Friday, November 17, 2017

Dispatches from a Broken World

The world was always broken, but I forgot.

Here is what I once knew: The people in charge are busy being in charge. When you tell them you need help, they don't listen. They look the other way. And you wonder: did they hear me? Did I speak?

If you're lucky, you learn: You are on your own.

But, as I said, I forgot.

The world is beautiful too, and I forget this daily.

Here is what I once knew: stories read to me at bedtime, songs played downstairs on a piano, the notes drifting into my dreams, a yard with a tree to climb, a friend I loved so much that when I pushed her away, I missed her laughter for years.

In June when I was in Venice, I walked one afternoon alone through the winding narrow streets.

A huge church rises up, how churches seem to do in this place, so that one moment there is an alleyway and the next, there is a large courtyard, a statue, a massive building.

Some of these churches you have to pay to enter. If you are a woman, and you have bare shoulders, you have to cover yourself. But you won't know until you open the door. I walk toward this particular church and freeze when I turn the corner and almost run into an old woman.

Old woman doesn't accurately describe her. This woman is shrunken and wrinkled, her face like the shriveled up face of an apple doll. She is dressed all in black. Her fingers, when she reaches out to me, are gnarled twigs. Honestly, she looks like a witch in a fairy tale.

I brush past her, anxiously, thinking what I always do when I am faced with broken-ness, with hunger, with poverty, with illness, with difference-- that I have to get away from it. And then there's the immediate next thought, the one that comes from the world-- the one that says: This is a scam. She's a thief. Pretend she's not here.

These are the thoughts that make me feel better about not helping her.

I go inside the church. These churches. Oh my God. The walls are covered in priceless paintings. Sculptures. Stained glass. Ornate fixtures and candles. They are monuments to human achievement and beauty. Symbols of brilliant engineering and architecture, art, music -- the very best of what we humans can create.

You have to pay in this church. I stand in a line waiting to step up to the cashier. I am looking around for the cost of the ticket. I am gawking at the massive paintings on the walls. A woman says sternly, "Senora. Senora!"

It takes me a minute to realize she is talking to me. The cashier, clerk, whatever you call the people who take your money when you want to look inside a church. She rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath. I am the stupid tourist in line who doesn't know it is my turn next. The one who doesn't speak the language or know the rules.

Publicly shamed, I pay the entrance fee. Any joy I had being inside the church is gone. The art on the walls is just art on the walls. More paintings of Mary holding Jesus. Saints, many of their faces modeled after whoever paid the artist to paint the painting. I am thinking of the old lady outside begging in her black clothes in the heat and scaring the crap out of tourists. I am thinking of the woman who just yelled at me. I am arguing with her in my head. I mean, what kind of customer service is that, yelling at tourists. In a freaking church.

This church, like a lot of churches over here, has altars and candles. If you pay a coin, you can light a candle and say a prayer. Usually I like doing that, my old Catholic school upbringing coming back to me. People kneel at the kneelers and bless themselves. They leave pictures behind of sick and damaged loved ones. You can feel their desperation, their faith. I don't need to know the language to know what they are begging for.


Please God, hear me. Help me.

But now, in this church, my hands around the unfamiliar coins, I don't want to light a stupid candle. And why should I have to pay to say a prayer? Why should I give any of my coins to this church when right outside the door, the oldest human being I have ever seen, stands in need?

I pull every coin out of my pocket. I have no idea how much money it is. I never know what I am carrying over here. It could be two bucks. It could be twenty. Whatever. I walk past the paintings and statues and stained glass. I walk past the rolling-her-eyes-at-the-dumb-tourists clerk. I walk outside into the blazing sun.

I look the woman in the eyes when I give her my money. They're watery and white and I don't know if she can see me, but she says, Grazie.

I sit in the courtyard and watch tourists going into and out of the church. I watch the ones who freeze when they nearly run into the woman, the ones who brush past her, the few who reach for money.  A crumpled up newspaper rolls across the courtyard like a tumbleweed. A teenager reaches to grab it before it falls into the canal.

She misses, and an older woman nearby smirks as if to say, why did you bother? Who cares? A little girl shrieks and clutches her father's hand. "Did you see the witch?" she says.

"Shh, don't say that," says her father. He smiles apologetically at me.

The little girl laughs. She lets go of her father's hand and chases the pigeons around the courtyard. A gondola glides by the crumpled newspaper in the water. The church bells ring.

Here is what I know, what I have always known--

The world is broken

The world is beautiful


  1. A great reminder of ALL faces of humanity. Of kindness. Of need. Of action. Be the change we want to see in the world, one word, one deed, one dear day, at a time. We never know when our last day will come knocking, or when it will slip past us.