Most evenings before heading up to bed, I start a load of laundry.
The water fills the basin; I toss in half a cup of liquid soap.
I dump in the pile of dirty clothes and washcloths and towels that sit in the basket. Why are there always so many dirty washcloths?
I close the lid, turn off the light and walk up the stairs, careful not to trip on the one uneven stairs at the top.
At least while I am sleeping one thing will get done.
But I can’t help but feel a twinge of tension. The tension that comes from knowing privilege.
It’s the privilege that allows a machine to do my laundry while I sleep.
It’s the same privilege that allows me to turn on the faucet any time of day knowing very well that water will come out, when many in my community fill up buckets because for them water is not a guarantee.
Or the privilege that comes from living with the physical and emotional security of a door with a lock. I have never lived in a place without both of those.
In most countries, at least the one where I am from and the one where I live, the color of my skin gives me immediate privilege. I know because my husband’s skin color does not afford him the same. We have both felt it.
It would be silly for me to deny the privilege that I have.
Privilege that means I am not forced to choose between buying food for my family or buying medicine. I can have both without so much as a second thought. Can you imagine the heartache a young mother or father must feel when forced to chose? I cannot.
Privilege that means when it rains, it’s an inconvenience for me at best. I may get wet or an outdoor party may get canceled. But my crops or livelihood have never been dependent on the weather. Never.
Maybe the danger of living a life of privilege is how quickly it can disconnect us from the people and the places where we live.
The longer I live outside of the US, the more this tension grows. I don’t think it means we’re supposed to live in guilt and pity. That never helped anyone. However, I don’t think living in denial or ignorance is the answer, either. As with most good things in life there is something about living in between. Or better yet maybe learning to live with the tension.
A Suspension Bridge
I don’t know about you, but living with tensions sounds, quite frankly, horrible and hard.
The only kind of tension that I know is good is the kind that holds up a suspension bridge.
A bridge needs tension to remain suspended. And I often wonder if we need a healthy dose of tension in our life to remain upright. Tension that reminds us that we are in fact connected to each other and the resources in the earth. A tension that pulls on our hearts and minds because maybe that’s how God gets our attention.
What if like a suspension bridge, we were meant to live with tension?
Maybe I need to be reminded of the women walking home from working 10 hours at the coffee plantation behind my house. Maybe I need to feel a tension as I watch her two kids following close behind, carrying wood they just collected on their back. Maybe this should always tug at my heart, especially when I am driving my daughter across town for a pool play date at the loveliest spot in Antigua.
I feel this tension when I hop in my air conditioned car and leave our sweet friends in Coyolate. I drive back to the comfort of my two-story home with a bathtub and they stay in their single room home with a dirt floor and corn stalk walls.
I feel this tension when I buy my iced latte, which I thoroughly enjoy for 12 minutes while pushing Elena in the park. But I know what I just spent on my latte is what a farmer in Santa Maria will make for the whole day, on a good day.
It doesn’t mean I drive around feeling guilty, but it does mean I walk around with a tension. And it’s a tension I am learning to live with. And I think the challenge is not to let this tension paralyze you or fill you will pity, but instead move you to action and awareness.
Maybe my examples are extreme. In the US, you don’t have to feel the tension if you don’t want. Here, I find there is no way to escape it. The discrepancy of privilege and class and gender and race are plain as day here. To me the harder of the two was living in the US, because you don’t have to see the inequality or feel the tension if you don’t want to. It’s fairly easy live within the shelter of our self-contained vehicles, where you can avoid certain parts of town or certain groups of people all together.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor, and philosopher from the 1800s said, “Tension is the great integrity.” He was talking about architectural design, but perhaps the same holds true for life.
When we pray before a meal, I have started thanking God for the hands that planted the food and those that picked it. Because in many ways I know my life is deeply connected to theirs. I am not naïve. I don’t think a simple prayer or acknowledgement changes some of the deep injustices in the world. But I think it’s a place to start.
Even just paying attention does wonders on the human heart. At least it has for me. Sinking into guilt is too easy, but what if there was another option? What is it that gets your attention? What is that you notice? Is it the men who pick up your trash? Or the young guy who mows your lawn? Is it the kids that walk home from school by themselves? Or single mom that waits at the bus station after dark? Maybe it’s the farmers that work in the hot sun and don’t have access to a drinking fountain? Or sunscreen?
What is that you notice in your town? Pay attention to that. Because what I have found is that choosing to identify with one person, or one cause, is a thousand times better than feeing overwhelmed by all of the causes.
I Will Keep Doing Laundry at Night
When I close the laundry lid at night I often think about what a luxury it is that a machine will wash our clothes. I am grateful for the convenience, for the ease and for the fact that it allows me the privilege to take Elena for a walk or catch up on emails, because I am not spending hours bent over a pila hand washing our clothes.
I know most Guatemalan women or young girls spend their morning at the town pila. I sometimes wonder if some of them too might want a washing machine to wash their clothes at night. Wouldn’t it be nice? I think…if everyone had a washing machine?
But then other times, I realize that I bet some of them may actually feel sorry for me. Sorry that I live in a home far away from my mom and grandma and sisters and brothers. How lonely to do laundry at night, by yourself. Maybe I am the one missing out? Imagine how different your life or your friendships would be if you spent a hour or two each day washing, scrubbing, talking, together. I don’t really have that.
And yet again, I am reminded of the tension. I may have a washing machine, but maybe I lack something deeper.
Like all things in life, by the very nature of gaining something, you have to lose something as well.
There is a tension.
And my prayer is that I can find a small piece of integrity there.