Archives for the month of: October, 2013

20131006-163337.jpgThe students greet us at the door with besos (specifically, a single kiss planted on the cheek) and abrazos, Argentine style, the light of the lamps casting a warm glow on the tangerine-colored walls of their living room in strong contrast to the darkening sky outside.  We arrived at the student house for an asado, to be prepared by Martin, an experienced Argentinian asador.  Martin, who also has a Ph.D. in political science and teaches a class on poverty to our students, was behind the house placing various cuts of costilla de vaca (beef ribs), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (pork sausage), matambre (beef), and chinchulin (glands) on two large steel grills covering the concrete block barbeque located just outside the quincho (outdoor room) in the backyard.  He placed blackened branches, still aflame, upright in one corner of the barbeque, and as they crumbled into glowing coals, carefully scraped them into thin layers of gray and red embers under the grilling, crackling meat.

Various students brought out platters of salame, cheese, and freshly baked focaccia bread, some rounded loaves garnished with rosemary on top, others topped with sliced tomatoes or plain (the baking of bread led by Catherine, one of our students).  These dishes comprised the picadas, which precede the eating of the food—okay, meat–associated with the asado itself.  Three heaping bowls of salad and a long low container of Caesar dressing which Amanda, another student, had prepared based on her family’s recipe, were also brought to the table.  Meanwhile, swarming kids and adults of various ages played fútbol on the wide lawn in the backyard near the quincho, their squeals and yelps of delight, mixing in with fragments of conversation, music from the boom box, and the wafting fragrance of grilled meat.

On this night, I felt something shift inside me as we shared in this traditional Argentine ritual–faculty, staff and our families, as well as the students of the Casa program (about thirty of us in all, with about a third of our group representing native Argentinians).  What was different, I realized, is that we were finally settling into a rhythm of living that felt familiar and dear, and somewhere in the process had become a real community.  The “mother” Casa program in El Salvador—Casa de la Solidaridad–through its long experience and wisdom, has developed a weekly routine that both anchors Casa students to provide stability and security, while also facilitating growth.  These rituals include a “fiesta de la limpieza” (weekly house cleaning chores), community night (discussions in the house that arise out of what it means to engage in simple living and intentional community), spirituality night, M/W/F classes, and T/Th days in praxis communities.  In Argentina, Friday evenings have become a ritual in which students cook a meal for the larger community, including Doug, me, and four of our children—“family nights” they have come to call these shared meals, including this asado. 

It helps to step back and remember that when students participate in the Casa program, they have chosen to leave (for a defined time) their families, friends, and their incredibly busy and rich lives as students and leaders at their home institutions in the U.S.  They have willingly given up their constant access to the internet, their use of cell phones (for all but emergencies), and have traded their cars for public transportation and walking.  They have allowed themselves to become cultural outsiders—instead of being cool and competent, they have opened themselves to not knowing, to navigating the complete unknown.  This is a world in which they are defined as foreign, not the other way around.  A world that was so unfamiliar to them in language, emotional expression, social norms, traffic rules, and even seasons at the beginning of the semester.  And now, twice a week they ride their buses, shuttles and taxis to get to their praxis sites, spending time with kids and adults in these communities, hanging out, helping, talking, eating, playing and generally coming to know and to love individuals whose lives and realities are so different from their own.

When they get back to their house, students join their eight other companions, and two staff members, individuals who were strangers to them but a few short weeks ago.  And now all of them live together in a large 4-bedrom house, with a quincho and asado in the backyard.  Each week, they eagerly catch up with each other after their praxis site days.  Each week, they also pile together on couches to read, do homework, watch videos on bunk beds, prepare compost for an emerging garden, sing prayers, and eat meals around a single table.  And always, they are taking in and trying to digest their experiences, talking to each other, journaling, calling home, and reflecting more formally in writing for class assignments.  What does it mean for them to do this?  To live like this for a time, at least?  What does it all add up to?

Each semester represents a time for students that is set apart from the rest of their lives.  It is a liminal period, and perhaps might even be regarded as holy (one meaning of which is “to be set apart”)Here in Argentina, students are able to try on a different perspective, viewing their lives in the U.S. from outside their usual vantage point, testing out questions they have about their place in the world from their experience of being in a different reality.  It is all-absorbing to be here.  The focus on simple living and intentional community is to help them consider, more fully, what it is that calls to them most deeply in their lives.  It takes a lot of guts to do this, to try to identify, respond, and to be true to the truth of one’s life.  Who will they become?  What will become of them?

When we came to Córdoba to help establish the program as LMU faculty members, we knew that we, too, were seeking a time set apart from the rest of our lives.  We had made a three-year commitment to be here with students, which meant we sold our two cars, rented our home, got rid of many of our possessions (storing the rest), as we moved to Argentina with two suitcases each—four kids, us, and our cat (who did not get two suitcases)—last summer.   To what am I being drawn?  Who am I becoming?  How do I choose to live? These are questions that are not only meant for college students, but for all of us at different moments in our lives.  Yet, the move we made, big and dramatic as it was, tends to be viewed more the hallmark of young adulthood than of middle age.  “You are moving to Argentina with four kids for how long??” we would hear again and again.  And we do sometimes ask ourselves, we’d have to confess, “What were we thinking?” in the midst of the bewilderment we often feel in light of all the changes we have faced in these short months here.

Nonetheless, as we see the changes in the students’ rhythm of living, listen to the Spanish that flows more easily from their lips, witness their enthusiasm at hearing about each others’ praxis days, see their simple pleasure in preparing meals together, talking about their lives and loves with each other—well, we feel the beauty of who they are emerging more and more.  And we are deeply moved by them, and by the chance we have to be part of their lives during their time in the Casa program.  In taking our own leap of faith, asking similar questions as our students–albeit in a different form and at a very different time in our lives–we are learning again with them what it means to inhabit our lives more fully, as part of a world that is overwhelming both in beauty and in suffering.  Learning to belong to each other.  There are always challenges in life no doubt, and life is not easy enough for too many people in this world.  Yet still, this is joy.

Jennifer S. Abe, Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada

Little SchoolThis week, we read The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival with our students in the Casa program (as part of our ‘contemplatives in action’ course). It is Alicia Partnoy’s beautiful, heartbreaking memoir of her time in La Escuelita–one of the infamous detention centers used by the Argentine dictatorship to hold and torture those deemed to be ‘subversives’ or ‘enemies of the state.’ Alicia is a colleague of ours at Loyola Marymount University, a native Argentinian and a strong supporter of our new Casa program in Córdoba. She is also one of the ‘disappeared,’ one of those who survived. And she has written what has become recognized as one of earliest and most important accounts of that experience to emerge. Jennifer Abe, one of our faculty co-directors in the program, has been using The Little School in her  LMU classes during the past several years, often inviting Alicia to speak to her students about her experience. Every time, students are shaken by the sheer force of Alicia’s account, by the realization that such things are still happening in our world (Abu Graib, to mention only one of the most awful recent cases in the history of the United States), and that they themselves are being invited to reckon with and respond to this reality. Yesterday was no different. Except in one important respect: we all felt the power of reading The Little School here in Argentina. One of the questions we have carried with us as we planned for and then embarked upon this new Casa program is how we would engage this particular period of Argentina’s history.  Of course, the history of Argentina cannot and should not be reduced to those terrible years between 1976 and 1983. And during our time here in Argentina, we are making an effort to understand and enter into and respond to the entire life and history and culture of this place. Still, the events of those years, during which many, many thousands of Argentines were killed or disappeared (almost 30,000 persons between 1976 and 1979–the worst years of military rule), have a particular claim on our attention. And, thanks to Alicia Partnoy’s courageous memoir, we have been given one way to begin engaging those events seriously and thoughtfully. I want to focus my attention here on the work of the students in engaging Alicia’s work, for that is where the life of this program can be seen most clearly. Yesterday, students were invited to read aloud from and comment on a passage of the book that had captured their attention or moved them. One by one they did so, each of them giving voice to a particular moment in the memoir that, for them, proved unforgettable. It was really something to hear Alicia’s text given ‘voice’ in this way, through a multitude of voices, each one distinct, each one giving expression to the text in a slightly different way. Earlier, we had listened to a recording of Alicia herself reading aloud from her book, en español. That was also beautiful to hear, the musicality of her voice bringing the text to life in a way that only she could do. Still, here were our students, inhabiting the text in a way that only they could do. And I felt a growing sense of amazement as we moved around the circle, each student reading in turn, each one of them allowing the work to flow through them, out into the world. The life of the text taken up into and extended through the imaginative life of its readers–in this case, this little band of students in the Casa de la Mateada program in Córdoba, Argentina. This communal reading of the text also contained many silences, as we struggled to take in and respond to the immensity of what we were hearing. And the students’ comments and observations were also encircled by much silence, as they paused to search for words to express what they felt and thought: a searching out of language to express what could not, perhaps, be fully expressed. The hesitations were, I think, born of genuine humility, rooted in our shared sense of the power and honesty of Alicia’s witness. We wanted to honor her testimony by taking care with our own responses, by speaking as honestly and truthfully of what is in us. And by acknowledging the real limits of our capacity to understand, enter into and grasp what we were reading and hearing. Such humility is necessary, I think, to all genuine learning. Yet it is also important to recognize the changes that can occur as a result of one’s encounter with such a work, and the new understanding that can emerge. It is still too early to say all that happened to us from our reading of The Little School. But one thing seems clear: we cannot look at the world in quite the same way as we did before. Indeed, the book is, among other things, a sharp reminder of the importance of learning to look more carefully at the world, of learning to see. Of not being afraid to look, or to see. Every page of Alicia’s book contains images of La Escuelita: things she was not supposed to see through her blindfold but which she did see because of a tiny, imperceptible opening: the plastic sandals with one daisy, the blood on the tiles, the scraps of bread placed between her toes and passed to another prisoner, the path to the latrine. These is a dark humor to this. It is her nose, the size and shape of which she has long struggled with, that gives her access to the world: “My nose allows me to see. No I haven’t suddenly become metaphoric. Indeed, it’s thanks to my noise that I can see. What happens is that its shape keeps my blindfold slightly lifted. Portions of the world parade before these small slits.” “I crouched above the latrine and I saw–from under my blindfold–Pato’s tennis shoes. He was watching me. I also saw my dark red dress, and I tried to cover my legs with it. I spotted my slipper with its plastic daisy on the dirty floor caked with urine and excrement. There was a nice breeze, and if I didn’t have my nose facing the latrine I would have breathed deeply. Birds sang and I heard the sound of a train.”  Ordinary moments in a day, degradation mixed with surprising beauty. She lets all of it stand, witnessing to her experience of this place. But she also strains to see (and describes) what cannot be seen with eyes alone: her own fear and anxiety, the courage and simple kindness of her fellow prisoners, the unrelenting cruelty of her guards, the alternating feelings of utter despondency and unexpected hope. And she acknowledges, in one one of the most haunting passages of the book, what she can no longer see at all (but so longs to see): the face of her daughter. Even the memory of it has been lost to her in that terrible place. Learning to see. In The Little School, this becomes an essential moral task, a way of affirming that one is still alive, still human, especially in the face of the most aggressive efforts to destroy all traces of that humanity, to reduce human beings to something expendable.  In this context, the work of seeing, and bearing witness to what one sees, becomes a fundamental responsibility that one is called to fulfill–not only for one’s own sake but also for the sake of all those who cannot speak or bear witness themselves. I am beginning to understand such seeing as one crucial expression of contemplative practice–something that is at the heart of our work in the Casa program and which has always been central to the Ignatian spiritual tradition. To seek to become what Jerome Nadal (an early companion of Ignatius of Loyola) described as a ‘contemplative in action’ means opening oneself deeply to the work of seeing and bearing witness to reality as it presents itself. Not turning away or hiding from that reality, but seeking to behold as carefully and fully as we can the whole mysterious reality of the world unfolding before us. In all its beauty and yes, its unspeakable horror. Reading Alicia’s book with our students yesterday, I found myself recalling another faithful witness who has become important to me: the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. In one of his essays, Milosz reflects on his own understanding of what it means to see: “‘To see’ means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. ‘To see and describe’ may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were by wrestling the past from fictions and legends.” This, it seems to me, is a wonderful comment on precisely the kind of seeing that one encounters on nearly every page of  The Little School. It is a way of seeing that we ourselves are called to emulate, in the life of this program, and in our lives more generally. We have only begun to embark on this work together here. But I feel so encouraged–by Alicia’s work and by our students’ open-hearted response to it–about the prospect of learning, little by little, to give ourselves over to this important work here in Argentina.