on the altar of humility

October 13th, 2005
Xela, Guatemala
Tropical Storm Stan Evacuee Camp


I look around the room, but there is only an old woman stooped over a broom sweeping the floor.

People have been hissing at me all day, discretely calling me over to this or that corner and whispering a request to politely fetch them an additional bag of beans, extra bottle of water or second sweater beyond that which has been sanctioned to them.

Hesitant to source the hiss and address its subsequent plea, I return to my task of untying a difficult knot that cinches together another black bag of donated clothing. I pull out a tiny pair of jeans fit for either an 13-year old or an American celebrity and deliberate which pile, “girls” or “women,” is appropriate…


The woman with the broom is now standing erect and points at something on the floor near me. I follow her finger and find the destination of its direction to be that of a naked doll which, with no appropriate pile, lay abandoned, awkward and alone on the floor. The old woman’s manner is that of an experienced grandmother with a command and resolve that negates all hesitation and demands only immediate attention.

“Well pick it up!” she furrows her brow and says with noted impatience for my delayed comprehension.

With the loyalty and respect of a granddaughter of an age fitting into the jeans I hold, I immediately obey her command. The old woman resumes sweeping and when I collect the doll and hand it to her, she looks up at me as if I have gravely disturbed both her sacred work and sanity and then rolls her eyes at my obvious idiocy. “Not for me! Go upstairs and give it to the child! Give it to the girl taking care of her baby brother!”

Not because I can’t find the right words in Spanish, but because I can’t find my comprehension in any language, I stand silenced between my desire to comply and confusion over the command. Accentuated by an exhausted sigh, the old woman finally realizes the foreign nature of whom she is addressing; she gracefully leans her broom against the way and then gathers both her compassion and my hand and leads me through a door.

As she leads me up the stairs she explains, “You see, there is a child here that I want to have this doll. Her mother went back to their house to recover what items she could before they fled during the storm to take rescue in this evacuee center. The mother left her young daughter here to care for her baby son, but the girl is too young to be caring for the child, and she keeps leaving her brother alone, and I think that perhaps if she has a toy, she will not go straying out into the hallways and will instead stay in the room and care for her brother.”

When we reach the top of the stairs, we begin to walk down the hallway of, what appears to be, an old school building. The old woman, still holding my hand, pulls me into one of the classrooms. Against one wall a dozen miniature-people-sized school desks that are piled upside down on top of each other confirm that the building is indeed a school in its off-Storm-Stan-evacuee-house hours. On the floor thick blankets are spread marking the territory, and fencing the limited rescued possessions, of each family of evacuees that occupy the room. The old woman shakes her head that this room is not the one she seeks and tugs on my sleeve and wandering eyes to move along.

When we move back into the hall, the old woman’s ears suddenly perk and her steps fall with renewed certainty as we follow the wail of a small child towards a neighboring classroom. Blankets, here too, patchwork the floor into individual camps marked by one or more sleeping bodies sprawled across each site. On the blanket nearest the door, a child, owning not more than two years, sits with back erect and mouth open, crying for the return of familiar company that’s evidently disappeared.

A small group of young boys kick at a makeshift ball nearby and the old woman grabs the attention of one with a firm hand. The boy stands quickly to attention and I see that I’m not the only one that falls into order under the observation of my companion commandant.

“Who is the guardian of this crying child?!” she assertively questions. The young boy turns and takes notice, as if for the first time, of the toddler with the red and tear-stained face sitting nearby. Suddenly silenced by a binky of unaccustomed attention, the toddler’s wail stops as he too falls into the same silent trance graced upon all by the old woman’s grandmotherly gaze.

“Well?!,” she continues in demand of an answer.

The boy lowers his head, heavied by grandmotherly-inspired guilt, and shrugs his shoulders in shamed uncertainty. One of his playmates jumps to his rescue and says, “I think his sister is caring for him, she’s in the hall.”

Perhaps intuitively sensing that she was being called upon the small sister makes an appearance in the doorway.

I am shocked. The girl could not be any older than six years old. She’s a year younger than my little niece who isn’t allowed on the street sidewalk alone. And this child’s duty is to care for a toddler of whom she is, at the most, four years senior?

“Come here child,” the old woman commands softly and the girl obeys.

In a voice on a bed of compassion and love the old woman instructs, “You are a very good girl to be taking care of your little brother when your mother is gone. But you must stay close to him, in this room, so that he knows that you are near and doesn’t feel lonely. Now look, we’ve brought you a present…”

The woman cues me with a nudge to offer the doll. I squat to the girl’s height and offer her the gift. The small girl’s eyes widen with wonder and delight as she eagerly embraces her new toy.

“So you stay in this room and take good care of these babies okay?” she finishes with a loving pat on the girl’s shoulder. Then with the safe soft hand she takes mine again and leads me out to the hallway.

On my way out, I turn and look back at the mat where the baby brother is now gurgling giggles of joy at the dancing doll that the small girl bounces in front of him in a successful effort to entertain them both.

Three babies.

Sometimes I think that humanity is long overdue for a huge dose of Humility that Pachamama (Mother Earth) will be all too happy to administer with a reality -crashing and -questioning course of tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes. Having to silently witness the rape of the world on a daily basis, I find myself sometimes secretly cheering for her well deserved slaps back. Very aware of the red on my own hands, each morning, I offer my own existence for sacrifice on the Altar of Humanly Humility, alerting the Earth that I would be honored to donate my life to the lesson that will humble humans to their proper earth-kissing place on this planet.

But it’s never me.

It’s always the poor, the young, the sick, the old, the homeless, the dark-skinned, the disadvantaged and those that live closest to the earth that get humbled to it first. Babies, today, sit innocently on altars in Guatemala, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and in every other country, state, county and camp in the world. So what will are we willing to sacrifice before we finally learn our lesson?

For in (merely our) end, even if we Humans continue to discriminate, Pachamama, teaching by example, will not.

And oddly enough, that brings me peace.


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