"No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died."
-Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Two images; two feelings.
1. It is late. There is a man with an arm that is made of fingers. Rather, there is no arm; his wilted-leaf hand protrudes directly from his shoulder. And his right leg is bent permanently like a spider leg, perpendicularly to the rest of his body. It drags the rest of him along the potholed Avenida Miguel Obando y Bravo, just South of the biggest and shiniest university in the country, which renders him as valued as roadkill, as does our truck, and my pocket full of spending money. Yes, his smallness in this world, his partially paralyzed movement, his legs and hair and absence of body fat--he is quite a Spider-Man, though unlike a spider, bites my conscious suddenly, he is self-aware, and not only in need of food, but love, and he wears some semblance of clothing, even pads on his feet that may have been shoes once. "You remember that there is no social security system to care for people with birth defects and physical impairments," Father Joe says, pretending I could have forgotten for the sake of saying something to fill the space, as the man uses his good arm to wipe the truck's windshield. Usually, in Nicaragua, such windshield-wiping-for-a-living is preceded by the sprinkling of homemade wiper fluid, a combination of soap, spit and oil, but this man has only one usable hand, and to clean his windshield wiper he merely spits first, then wipes, then asks for money. Father Joe gives him some. The spider-man moves toward me. Lurches toward my window, drooling. Stops, says nothing, stares, head fallen to one side. "Close your window," says Father Joe. I do so. I numb out. I am tired. It is late. I stop feeling.
2. It is early. I am energized. The airport lights don't blink. They are the perfect color not to be noticed and fill everyone with fear, impatience, or eager anticipation. Ten scattered, repetitive, bored Atlanta voices guide us through customs toward officers who will let us back in or not. Mine is a gap-toothed, tall 30-something with large round blue eyes. They are particularly powerfully scrutinizing as part of his dark black face.
"What were you doing in Nicaragua?" He asks pleasantly, hurriedly.
"Visiting. Two weeks. I don't like the picture the kiosk took of me," I say, filling the space as Father Joe did, left by my reluctance to share the whole story, or perhaps, our system's inflexibility to hear it.
"Trust me; this is better than most of them I see. Nice earrings. You bringing anything back with you?"
"Well, these earrings. Some napkins. A couple cookies." Also, a re-broken heart barely held together by gratitude glue and an existential crisis, I send him telepathically. Do they teach border control officers to read minds?
"Welcome back," he says, and kind of throws my passport through the glass slit, and I catch it and notice how springy my legs feel as I re-enter the States. I remember the Spider-Man. I wonder if his legs ever feel springy.
Donne said no man is an island. I am not sure whether I am one or not, but I do, most of the time, live on and in one. It is called the privilege of being born and having my basic needs, including love, met to the point that I am aware I am alive, can climb almost any kind of mountain, and search for purpose. I seem to have found one. I remember it when I step into gaps, cross borders (see one of my very first blog posts in 2009, when I visited the State Park between Tijuana and San Diego), break bubbles. The purpose is to feel fully the weight of the islands on either side of the gap, to move reverently through the numbness required by suffering to an awakening on springy legs, and to fortify a bridge between places like Spider-Man and Nice Earrings Island.
Some people have found their purpose is parenthood. Helping people. Bringing others to Jesus. Living in the moment. Chewing philosophies I can barely sift through and washing them down with marijuana or yoga or video games or sports. Perhaps I am being an exceptionalist, inflated romantic when I say such purposes seem more pleasant than mine. Certainly, for a moment, it is pleasant to feel welcomed home to a safe place, to drink water that tastes like life, not chlorine or algae, and afford a hummus wrap at an airport food court. These are moments I can cherish, because "if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one," as the Baker's Wife Sings in Into the Woods.
But then I leave the airport. I physically return to my comfortable island--a house my parents own in a wine town in a cold green place in Oregon. Tired and numb are back. I form the words to tell my mother about the highlights of the trip--conversations, cold water on my hands from rain during a drought when the government has turned off all municipal water, laughing deeper than culture-crossing can comprehend, dancing, views of volcanoes melting into the Sea. I don't know how to voice the rest of what I feel, a feeling of having everything I need when others don't. A feeling that I know nothing and everything, and that if there is a God, She-He-It surrounds me in a healing hug and then kicks my butt as I catch my passport and go to see Spider-Man.
Funny, really, how much this Nicaraguan version of Peter Parker has to do with the real one, how much he and I and you and everything are part of the same interrelated Something. He says, windshield wiper in his only good hand, staring at me, the drool now gone, "Oíste, chavala, un gran poder conlleva con una gran responsibilidad." (With great power comes great responsibility.)