I’ve been trying to piece together my thoughts about this topic for weeks now. While I love how easy it’s been to write about my life here, its really only a small and controlled glimpse into the whole, messy thing. Everything up to this point has been like the fun and quirky trailer to draw you into an indie movie with a vague name and pretty cinematography. It’s not until you go and actually see the movie that you realize how confusing the story line actually is, and you leave the theatre thinking “What was the point of that?”
For me, its been a short (and Greek, I think) word with six letters that has been the answer to that question. It has transformed this past 3 months (which, admittedly, I had expected to be more of a “break” from reality) into an increasingly massive collection of moments more real than I’ve ever experienced anywhere else. This word is ‘praxis’.
By definition, praxis really just means doing something. Anything. That, folks, is as vague as it gets. But the most comical thing for me is still the fact that, while all of us here came to choose this very ‘unique’ experience for a number of reasons, all of them had this word “praxis” at the heart of them. I guess we all wanted to be doing something. Anything.
We got a little more descriptive definition of what four months of praxis would be like, when we arrived, but it still wasn’t much. When we would ask what kind of stuff we would be doing, everyone kept throwing out the word ‘accompaniment’. It sounded promising, but came with no ‘how-to’ guidebook or further explanation. While I now realize this was by design, it left me paralyzed in anxieties about what to expect. I remember sitting at the dinner table at the end of our first week, waiting in silence as Tio Martin (our human guide to everything Córdobes) rattled off our ‘praxis sites’, or where we would be going every Tuesday and Wednesday to accompany a community in their day-to-day.
“Carson, you’re going to the Health Clinic at Nuestro Hogar III”
My stomach fell. Not only do I speak extremely broken Spanish and faint whenever I see a needle, but I have absolutely no knowledge of anything health related. Immediately, I thought to myself ‘there is no way I can be of any use to these people’.
*A little background on Nuestro Hogar III: it is a barrio on the outskirts of Cordoba that was built on top of a landfill where many people live who are employed in factories nearby. As one of the nurses explained to me, the people who live there are often immigrants from Bolivia or Paraguay who are often illiterate or speak only indigenous language, and therefore can’t integrate into the larger Cordoba province. Besides lead poisoning and (other sicknesses from the fumes of the land), people there live extremely close to the site where trash is burned and are often sick because of the air quality. The health clinic is about the size of an Arby’s, serves 15,000 people, and has one computer.*
I’m very happy to report that I was absolutely correct: I am of little to no use every time I walk in. Of course we are always there to lend a hand, the point of us being there isn’t anything like volunteering or changing lives. Since the first day Madelyn (my praxis partner-in-crime) and I walked into the crowded waiting room full of crying babies and tired looking families, we knew immediately that we were not there to be useful. We were there to simply be.
As the meaning of accompaniment continued to grow, it immediately became clear how much of a gap existed between the life I have lived and the experiences of the people who come to the clinic. In one instance, there was a woman I was talking to in the waiting room. Over the sounds barking dogs outside, I explained to her that I was a student studying journalism, lived with my parents in Colorado, and that I maybe wanted to be a travel writer. As she told me about her two kids, her mother who she took care of as well, and her job as a hairstylist in a nearby house, I assumed she was at least ten years older than me. She was 22. She said she would have loved to study journalism if she went to university.
Then she asked me why I was there, and I didn’t really know what to say. Not because I didn’t have enough Spanish, or because I thought she wouldn’t understand, but because I really didn’t have a reason to be there other than to be sitting there with her at that moment. I ended up laughing at this simple realization, knowing I had just broken down the wall in my mind that had been blocking my view of the whole picture. All I could do to answer her was shrug my shoulders and crack a joke about this being the best place in town to get a boob job. We laughed together, her question left hanging in air, watching her little boy once again shove his shoes in his mouth.
It was conversations like this one that continued to leave me standing in awe. But it was not only the fact that this young woman and me have lived almost the same amount of years. It was not only the fact that our lives had been opposites, simply by the chance of where, when, and to whom we were born. It was mostly because, despite this ‘gap’, we were still sitting side by side, laughing at her little boy waddle around and waiting for the nurses to call her name. In conversations and interactions like these, the gap doesn’t go away. It just becomes clear that it really doesn’t matter as much as the human standing on the other side.
Don’t let me fool you, because it isn’t a perfect road to be walking down. Some days I feel like I have it all figured out, and the next I’m reminded just how little I know. Many days I feel like I’m in the way, like I should be talking more, helping more, or doing more. I worry that they won’t even remember me come next month, or that I don’t even deserve to be there. Then, in the midst of all of the doubt, something happens. I find myself doing something. I’m not saving lives, not donating anything material or physically useful, or making any measurable or quantifiable change in the people around me. I pass around the mate with the nurses in the lunchroom, talking about morning television and seeing their family photos. I breathe heavily alongside the other women who take the exercise class every Tuesday. I find myself sitting on the floor of the kitchen in a home watching the nurses hold workshops for women about infant care, or standing under a highway overpass walking with the community members of Hogar De Christo to hand out homemade stew out of beverage coolers.
You could call it any random word you want, really, because these are things that words fail to describe. Almost immediately all of my overthinking and restlessness goes away and I’m reminded again that there is no wrong way to accompany people through life. It doesn’t just have to be during days I have praxis, or with people who have less material wealth than me,or only when I’m here in Argentina (so don’t be alarmed when I return and start hovering over you doing your morning routine).
I have the immerse gift of choosing to show up here each day, and I end up falling in love over and over again when I do. To be useless is not a bad thing, as long as we are present and willing to be broken and rebuilt alongside someone.
While I have no grand conclusion or perfect summation about what the word “praxis” really means, here is what I do know:
1. I still hate needles
2. ‘Result’ and ‘Impact’ are two very different things
3. Praxis does mean doing something. Anything. Together.