This last Saturday I had the pure joy of a spa day. And I do mean DAY, as in all day! I was even out of the city….not far, only in Las Lunas, but enough of a drive to feel as if I was truly getting away. This spa day was a gift I received from Rob way back on Mother’s Day, and I waited to redeem it until I needed a respite from the 5 kiddos. (I still am slightly freaked out every time I type “5” in reference to the number of my children!) The day was absolutely wonderful…I was able to enjoy the whole experience with my friend Cara, I got to eat food I didn’t have to prepare or clean up after, the weather was beautiful, the pool was warm, and the hot tub was fabulous. And when I arrived home, I was further spoiled by having a sparkling clean house, courtesy of a wonderful husband and 5 children (there’s that number again!). Why, exactly, am I waxing on eloquently (or not) about my day of bliss? Because even a slice of heaven on earth is still on earth, subject to the griminess of all that is sad and ugly and forsaken in this world. Let me explain…
I was enjoying the very last treatment of the day, a full body massage, complete with aromatherapy that smelled like a delightful, exotic flower. My massage therapist had quite concernedly inquired about any problem areas of discomfort or pain, and I just as concernedly reported that my ankles were achy from running in the soft sand of the Bosque (one might suggest I stop running in the soft sand, as I DO have other options! Like the trail right next to the soft sand…) and my arches were sore because I’ve worn flip flops all summer, and my shoulder hurt from sleeping on it funky. With all sorts of seriousness, the therapist began to administer her ministrations to my Oh-So-Abused body (surely you are picking up on my sarcasm here!) As I drifted to the edge of consciousness, not letting myself fall asleep, lest I missed a second of this pure bliss, my thoughts swirled delightfully into nothing…until they swirled upon a memory of a woman I saw in Ethiopia. Why, I wondered, was I thinking of her? I have no idea how old she was—anywhere between 40 or 70, with a possibilty of 10 years on either side of those numbers. I saw her while we were driving down the mountain of Entoto, so steep a descent that it required our driver to keep the engine in 3rd gear. This woman of indeterminate age was walking next to us on the side of the road, and even though she was all the way to the right, our driver still had to go around her because of the massive burden she was carrying on her back. The woman had an enormous load of eucalyptus branches that gave her a wingspan of at least 6 feet. She had this funny little trot, faster than a walk, slower than a run, yet a distinct gait that testified to the effect the steep grade had on her small body. I had seen these women before, and had asked our driver about them. He said they climb to the top of the mountain, cut the branches, and bring them down the mountain to cut and sell for firewood. They, surprise, surprise, are called wood carriers. I never did see a man with this type of load; it was apparently women’s work, and older women’s work at that. The wood carriers are clearly women that are living at the fringe of survival, beating their bodies into old age while still fairly young, just to provide a waterless, lightless, toilet-less shanty for shelter, and food that would push any American into instant malnutrition. As this one particular woman, the one and only wood carrier I made eye contact with, sprang to my mind’s eye in the middle of the highlight of my spa day, my heart broke. Had this woman, in all her life, had a massage? A foot rub from a child, or gentle hands on her lower back that must ache every day of her life? What if I could give that woman my little moment of heaven…would that be a gift or a cruelty? I then went from sadness to irritation. What a waste, I thought to myself! Now is not the time for First World guilt! Enjoy what you have at this minute, I thought, because fretting over that woman NOW does no one any good, and especially not your pathetic achy ankles that are starting to tense up all over again! But what could I do? The moment of complete happiness was gone, marred by what I had seen, in a world so far away from my own.
I have thought at length about this whole thing…what do we do, with the memories of what we have seen, what we have experienced? I can still see the wood carriers, still see the child playing on the street, kicking an empty water bottle for entertainment; I can still smell the rotting vegetables of the Merkado, see the produce that the most marginalized of Addis Ababa pawed through, looking for something to eat. This illustrates to me the verity that all we experience becomes a part of us — those memories come to be as integral a part of us as our DNA. That’s not to say that all we see, hear, smell, feel, and learn are always present, or at the forefront of our mind. In fact, I would venture to say that the worst of it gets pushed back to the farthest recesses our minds, if for no other reason than to enable us to deal with the stresses and pressures of everyday life. And, so often the worst of what we know can be the catalyst for bringing about the best of what we do in our life. But when the reality of someone else’s aches—a real live person with eyes the color of dark coffee–reaches in and sparks an ache of our own…what do we do with that??? What the answer is, I don’t know!! But I DO wish I could rub that one wood carrier’s feet. If only for a minute.