Category Archives: Children

My Name Is Char-les

Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua.  I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings  for the following day or just in telling each other life stories.  There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them.  (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.)  But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.                                                                           

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie.  By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie.  Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.

Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance.   He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk.  Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe.  Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence.  More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out,  was full of questions and observations about almost everything.

Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not.  Names?  Home country?  Where is that?  Where is China?  Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Do you know about whales?  Where is your hotel?  Do you have kids?

He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own:  I’m eight years old.  My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant).  I like football.  I go to the school that is right behind your hotel.  I like to read.  My mom says that I ask a lot of questions.  I have a brother but he has a different dad.  Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.

Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner.  It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return.  His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone.  The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication.  Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about  his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.

“I’m very fast.  Do you know about airplanes?  I have never been on an airplane.  What are you eating for dinner?”  The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda.  We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator.  “Is Iowa in Mexico?  You are my new friends.”

With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her.  She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life.  She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur.  Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.

I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase.  But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les.  Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead.  In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future.  The need is not his alone.  We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….

 

 

 

Looking for A Cupcake

looking-for-a-cupcake

My granddaughter’s first birthday was on Saturday.  Much like her older brother’s first birthday, upon which I reflected a few years ago, family and friends gathered to ogle and give gifts for the little angel (for that’s exactly what she is) in a symbolic shower of love.  This first year has been a joyful if sleepless time for her parents, and an absolute wonder for her grandparents, who can’t help but recall the memories of their own little girl decades ago.  That memory is aided considerably by the fact that this baby looks so much like her mother, who also happens to be an identical twin.  So the recollections are tripled for grandma and grandpa.

I found myself noting all the individual requirements of this little celestial.  She exhibits definite preferences that must be satisfied; she points to where she wants to go and slides across a floor with ease to explore her latest interest.  She is relentless in her curiosity. She demands to be fed with regularity and particularity.  Her regular sleep patterns must be maintained for domestic peace; she wakes up early for her daily work.   She does not do well if she is too cold.  When she holds a toy, she will struggle against her brother’s compulsion to take it away;  she most often does not have the power to prevail.  She is quick to smile.  As she is being fed, she is very cognizant of the foods which others are consuming and which are forbidden to her; I suspect that she yearns for the day when she might share in those same, enticing meals.  She is adored by her family and, now, anyone else who has the chance to get close to her.  She touches people.  She is inquisitive about them, but not quite brave enough to move outside the comfort zone of her mother’s presence.

In these ways, she is almost exactly like her older brother at the same age.  She is probably just like nearly all other 1 year-olds.  Actually, she’s just like all the rest of us, who require our basic needs to be met and then hope that we might absorb at least a little bit more, so that we can become who we are meant to be.  Just like other North Americans, or Europeans, or Koreans or Russians.   Just like Nicaraguans.

I loved watching her reach for a cupcake.  Like everyone, she deserves it….

Slaves to Custom

Having just finished attending the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, I have to be careful in using language that in any way could diminish the atrocities of modern-day enslavement.  To my embarrassment and astonishment, I have learned that there are approximately 168 million children currently victimized as virtual slaves worldwide.

These are not cases of children working for their parents or relatives for sustenance.  These are kids who are most often abducted, sold and involuntarily subjected to dangerous and demanding work in sex brothels, mines, fields and factories.  They are forced into child prostitution or the labor black market to produce many of the clothes, foods and electronic devices that we in the West use every day.  By comparison, the zika virus is incidental.  The real epidemic facing us as human beings is found in the involuntary servitude of children, some as young as five years old.

The scope and horror of child slavery is so broad as to be nearly invisible to those of us in the West; we have become very good at numbing ourselves from such overwhelming issues, rendering them to statistical status.  But the idea of enslaved young children numbering more than half of the entire U.S. population is a reality to warrant shame for every one of us, and more than enough to summon the resources and resolve of humanity to end this modern holocaust.  And yet, it continues.

The focus of this year’s Peace Prize Forum has prompted me to wonder about how untenable circumstances arise in the first place, and what combination of apathy, ignorance and disinterest is capable of rendering otherwise empathetic human beings into uncaring bystanders.  The transformation is both baffling and fascinating.

I think it must be like the example of the frog and the heated pot of water. Legend has it that if you were to place a frog into a pot of boiling liquid (no frog has been harmed in the writing of this piece), it would immediately jump out to escape the heat.  However, if you were to place the frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually increase the heat, the frog would adapt to the changing temperature so well that it would remain in the water, even to the point where it would succumb to the boiling temperature.

We human beings seem to be very good at accepting our environments and the discomforts that we observe around us.  We have innate senses of right and wrong, but can be maddeningly silent in the face of the most atrocious violations of human rights.  What may begin as an act of desperation can transition to a custom.  What is accepted as a custom may be adopted as a cultural norm.  And cultural norms can evolve to a sovereign practice, an “emperor’s new clothes” ritual, wherein observers recognize the wrong but remain too silent in the face of it.

If we can be tepid in the face of child slavery, we should not wonder at our seeming acceptance of so many other injustices that confront us daily.  The idea that a Nicaraguan producer might have to exist on less than $2 per day will have little resonance in our combined conscience, until we personally are faced with the decisions that a $2 income produces.  The alarm bells of wealth disparity that continue to sound within our global economy will generate little response, until finally, the top 1% controls it all.  We are unlikely to address the plague of gun violence in our society, until one of our own family members is among the next 50 to be destroyed.  We will accept the outrageous insults of politicians and their cronies, until the attacks become focused upon our ethnicity or lifestyle.  We seem to be slaves to the easy acceptance of the warming waters around us, only jumping at the boiling point.

I’m sure there are elements of the human psyche which psychologists could use to explain these tendencies about us.  Maybe we should read about them to better understand the risks and threats to our collective existence.  Our slavery to apathy is filled with consequence, whether we see it or not.  Dante Alighieri, poet extraordinaire of the Middle Ages, even warned us about it in his own time, observing that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who,in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”  Knowing the consequences might be an important thing, before we fall victim to our own nature….

 

All I Really Need to Know About Immigration I Learned in Kindergarten

With apologies to author Robert Fulgham, I couldn’t help but recall his enormously successful book as I’ve listened to the heating debate about immigration among Republican presidential candidates.  Insofar as every one of those leaders is a product of immigration to this country, I thought it might be of some value to recall at least some of the admonitions for wisdom that Fulgham offered in his classic book.

Share Everything-  We’re taught at an early age that it’s important to ensure everyone has enough: toys, cookies, rewards, being loved and respected.  By and large, we haven’t done very well with this as adults, especially with basic life necessities.  We’ve heard many times how something like 80 individuals in the world own as many resources as half (or more) of the rest of the people on the planet. That’s not a very convincing example of sharing, particularly when so many of the have-not’s are living day-to-day in sub-human conditions.   History and reality both suggest that a primary motivation for many immigrants is the need to improve their economic status.  Most don’t wish to leave their homeland for another spot in the world; they simply must go to where the opportunity is.  Sometimes it’s good to give up our place in the lunch line for somebody else.

Play Fair-  A corollary to the above, playing fair suggests that in a competitive world where people should expect to be rewarded according to their efforts, a rigged game signals to the players that there are no rules anymore, that everyone is subject only to what he/she can gain for him/herself and that creative sidestepping of the rules is not only permissible but oftentimes heavily rewarded.   If CEOs and investment bankers and even nations are immune from penalty for violating rules, the signal is clear for someone considering a cross of the nation’s border.  What is there to lose?  If the teacher is a cheater, the lesson to be learned is that fairness is for fools.

Don’t Hit People-  Especially not with clubs or tasers or fists or bullets. Regardless of where any candidate might stand on the immigration issue, the matter resides at a level of importance somewhere far below the sanctity of human life.  As complex and persistent as the immigration problem has become, its solutions won’t be found in the  box of punitive punishment.  Not even death itself has proven to be a deterrent for the desperate.  Hitting just hurts, and not only the victims.

Clean Up Your Own Mess-  A push in kindergarten is almost always preceded by an instigating act by someone else, whether seen or not.  The push is merely the response that happens to be observed. Illegal immigration is most often motivated by untenable economic circumstances.  And those circumstances have been magnified by treaties, agreements and accords that favored our country and its own economic interests in exaggerated ways.  As a result, the option of remaining in Mexico or Nicaragua or Honduras evaporates in the wake of the social and economic consequences of messy agreements.  Our political candidates claim that illegal immigrants cross the U.S. borders knowing what the consequences are likely to be.  But those same candidates must also recognize the likely consequences of economic repression, one of which is desperation-fueled immigration.  It’s easier to serve as a model for international behavior if our own cubbyhole is clean.

Don’t Take Things That Aren’t Yours-  For every crayon pilfered in kindergarten, there are at least an equal number of excuses for the theft offered up by the filching felon: “it’s my turn, he doesn’t need it, she’s had it long enough,” or “I need it to finish my own work.” While any of them may be true, none excuse the behavior.  It’s no different in the competition for resources across the globe.  Whether oil, agriculture resources, water, geographic access or any other motive, taking what belongs to someone else is wrong, even when we’re the ones doing the taking.

Keep Your Hands (and arms) to Yourself-  If economic desperation is one of the prime motivations for immigration, then flight from the ravages of war is the other.  When physical danger from bombs and gunfire threatens life, then there is nothing to lose in trying to flee to a safer zone, even when such flight violates law.  Too often, the manufacturer’s label on those ammunitions contains the words “Made in U.S.A.”  Even when our nation is not engaged in confrontation with one of our national neighbors, our fingerprints are curiously omnipresent in the horrors of many homelands.

Say You’re Sorry When You Hurt Somebody-  Apology and forgiveness. They are the cornerstones of any relationship, because we live in an imperfect world with fellow humans who are as imperfect as we ourselves.  No individual, no nation, is without fault.  But the offering of forgiveness is a response to apology; it works best when the apology comes first.  The immigration conundrum might be less divisive, less of a political “cause celebre” and even less complex when our nation acknowledges a system that is misleading and unfair to all the kids on the playground.

Well, Fulgham’s treatise on living life well has been panned by many as being too simplistic for the sophisticated and complicated world of today.  It might be too simpleminded for immigration analysis, as well.   Perhaps.  But it also offers an alternative to the process in which we find ourselves today, where political rhetoric includes demonizing an entire ethnic class, building higher walls between nations, and minimizing the desperate realities of other human beings.  Maybe there’s one more Fulgham idea worth contemplating: hold hands and stick together….

 

 

When We Learn

I caught a segment on the news today that captured my attention. The piece had to do with the issue of memory loss and whether there are practices we can use to slow down the seemingly inevitable loss of memory that afflicts so many of us.  The discussion included several lifestyle factors which can affect memory strength: exercise, sound nutrition, sufficient sleep, stress control and mental stimulation such as encountered in learning something new.  This last category is the one which struck me with special impact.

I’m not sure how many retirement-age people seek out new fields of learning in their later years, but I suspect that it’s a significant number.  It may not be learning in the sense of a new language or taking up a musical instrument- as suggested in the story- but some retirees are inclined to delve into topics that they never had the time to explore when working vocationally.  The availability of extra time is simply too valuable to leave unfilled.

And what gifts such opportunity provides!  In addition to mental and memory sharpening, learning can  launch the acquisition of new skills, discovery of new outlets of expression, permit an unfolding of a new worldview, and further enrich lives that may have previously been thought to be static.  Even new careers are launched from the base of educational re-birth.  As long as the energy and desire to learn are present, transformation can happen, and at any age.

The recognition is a happy one for someone like me, on the upper fringes of middle age (whatever that is).  But following a week in Nicaragua during which our emphasis again was education development, such awareness exposes an uncomfortable inequity, another one of those troubling realities which has seemingly few avenues for redress and yet massive consequences to us all.  For in Nicaragua, like many other developing nations, access to education is limited, at best, and at every age.

 At the time when Nica children are most eager and receptive to the lessons of life from the neighborhood academy, they are all too often denied entry.  Too many are needed by their families to work in order that living necessities can be met, or they are unable to access a school with books and teachers, or they cannot afford the niggling costs of a uniform and materials.  As a result, rural Nicaraguan children have very small chances of remaining in school past the third grade, and the statistics are not improving. Another generation of so many uneducated children is an enormous burden that the country simply cannot absorb successfully, no matter how strong the optimism or how deep the denial.

Hearing from the StudentsLast week, WPF visited  the  Fe y Alegria vocational school in Somotillo, located in the far west corner of the country.  Like so much of the country, it’s a remote, rural sector, featuring high heat and ever-higher winds, few opportunities outside of “street” jobs, and a place where kids have few chances to learn much about their lives and what they could be.  In fact, most of them come from destitute families or no families at all; the street is not only where they work, but where they live.

The Somotillo Technical School is an oasis in this context, where children ranging from pre-school to high school can be exposed to the possibilities in life, away from the streets.  Young people are introduced to trades like welding, furniture-making, sewing, baking, electricity and computers.  (In one class, I inspected this computer made by the students from old parts.  Could you do that?  On my best day I could not.)  Handmade ComputerAs importantly, they are taught life skills, things like respect and healthy relationships, personal hygiene, lifestyle choices.  But most importantly, the kids are given the chance to absorb what they crave: learning and self-actualization.  Melby, perhaps as old as twelve, said it for himself: “I have done baking from my lessons in

Melby Speaks

the class and it has allowed me to sell and generate a little money for my everyday needs.”  With no one else available to do so, this free school- the only free technical school in the entire region- is helping Melby to learn the basics of self-sufficiency.

Our world requires all the collective knowledge, innovation and insight that we can possibly muster and the under-education of our future generations might be one of the most self-defeating postures ever assumed by humankind.  Issues of poverty and justice, climate change and energy, war and peace, demand intellect and vision beyond what we have at our disposal presently.  The answers to the great dilemmas of humanity may well lie in the untapped mental fertility of those for whom education is a great unknown, a process only to be dreamed of, or perhaps even feared, but never to be personalized.  The notion is frightening enough to conjure a particular vision of Hell, where humans there discover that they had all the answers to life itself within their collective grasp, but failed to see them due to their own shortsightedness.

Truth and irony abound in this education tale.  The truth is that the capacity for learning- indeed, the love of learning- never goes away during our lifetimes.  It may become dormant for lack of use or opportunity, but it is as central to our beings as the heartbeat itself.  The irony is that while most in this country have endless access to even the narrowest fields of learning, we tend to take such privilege for granted and are  willing to forego such capacities in favor of less dynamic pursuits.  And meanwhile, many of the young children of Nicaragua are desperately seeking even the smallest chance to advance their understanding of the world around them. It creates an immense imbalance, one that would seem worthy and capable of address, if we were collectively motivated to do so.

Leave it to a week in Nicaragua to teach me a new perspective.  I am grateful for the gift of life-long learning, a gift intended for all….

Intensity to Learn

 

 

 

Happy Birthday

I spent this weekend with my grandson, Noah, in celebration of his upcoming first birthday.  Naturally, I think Noah is one of the cutest, most remarkable little people ever, and I relish every chance I get to be with him and to see him grow.  What a difference a year has made, as his actions and verbalizations come to have deeper content!  Soon he will be philosophizing.

The birthday party arranged for Noah turned out to be a stellar combination of family and friends, enough to fill the living room of Noah’s proud parents.  I took a few pictures.  Well, truth be told, I clicked no fewer than 87 photos during just the 2-hour party, in addition to many others before and after.  In fact, cameras were flashing and clicking all afternoon, as each of us sought to capture a precious instant in young Noah’s life, a split second in time which might provide a pleasant moment in each of our lives.  This gathering was truly a happy event for both the honoree and his guests.

As I later reviewed the scenes of gifting and birthday cake squishing and young adults in full expression of true joy,  I started thinking  about the context of something as simple and commonplace as a birthday party such as this.

Noah does not understand nor can he appreciate the wealth of feelings that surround him in these early months of his life.  But on this Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen admirers came together in a statement of generosity, commitment, support and love for this little boy.  Likely, he will be embraced by the presence of their care for his entire life.  And there will be many others, as yet unknown, who will enter this circle of presence in Noah’s life.

For the moment, he has been blessed with an array of gifts that teach and entertain and prompt his curiosity, that will provide companionship to him as he learns to stand and to walk, to develop and to talk, in the fullness of his immense capacities. And for his reflexes we got him best nerf gun of course! He has every advantage that a child’s doting parents could ever imagine.  The playthings most certainly will be matched by nurturing, encouragement, opportunities, enduring friendships, deepening love. And Noah will absorb all of it in becoming the boy, the young man, the adult he is destined to become.  It’s what all of us in the living room want and expect for him.  It’s an awesome picture to behold, and it is there among the stills in my camera.

The vision of it ignites my entire being.  I am uplifted and encouraged and hopeful at the trajectory of Noah’s young life and future.  I am warmed by the gladness that he has already engendered in his family’s circle of acquaintances and the prospect of joy that he will spread throughout his life, in reciprocation of the blessings he receives.  It’s a beautiful notion, and even if I admit to a certain dreaminess about it, I love its texture and storyline.

Inevitably, such dreaming leads me straight back to life’s realities, many of which are very different for little one-year-olds elsewhere.  As I visit the rural outreaches in Nicaraguan countrysides, I have met parents with tiny babies in arms, loving mothers who are my daughters, determined fathers who could be my sons, extended families who intensely seek the promise of fulfilled lives for their children.  In the eyes of the Nicaraguan child I see Noah and all of his potentiality, everything that he might become, every good thing that he might bring to our world.  But too often I have walked away from a village or barrio saddened by the realization that the possibilities which reside deep within that precious child face tremendous obstacles to release.  There may be too little food or home life, not enough chances to learn, insufficient dreaming, a minimum of adult support for high aspirations.  To the same extent that I soar with the image of Noah in unfettered ascent, I also sense the grief of elemental lives incomplete.  There’s nothing new in this reality, just a stark affirmation of it.

By the end of the afternoon I had experienced at least three other affirmations of truth.   I was struck by the recognition of how even relative strangers can so easily come together over something as common as a little boy’s birthday.  I noted the mirrored feelings of guests- despite their disparate circumstances and different ages- in how they absorbed in love and expectation the promise of a child’s growth.  And I felt again both the privilege and the obligation to be part of a child’s well-being.

If Noah’s life and welfare are that important to the people who attended his birthday party, then I can only conclude that every child’s circumstance carries the same importance, the same need, and the same potential.  In a world that is broken and hurting in nearly every way, we are desperate for the health, wisdom and love of every one-year-old boy and girl….