You don’t go to school because you don’t learn anything, even when the teacher does show up, and because your mother doesn’t notice whether you go or not.
She doesn’t notice because apart from buying herself a coke or some beans every few hours, she stays in “your” cardboard hut, spending your father’s drug sale money, whatever’s left after his nightly boozing, of course, on cable television. She watches telenovelas (soap operas) that you don’t understand.
Your older brothers are trying to keep themselves alive by robbing buses all day, so they can’t give you something to do.
Luckily for you, in your barrio, next to the Comedor (eatery) that gives you a free meal every morning, there is a humble library. It has lots of books with pretty pictures that numb your mind for a few minutes. There are words on the pages, but you never learned to read, and even if you can sound out a few letters, they switch places on you and your eyes blur them together, such that reading hurts too much.
|Esteven and Alejandro outside the library|
The life I just described belonged to a frequent library “client” named Alejandro. He lived across the alley from the library, so like it or not, I saw him every day. He played all day in the dirt, with various cheap games.
One favorite was top-spinning. Alejandro and his cronies—Laura Fabiana, Esteven, Cambell, and so many I can’t name—would place chipped sidewalk pieces in a circle they drew in the dirt, wind their adobe-colored tops tightly in dishwater strings, and hurl the tops at the ground, aiming to hit the chipped concrete. I remember how their biceps flexed and eyes grew firey and focused before releasing the tops. Such strength, determination, anger, potential. To be NFL quarterbacks. Or world-class archers. Or farmers. Or mechanics. Or pistol-wielding gang members.
But being too poor for dreams and too young for gangs, they play with tops.
Marbles were the weekly treat. Perhaps mom decided it was high-time Alejandro bought her a coke, so she gave him six córdobas, and risking the spanking if she found out, he bought himself three marbles. Or perhaps he found them in the dump, remnants of a richer kid’s boredom. Or perhaps it was Friday, the day the library loaned out marbles.
However Alejandro found those marbles, it happened weekly. Then he’s lose them or they’d get stolen. Which is why the humble library would hesitate to loan them out.
The sight of those marbles in Alejandro’s hand is one I will not forget. I’d place them there and look into his eyes, hoping to convey the importance of returning a loan so precious to so many children. For a few seconds he’d just look at them in his grungy palm. His eyes contracted and relaxed and glistened. Three smooth crystals in a cracking calloused shell. As round as his protruding, foodless belly. Three gemstone tickets to hope in a grey-brown world.
I came to understand that kids most liked the games and activities that gave them control of something resembling money or food. Monopoly, Candyland, marbles. Temptations of a life they’d never lead.
This past Friday I went to see Jack, a spiritual director. To get to his house in Portland, I drove a car, shinier than any marble Alejandro would ever see. Before Jack said a word, I spent a long time crying, thoughts and heart flying too fast to comprehend, and then zoning out by staring at the startling blue and green of the Oregon outdoors. Blues and greens that reminded me of the crystals in Alejandro’s hands. I told Jack that I don’t how how to find the space to grieve in this place.
Years ago, Jack spent time in rural Guatemala, and described the first time he left the campo to go to the city to buy some medicine. He entered a supermarket and found himself staring at an aisle stocked with weight-loss products. On sale.
Weight loss. Money spent to lose weight. What would Alejandro think of that?
Then Jack placed before me two netted bags of something small, round, beautiful. One bag blue, the other bag green. “I just bought these, and you’ll be the first recipient,” he said. “These marbles represent your tears. Every day, you need to hold them in your hand, and give them as much space as they ask of you. God needs you to cry God’s tears.”
I took three blue, three green, and held them in my hand. My world crashed into itself. “You don’t know…” I tried to begin, but tears congealed the memory. He told me to take my time.
A few minutes later, I was able to tell Alejandro’s story. “In Nicaragua, children would save up to buy marbles. Their favorite game. What all the poor children played, in order to distract themselves from food they didn’t have and things they couldn’t do. Marbles were so coveted, so cherished.”
As the salty tears from my eyes mixed with the gemstone tears in my hand, Jack whistled. “Oh. That hit a heart-chord for you, didn’t it. Perhaps they’re going to be too much for right now.”
Not too much. Too perfect.
And so, because I cannot give them to Alejandro, I hold these treasures in my hand, and cry God’s tears.