Black mold has invaded our apartment and is growing in the walls. For days now I’ve not slept well. First workers came and pulled off the tiles in the bathroom to fix the leaky pipe, releasing the reeking smell into the air. They have since tiled the wall back in this week, but the caustic smell is still there. The mold is masked, but continues on inside the wall and is pushing its way through into the living room.
Clearly, the mold had been there for some time, though we didn’t realize it. Red or puffy eyes in the morning, wheezing at night, draining sinuses, rashes on the skin, and yes, even hair loss, which I’ve been noticing for some time now and wondering why it is happening, these (and more) are the signs of reaction to mold, but because we couldn’t see it, we didn’t know the mold was growing behind the walls until the neighbors complained their walls were showing stains.
When the workers broke open the walls they released the toxic smells. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing how we might get better at connecting with people and situations we found difficult in our work. She asked if I had listened to Brene Brown‘s TED talk “The Gift of Imperfection.” I hadn’t, but went home that evening and listened to several of her talks. One of Brown’s statements, out of many that resonate with me is this: “Unused creativity is not benign; it metastasizes. It turns into grief, judgement, sorrow, and shame.” I thought of the mold behind the wall. A pipe behind a wall leaks. You don’t realize it, but the mold begins growing, and eventually you have a problem you can’t fix simply by breaking open the tile, repairing the leak, and then tiling the wall back up. The mold is growing now, and you’ve got to remove it and create something new.
Since the apartment I live in isn’t mine, I don’t get to make the choice about removing the mold growing in the wall or covering it back up with tile, however. The choice of putting something in the wall that kills the mold, or to mask it with clorox instead, isn’t mine. As I lie in the bed at night coughing, I think of the people everywhere who are living with mold or who have lived in oppressive environments.
When the Czech writer and illustrator Peter Sis, came to the American Embassy School here in Delhi several years back, he explained over dinner with a small group of teachers that he is a man without a country. The country he was born into, Czechoslovakia, no longer exists. Those words have echoed in my mind ever since. It took Odysseus 10 years to make it back home after the Trojan wars. That is a long time, but some people can never return home because there is no home to return to. There is suffering in situations like these. Once you are gone a decade from your home, you are changed. You might return home, but you won’t necessarily every be at home again as the world of home, like a ship under sail, continues on its own trajectory while you have been sailing along a different route encountering land and storms not like those you might have experienced had you stayed on the ship you began on. All seas are not the same.
When some people leave home, they don’t want to return, however. My husband’s grandparents came from Italy, but when asked if he would like to go on a trip with us to visit Italy, his father expressed absolutely no interest in it. “Why would I want to go there?” was his response. That was the end of the conversation. As someone who loves travel, is curious about the world, and wants to understand the roots I’m connected to, that statement perplexed me. Currently, I’m reading Milan Kundera‘s book of essays, Encounter. In his essay, “Exile as Liberation According to Vera Linhartova,” Kundera quotes her saying, “The writer is above all a free person, and the obligation to preserve his independence against all constraints comes before any other consideration. And I mean not only the insane constraints imposed by an abusive political power, but the restrictions–all the harder to evade because they are well-intentioned–that cite a sense of duty to one’s country.” People have fled their countries because of war, have been exiled for their ideas or their writing. But some people don’t chose to return because greater than a bond to history or language, is the person’s desire to choose his or her own path, one that has given them what they sense to be a greater freedom, freedom they wouldn’t have if they returned to the world their history is rooted in. France allowed Linhartova’s creative freedom. Freedom is connected to struggle.
My husband’s grandparents gave up their lives in Italy, and struggled under great difficulty to make a life in the United States. Similar to Linhartova, remaining outside the country of their birth was a choice. The struggle to make a life in another country and culture allowed their children and grandchildren greater opportunity and freedom. Standing between two worlds, they found a home outside of the definitions of home they knew. They lived on the edge of great challenges and risk. Brene Brown says in her interview with Krista Tippett “The Courage to Be Vulnerable” on Tippett’s site On Being, “The …beautiful thing I look back on in my life is coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could come out from underneath…the moments that made me, were moments of struggle.” Our family’s Italian grandparents, like immigrants in general, were brave. Their stories aren’t without loss and grief, but they they followed the path that called to them, and today, without ever having met them, I feel gratitude for the daring their lives demonstrated in giving up the world they knew in exchange for a life still full of difficulty, but one lived with hope and a sense of possibility.
Living here in India, I constantly see people struggling for survival. I want the people I encounter to know they will get to eat every day, to be able to go to school, to realize they have stories worth telling and hearing, that their lives have meaning and their creative expression is valuable. But the poor of the world, and those without opportunity are often unseen and ignored. To go to school in Delhi, a child needs a uniform. Some families are too poor to buy the uniforms, and therefore, their children don’t attend school. There is need.
Outside the gates of our school here in Delhi this morning, children who live in the slum across the street waited to be measured for school uniforms that teachers here at our school are raising money to buy for them. Education will give these children opportunity.
John Ciardi, in his poem, “Matins,” writes about a poor woman who died on the streets of Paris,
It froze in Paris last night and a rag doll
that had been a woman too tattered-old to notice
turned up stiff on a bench. So the police,
who spend least on the living, paid to haul
nothing to nothing. She could have lived for a week
on what the bureau will spend on paper work;
The poem goes on to describe how more was spent on the woman after she died than it might have taken to help her live, and find how to give her a place in the world. Ciardi’s poem closes with these words:
risked from love and held must be put down
to walk itself away, and turn by turn
become another. This dirty doll unheld
by any arm is one altar piece
from which mad Francis learned to be a priest.
It takes courage to notice the things in our lives and our world that aren’t going so well, that are like the mold growing behind the wall, and to move out into a life of challenge, but the possibility of greater freedom. If we continue to ignore those things that are eating away at us, however, or don’t give creative expression to it when it’s not in our power to change things, eventually the mold breaks through the wall and we’re no longer living in a life engendering place.
Inside the world of discomfort and the wreaking smell of mold, some are brave enough to break open walls and persevere as they reach to find a path with their lives that offers hope and makes a difference. Noticing the poverty around him is what called St. Francis to live his life under the vow of poverty, a life given to empathy and compassion that still touches our lives centuries later. The world could use more people as brave as he.
It is late afternoon and we have returned from the art room where my husband, Michael, holds an adult art afternoon on Sundays where many people (like myself) are exploring art for the first time, learning they can make things they didn’t know they could. Now he’s out in the community garden planting seeds because tonight is the blood moon, a rare lunar eclipse of a super moon, and a good time for planting, he says. It’s an effort, he explains, to make a healthy life for people. “To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly,” Brene Brown states. From organizing the effort to raise the funds for having the children’s uniforms made so they can go to school, to helping people discover ways to be creative, to planting seeds, to preparing this evening’s meal, which he is about to do, my husband is a man who day by day is following St. Francis’s path of giving himself to the world around him. If we are going to change the world, surely it will take each of us being faithful in the small things with those around us daily. As Mother Teresa said, “that is where our strength lies.”