I'm sitting on the sidewalk outside our door while José meanders in and out of the pickup soccer game happening among the kids from two doors down. The boys, anywhere from seven to fifteen years old, are familiar with having José in the middle of their concrete, slightly sloped soccer field. I tell them to go ahead and keep playing and not to worry about accidentally hitting him with the ball. My words are unnecessary. There are few limitations here about who can be involved in the game or in what way. The littlest ones will ride their straddle cars up and down the street; the game stops and everyone moves out of the way when a car comes; the game morphs into something new when a team member is called inside by a relative. José's presence is part of the game and he never gets injured. The boys are good enough soccer players to maneuver around him and good enough human beings to give more importance to his participation than to putting the ball between the rock and the car that are their goal posts.

I sit on the sidewalk where three young girls have gathered to talk and play. I call José over to take bites of his chicken nuggets and apple sauce. The girls are grilling me on English vocabulary, mixing up their own language as they ask, “Cómo significa pelota . . . pollo . . . correr . . . patear?” I'm surprised by the ease with which the oldest, Kenia, is able to pronounce our “r,” one of the more difficult sounds for Spanish speakers. I think about how she would have excelled in the English classes that I taught at one time and wonder if twenty pesos an hour was too much for her family to afford.

The girls start asking me about the English equivalent of the names of all the kids around us, most of them first cousins. Kenia tells me, “My name is also the name of a country.” I say, “That's right. And do you know where that country is?” She shakes her head. “It's in Africa.” Her eyes grow wide as she imagines the distance between us and her namesake. I call José over for another round of apples and chicken. The girls are curious about this menu. When I mention pureed apples they look a little confused. I say, “Like Gerber” and their faces relax, heads nodding. One of them says, “That sounds good.” The others aren't so sure. I say, “Do you want a taste?” She tries a quarter spoonful. She approves and the others want a taste as well. There is consensus. Kenia says, “My mom sometimes gives us that kind of chicken. We get two pieces each. I'm not going to look at it. I'm not going to look because it looks really good,” as she turns her head, eyes peeking. And that's when it happens. That's when my heart is broken open for this girl, liquid compassion spilling like apples from a blender. Everyone gets a taste of chicken after that and apple sauce flows. It is no longer José's dinner. It is a four place table setting. One cup, one spoon, four beautiful mouths.

I don't remember how the information became relevant. Maybe chicken nuggets and apple sauce inspired her cousin to confess that Kenia needs glasses because she can't see perfectly well. My ears are hearing this confidence as if a friend were baring her soul. I gaze at Kenia, truly seeing her for the first time, as I imagine the deep disruption of this lack. “It must be hard to see at school,” I say. She barely nods her head, unsure whether to trust me. Time stands still as poverty becomes personal, a crack in the universe has only just become visible.

———————————————————————————————

I have birthday money that I've been instructed to use to treat myself. There are lots of ways I could indulge myself. I've thought about my favorite shampoo, online TV shows in English, shoes that aren't broken in some way, pants that fit, Mexican residency paperwork, dinner date with Rogelio, books for José, classroom materials. But I can't get the image of Kenia with glasses out of my head. Entitlement exhales dust when my privilege is reflected in her broken eyes.

Every day my mind comes back to this radical and offensive idea: that I have no more right to that money sitting in the bank than anyone else. A friend once wrote, “Everything I have comes from God. [It] doesn't belong to me in the first place.” I want to ask Kenia's mom if I can help buy her glasses. It's a noble idea, right? But then I start thinking, “What if she's offended that I would offer her charity when we don't really know each other? What if such a gift would pour salt on a patriarchal wound? Should I try to give this gift anonymously?” It keeps getting more and more complicated in my mind until I realize that the one thing that would smooth this path is relationship. I do not want to be a savior or one who gives but doesn't know how to receive. I want to allow for dignity and humanity and that happens within relationship. I feel shy and awkward when I think about trying to initiate contact with Kenia's family. Even if we get to know each other, this kind of generosity between neighbors is almost unheard of here, in my experience anyway. My best friend felt “weird” when I made her a meal during a long season of sickness. The woman on the bus never expected me to put 50 pound José on my lap so she could sit down. At the store around the corner, a woman was shocked when I dropped my sweet bread on the floor in an attempt to rescue her falling tomato. I am afraid of approaching this the wrong way. Will this fear cause me to mend my heart with cheap sentiment? I tell myself that failure will help me learn for the next time. But failure could mean a wall between me and my neighbors or no glasses for Kenia. Could glasses be the price of courage? I ask my Lord to give me the chance to bridge our cultures. This might just be my biggest lesson yet.

*In Mexico, Kenya is spelled Kenia

What are your experiences of giving? In what ways have relationships been a factor?

 

I am not a person of tradition. Or routines. Or consistency. I love the new, the exciting, the challenging. And same old same old is definitely not exciting to me. There is one routine, however, that I've managed to uphold despite myself, maybe even because of myself. It's the time when I'm tucking José into bed and turning out the lights and lying down next to him and I say, “It's time to say 'Thank you, Jesus.'”

Besides the obvious reason that it's just what Christians do, there are other ways that this is important to me. Living in Mexico has always been hard. Actually, it's damn hard. And it would be is oh so easy for me to slip into a pity party or become bitter or hate my life. And so somehow the act of giving thanks out loud at the end of the day becomes an act of rebellion toward all of that junk. It's a way to say, “Yeah, life is hard. But I refuse to let it beat me down to the point where I can no longer believe.” And so I give thanks.

Giving thanks sounds different every night. (Did I mention that I despise routines?) Sometimes it feels noble and inspired: “Jesus, thank you for Daddy who works so hard for us.” Other times it's more concrete: “Jesus, thank you for vacuum cleaners and ice cream.” But in all seriousness, I do often pray for transformation in the lives of the hurting people around me, including myself. I ask for forgiveness from José and from God. I pray for “wisdom, knowledge, skill and love” for the doctors and teachers and authorities that influence us. But sometimes I'm just hanging by a thread. Maybe I'm exhausted or sad or angry or whatever and I just don't feel like giving thanks. And those are the times when I'm really glad that I can put up with a routine. Even if it's just one. Because those are the times when I can at least say, “José, I don't know how to say, 'Thank you, Jesus' tonight. Amen.” And José says, just like he says every night, “Uhna.”

I often think about how I want to model faith for my son. And even though being a Christian isn't about being perfect, I still feel bad about falling short most of the time. But tonight I was thinking differently about my almost-prayers. Because no doubt there will be times in José's life that he doesn't feel like giving thanks. And he will have a model of how to present that to Jesus at the end of the day and still say, “Amen.”

 

What do you do when you just don't feel like giving thanks? What routine is most helpful to you in your faith?

There are a lot of interesting little things in Mexico that are different from what I've experienced in the US and Canada. I thought I would take you through some of them in bits at a time. I hope you find them amusing and fascinating like I do.

Wall advertising in Mexico. There's really no comparison in the US. I have to hand it to Mexicans for finding ways of getting out a message besides billboards, commercials, or Facebook ads. It's actually kind of ingenious and at times, artful. Here's how it works.

Pretty much any wall that's not specifically residential or affiliated with a business is fair game for painted advertisements like these. What's interesting to me is that they fall into one of two categories: concerts* or politics.

The vivid colors and stylized lettering in this photo are representative of most concert announcements I've seen.


Here's an example of the political advertising that is also very common.


And then there's the occasional vacant wall that says, “No advertising.” Although Mexico's painted walls can get a little obnoxious and overstimulating, at least they don't look as desolate and abandoned as the ones that have “no announcement.”

*Here's a short read with more photos and an intersting take on the cultural anthropology of Mexcan painted walls. (I recommend starting on page 4 of the pdf.)

Below is another common form of advertising in Mexico, and a hint about my next ¡guau! post.

 

I've never been one of the “cool” kids. You know, the ones who are beautiful, popular, confident, in-the-know. Maybe you've never been one of them either. Now that I'm an adult, of course it doesn't really matter all that much in the large scheme of things, but I still notice it. I'm still not cool.

My “cool” friends are the ones who have successful careers. They're the ones who look beautiful even before they brush their hair and put on makeup. They have clean houses, organized closets, and they put on beautiful birthday parties for their kids. My cool friends listen to indie music and watch indie films. They have the kind of charisma that can put life into a party, even without alcohol. They can make conversation at the drop of a hat. My cool friends travel the world, take amazing pictures, and make beautiful food. They read poetry, write poetry, and understand poetry. My cool friends are cool even when they're not cool. Do you hear me?

Well, I am none of those things. I am most definitely not successful careerwise. I used to be cute but I'm looking a little dowdy these days. (There's a great word for this in Spanish: fodongo. In my case, fodonga. There's a reason why I haven't changed my Facebook profile picture.) For the life of me I can't seem to keep the place where I live in order. Shoot, I can't even visualize my place looking in order. I'm a shameless connoisseur of pop music and sappy movies. If it were up to me to put life into a party, people would be stifling yawns all night. I've already catalogued some of my social awkwardness. Poetry has always befuddled me unless a professor drags me to a reasonable conclusion. (I actually suspect that people who write poetry are from another planet. No offense to my poetry-writing friends. You're still cool aliens.) I laugh too loud, make wierd jokes, refuse to dye my hair, and take life too seriously. In short, I'm anything but cool.

But here's the thing. Maybe uncool is okay. After all, Kid President says that Robert Frost isn't cool either and I kinda like Kid President (and what I'm able to understand of Mr. Frost).

 

The other day I had a big, scary chance to practice something that I'm not good at and that I'm honestly not sure I ever will be: indirect conversation. Now that I think about it, I've always felt a little bit socially awkward, especially when it comes to conversation. So to engage in a conversation style so completely different from what I grew up with is like asking this clumsy girl to do this

 

My style of conversation is honest, direct, and a little bit intense (kind of like my writing, no?). It's been one of my biggest insecurities while living in Mexico because honesty, even when it's kind (like telling someone their hair looks good), is uncomfortable to many Mexicans and directness (like saying, “no thanks” when a friend asks if you want some coffee*) is often offensive. This carries over into more complex interactions as well, so I'm pretty shy when it comes to conversation because I don't want people to feel uncomfortable or offended around me. There are a bunch of people in my life here who just have to deal with it – Rogelio, my in-laws, the local store owners. I even explain to people that my manner of speaking isn't intentionally rude, it's just a great big mashup of my culture, upbringing, and personality. I think some people have even come to like me despite my cultural quirkiness, but they've had time to get to know me and somehow understand and forgive my ubruptness, straightforwardness, and vulnerability. There is at least one person in my life, however, who hasn't been able to reconcile my mannerisms with her cultural expectations. It's okay because I get it now. Nobody's fault. But there are times when it would really really come in handy to know how to do Mexican conversation. Like when I've had ideas about strategies for kids at José's school, or when I want to strike up a conversation with someone new. These are scary, scary situations for me.

 

For a while now I've been trying to study how people talk with the goal of isolating some key phrases that would help me converse more appropriately. This is a good thing because idioms and metaphors are a huge part of Mexican conversation. (Recently a friend was talking to me about her family's recent decision to move out of her mother-in-law's house and I mentally packed away a phrase when she said, “Teníamos una pata afuera cuando empezaron a remodelar su casa.” We only had one paw out the door when they started to remodel their house.) Unfortunately, the art of indirect conversation isn't just about memorizing phrases or learning new vocabulary. It's so much more than that. It's feels like taking the ideas in my head, separating them into miniscule pieces, watering them down, and delivering them between chunks of light banter. Oh my goodness. You have no idea how daunting that feels to me (and if you do then please share because it would help immensely to have evidence that I'm not the only one). Small talk is soooooooo hard for me.

 

For example, if I were speaking English, upon approaching a parent friend at José's school we would of course start with, “Hi. How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” So far so good. But to continue in my comfort zone it goes something like this, “I'm pretty good. (pause) I had a tough conversation with the principal yesterday.” Big no no. Too much sharing to begin with. You can't just launch into a topic like that here, even with people who know you. The appropriate way is to talk about everything but what's on your mind – the weather, the traffic, your kid's cold, make a fuss over the other parent's toddler, school lunches and on and on, often repeating something you already said. And then, if there's still time and you find the appropriate transition, subtly mention something about talking to the principal without giving away too much information and see where the conversation leads. Throughout the small talk I'm usually thinking, “What kind of segue can I use to get to the meat and potatoes of this conversation? Oh there was one but now she's on to another subject and it would be awkward to go back. Is what I really want to say even appropriate in this context? Do I even know her well enough to go there?” And then either the conversation is over or we're talking to someone else or my brain is so fuddled that I can't remember what I wanted to say to begin with. Exhausting. There are times when I decide it's simply not worth the blushing and sweat to make so much effort and I just talk, directness and all, and hope the other person isn't too shocked or offended to keep up the conversation. Unfortunately, this doesn't cut it when I truly care about the results of a conversation, like when I recently felt the need to express my concern about an unfortunate situation at José's school. That's when it's time to get on the tightrope.

I am grateful to have people close to me who can give me tips for how to address these kinds of issues with cultural sensitivity. This time, I consulted with Rogelio about the situation at José's school. I gave my version of what I wanted to say and then he made suggestions about how to tone down my rhetoric. Soooooooooo grateful. I ended up talking to the vice principal because I have a good working relationship with her from when I taught English to some of the kiddos last year. I started out with a “script” that I had practiced in my head based on Rogelio's suggestions, with only a little bit of fumbling. But then the VP straight out lied to me. That was not part of the script {cue sweat}. At this point I went into auto-pilot American Kristin mode and directly called her out on the lie, wondering at the same time if the lie was an indirect acknowledgement, and then found myself trying to backpedal to safer ground and feeling like a copout. Oh boy. Well, in the end the VP thanked me for expressing my concern and promised that nothing of the sort would happen again. I'm just hoping that with time the tightrope gets closer to the ground so it doesn't hurt so much to fall off.

*If you're offered refreshments in someone's home in Mexico and you'd like to decline the offer, the culturally appropriate response is to say, “Ahorita,” which translates to, “In a little bit.” The host will understand that to mean that you don't care for any refreshments. The very best response, however, is to accept the refreshment even if you don't want it.

What kinds of things do you feel insecure about and what steps do you take to overcome them? I'd love to hear your stories.

 

José loves vacuum cleaners. Actually, he's obsessed with them. Fascination that borders on obsession is just a normal part of life for us. In the past it's been the movie Cars, strollers, fire trucks, school buses, the color brown. Now it's vacuum cleaners. Is this a bit strange? For a while I thought so, at least until I was pointed to this link (see #2), which helped me see it as a little less peculiar.

Here is what obsession looks like in our family. The word “vacuum” is said approximately five thousand and seventy-six times throughout the day. Our YouTube viewing history is almost exclusively vacuum cleaner demos. No more Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Special Agent Oso, or Pocoyo. No, we are fanatical connoiseurs of Electrolux, Oreck, and Miele. (Pressure washers are also called “vacuums” so we are huge fans of Karcher, too.) When we venture outside of our neighborhood, outings more often than not include a visit to the vacuum section of the supermarket or department store. We actually go to the mall for the sole purpose of checking out the vacuum selection at Sears.

I sometimes get nervous when José's obsessions involve property that doesn't belong to us. I have to walk the fine line of respecting his need to learn about the world in ways that have meaning for him and teaching him to follow social norms. And because it feels a little wierd to explain to people everywhere we go about things like autistic tendencies and sensory regulation, I usually just allow some unusual behavior while monitoring the reactions of salespeople and avoiding uncomfortable confrontations the best I can. This is what I call The Vacuum Cleaner Games.

For a while Sears was our favorite destination for all things vacuums. The first couple visits were easy because José was mostly content to just look at all the merchandise and accepted the limits I set on touching because there was just so much to see. The vacuum section is nestled in the middle of refrigerators and washing machines and even sewing machines. So much electronic fabulousness all in one place!! José was just a bundle of happy madness those first couple times and I pretty much just followed him around as he took it all in. On subsequent visits, though, looking was not enough and he couldn't resist opening and closing the doors of every other washer and dryer. When this behavior started, my strategy was to pretend that I was actually studying the features of the different machines so I would look like a potential buyer. (“Oh, I really like the look of the computerized Whirlpool but maybe the simpler Easy would be less likely to break down and look, the Maytag has a really good deal going right now and oh, José, please be gentle while mommy looks and on second thought lets not touch because the salespeople are all grouped together right here . . .”) This strategy only works a couple times because eventually the salespeople start to recognize you and the distracted perusing mother charade isn't so believable any more. Then, at another visit, José started beelining for the vacuum section and I was running out of plausible scenarios. Thankfully, the last time we visited, a couple days ago, I thought of a genius explanation in the event that one was needed, which it was. When the inevitable happened and the saleswoman asked if there was anything she could help us with, I smoothly replied, “Well, my son has a disability and doesn't like toys. What he likes are vacuum cleaners and we're going to get one for him for Three Kings Day so he's actually trying to decide which one he likes best.” (smooth, right?) This seemed to satisfy her and she went back to her paperwork. For the first time, I actually felt comfortable letting José toy around with the darn machines, within reason, of course. (Yes, you can pull out the cord and push the button that makes it retract. No, you can't use the attachment that makes a horrible scraping noise on the floor.) After another 5 or 1000 minutes, though, (time seems to stand still when I hit that sweet spot of watching José enjoy himself and not worrying what people are thinking about his behaviors) she came back to say, “It looks like he really enjoys the red one.” “Yes, it does,” I agreed, and proceeded to look at the current financing options posted above the vacuum section. Rogelio came to the rescue at this point and started to talk to me about how easy it would be to choose a six month no interest plan, buying us a few more precious minutes before telling José it was time to go. Needless to say, I think we've used up all the good will and tolerance we're going to get at Sears and it's time to move on. Fortunately, we recently discovered an amazing vacuum section at Liverpool in the same mall. Not only is it amazing because of how accessible the machines are and that the selection is bigger and different than at Sears, but the different departments are more spaced out, the vacuum section is hidden behind the irons and washing machines, and there never seem to be any salespeople in the vacuum section there. Liverpool, watch out. You will soon get to to know my tazmanian-dirt-devil-vacuum-obsessed boy. And if you must know why I let him play with your display machines, I'll just say that his birthday is coming up and pray that the object of his obsession changes before we run out of stores.

Thank you, dear readers, for joining me here. Feel free to use the comments to share about your child's obsessions and how far you've been willing to go to indulge them. And if you need any recommendations about the best vacuum cleaner for your needs, well, I listen to vacuum demos all day long.

These are a few of my favorite things:

decorations are hung between houses
 
Christmas plays – pastorelas – at school
 
posadas, or reenactments of Mary and Joseph looking for lodging in Bethlehem
 
followed by prayers, food, and piñatas,

which of course are sold at vegetable stands
 
nacimientos – nativity scenes
 
ponche

buñuelos or fried masa often drenched in melted piloncillo
¡Feliz Navidad!
Merry Christmas!

 

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