the small team here at the institute, a pilot for a course I could teach to young leaders in a much longer leadership development program that focuses on "entrepreneurial leadership," something of a buzz-word here at the moment. I was invited to present one of my "m' Mam" stories at a recent gender conference - in Spanish - to an appreciative audience. I have a perfectly charming place to live. I eat well. I have people to connect with. I have work that pays me handsomely for this pilgrimage. I want for nothing.
And yet, I yearn to know that what I am doing is not just part of the problem here and elsewhere in the world. That if "Making a Differece" is one of my values, then why do I not feel "At Peace", my highest value (or at least it was when I last checked in, some 6 years ago!)
I share my life with hundreds, no thousands of little tiny ants - two or three would sit on the head of a pin, if they would sit still long enough. but they don't. They are everywhere and there is nothing to do but accept their presence. In addition to the usual attractions of a food or liquid, they are especially attracted to my MacBook Pro, a feat of modern engineering designed to be as close to perfect as is humanly possible, even down to planned obsolescence so that not only is it reliable (which makes me happy) but I will be inspired to buy a new version when available (which makes shareholders happy). Nothing has been overlooked, except that these little tiny ants will disappear down the "1,!" key to reappear from the "delete" key and walk across and behind the screen to reappear where the screen hinges with the keyboard.
What was a charming "difference" in my first few weeks, now bugs the hell out of me, since I can do nothing about it. No amount of cleaning or sanitizing makes my table or the case of my aluminium laptop any less attractive to these tiny, insidious creatures.
So I "suffer" and wonder at my sense of annoyance, my frustration, my questioning...this change of perspective. I feel the pain, an ingredient that Cousineau describes as an essential part of any pilgrimage - the component of overcoming difficulties. And like Cousineau, I wonder if there isn't an easier way!
I think I can trace my "pain" back to a recent workshop on gender equality and the role of women in Nicaraguan society. The day-long workshop ws examining the progress made in women's rights since the introduction of equality laws some 13 years ago.
In classical workshop style, a group of 100+ participants had broken out to brainstorm and capture among themselves changes in the last 13 years, noting successes and failures. Four or five groups of some 20 or so people. Groups in Nicaragua are never an exact number. People wander in and out to feed children, change diapers, take phone calls, make phone calls or for any other one of a hundred more important reasons. It feels a little like a street market on a Saturday morning.
One person presents their group's ideas, occasionally refering to a butcher-block paper taped to a window or a wall (there are no flip chart stands in the institute), but generally not, tending instead to talk off or around the topic. Given access to a microphone, people love to talk...though few seldom listen.
An official from one of the local small towns, stands to position himself as the group's spokesperson, a perfect opportunity to further a political career: an audience of a 100+ and a microphone! As he winds down his canned (but sadly unedited) rhetoric, he graciously introduces an old and indigenously beautiful community leader, elected by the people of her community to represent the voice of the people.
She nervously takes the microphone, something she would never have done a few years before and starts to talk. This is clearly progress, and yet...
The official chooses to stand up front and center, just to the side of the woman - not taking a seat among the audience - reluctant to release his power position in front of the people. Shortly after she begins, he receives a phone call on his smart phone (price tag $350, what the woman will earn in 2 or 3 weeks.) He takes the call and spends 3 minutes or so talking to person on the other end as though there was no one else in the room. Hanging up, he dials another number and begins another 3-minute call, oblivious to his presence during the woman's presentation. Neither the woman, the audience, the facilitators nor any one of her group seemed disturbed by this act of disrespect. Having just spoken at length about the rights of women and the need for respect in gender balance, he had negated every one of his words with the simple act of receiving and making calls.
Was I the only person that noticed this? Was it my own cultural bias that was getting in the way? And why was it bugging the hell out of me (and still does more than 2 weeks later)?
And so I got to thinking, and it stirkes me that this seemingly unremarkable experience lies at the heart of my current struggle.
Clearly the institute here in Mozonte does incredibly important work, does it with a sense of dedication that is impressive, with few resources and against some pretty stiff political, economical and cultural challenges. And...it struggles like any training organization with the challenge of "making training stick" - of getting the new skills transfered into the workplace (to use corporate jargon). Even making a huge allowance for my own US-corporate-ROI-timeline-influenced bias and my own lack of patience, it looks to me as though there is still room for improvement moving theory to action, as displayed by the official's behavior at the end of this day-long worshop.
There is an old Chinese (or Tibetan) saying:
"Word are mere bubbles of water, while actions are drops of gold."
In my brief time here in Mozonte and with the few workshops I have witnessed, I have come to the conclusion (which I am ready to have challenged) that there are four components to the learning cycle that I have observed (which I suspect are universal, to some extent or other). And for sure, none of what I am about to say is radically new to learning specialists.
The four components are:
So...what I think I am questioning is how not to become part of the systemic problem that exists in this (and I suspect other countries on a development path) - i.e. how best to convert effort into output - bubbles of water into drops of gold - words into action. I have never been exposed to so many studies, investigations, books, documentation, forms and analysises done of problems, communities and what they need. There is no shortage of money and time spent in these activities. I see lots of well-meaning and probably mostly excellent training and "help" being delivered by everyone from established institutes such as this, to "Jesus Teams" coming in from around the world in expensively branded T-shirts worn by terribly enthusiastic young people chaperoned by their role model parents and teachers. And I see slow, desparately slow progress (if any) towards self-sufficiency and sustainability. Just thinking about my choice to involve myself in this "pilgrimage" and that my work are just another component of the same fruitless paradigm is unbelievably depressing.
I know that our realizations, feelings and emotions are influenced by our point of view - the frame we take to consider things. But boy, at this phase of my experiencing here in Ocotal/Mozonte, it's hard to find a point of view that buoys me up and brings me joy, to know what to do, where to turn. And so I throw my trust to the experience of other pilgrims and the words of Phil Cousineau:
“Centuries of travel suggest that when we no longer know where to turn, our real journey has just begun.”
Still knowing and accepting this heady possibility, I chose not to fulfill his other prophecy: "What every traveler confronts sooner or later is that the way we spend each day of our travel...is the way we spend our lives." Ooy vey!
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I sold house, car and most of my furniture to move to the small town of Ocotal in Las Segovias on the Honduras/ Nicaragua border.