Friday, July 25, 2008

Right and Wrong?

Barbara Kingsolver, in her novel The Poisonwood Bible, stated that “everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.” Conversely, I’ve discovered that some things that I’ve been sure is wrong can be perfectly right in another place; namely, Jamaica.

I arrived in this magical, mystical land of extremes on Friday, July 18th, 2008, and everything I have ever known to be right or wrong was immediately challenged.

Driving on the “right” side of the road now means that we must drive on the left. And at first, driving seemed wrong, all wrong. Drivers swerve in and out of traffi and honk when they turn corners, pass you, or say hello. But maybe they’re the ones who have got it right. They’ve got places to be, man, and the swerving isn’t a side effect of the Red Stripe at lunch; it’s to avoid the potholes that are everywhere.

After working at camp and in schools for years, I thought I had an idea of the “right” way to interact with children. But I was wrong, all wrong. In America, affection is expressed by a pat on the back. In America, it is wrong for adults to be too physically affectionate with children. Here, children want to be loved and want to love you. I have had children wrapped around my waist, attached to my leg, draped on my arms. Children cannot get close enough; they want to be on your lap, under the comforting warmth of your arm, and they want to be hugged all of the time. And isn’t that what all children want? I’m telling you, these kids have got it right.

If mass is to start at 11, that’s when it starts, right? Wrong. After attending mass at the mother parish, Immaculate Conception Church in Stony Hill, I went with two Eucharistic Ministers to the smaller church higher in the hills in a community called Mount Friendship. We arrived at 11, but the priest was not there and the church was locked. The key had to be sent for. Wrong, all wrong? No—the hour wait gave the kids a chance to climb the trees to get some Jamaican apples (which are magenta and taste like a pear), a chance for me to get a tour of the basic school from one of the churchgoers, and a chance to get to know Ms. Hilton, an 80-year-old woman of extraordinary grace and strength. And, when the service began at noon to a massive audience of 13 people, it was perfectly right. The prayer and the music were some of the loudest and most heartfelt I believe that I have ever heard.

And there are the little, personal things that have also challenged my understanding of right and wrong. Here, since our kitchen window is not glassed in but held together by iron bars, we toss our food scraps out into the bush beyond. Isn’t that wrong? No, it’s right…if we were to leave food scraps in our trash, the animals would come inside to get it. We put everything, even cereal, into the fridge. Wrong? No, right. Anything left open will immediately be devoured by tiny black ants.

The one thing I can’t reconcile is the need to douse myself in bug spray, particularly before I go to sleep. That must to be wrong…I’m just waiting for the third arm to sprout due to the substantial amounts of Deet I have ingested by this point. For that, and more reflections on life as a Passionist Volunteer in Jamaica, please stay tuned. :-)