The Paraguay I Know Is Catholic

It is not necessary for me to say, but it is worth sharing two facts. First, the Paraguayans I know understand the world as Catholics. They may not go to church all the time, but they think about Jesus often and use God to explain most things. Social lives are largely centered around the church. Many of the biggest parties and drinking events spring from patron saint celebrations. Second, I am not Catholic. But, my beliefs do not prevent me from participating in Catholic religious activities if and when I want.

I traveled to Paraguay with the desire to help make the world better, but I came here as a student. My openness and curiosity to experience and to understand how Paraguayans practice Catholicism has given me great insight, despite putting me in the occasional uncomfortable situation. “Catholic” has come to represent, in my mind, the life philosophy of some of my closet Paraguayan friends. These days, when I go to a church function it’s not only to learn what issues my community thinks are important enough to bring before their God, but also because a friend invited me. For example, I know it means a lot to my señora friend when I do the rosary with her, and her happiness is enough to dedicate 60 minutes of my day to her God every so often.

It is impossible to escape Catholicism in Paraguay if one lives here and talks to Paraguayans. If one mentions an event in the future or tries to make plans to do something Paraguayans say it will happen “if God and the Virgin Mary permit it.” If one talks about marriage, it involves the church. If someone is sick or something is bad one prays. Families are divided by the Catholic Bible study to which they send their children. Public buses have Jesus painted on them and tout slogans like, “My path is guided by Jesus.” Passengers on buses cross themselves when they pass churches and cemeteries. Churches host parties and cookouts. People wear crosses and have saints’ cards in their wallets, religious photos as their profile pictures, and Jesus images hanging on their bedroom walls.

The way I see it, Jesus and Mary are Paraguay’s way of setting a moral code and giving meaning to life. In the end, it doesn’t matter that my Paraguayan friends and I have different reasons for why we think it is right to be honest or to treat people with dignity. What is important is that we share the values of truthfulness and respect.

I never needed to think about what “tolerance” meant before coming to Paraguay. But, Paraguayan tolerance is how my community embraced me and my tolerance is why I have learned and done so much since coming here. Paraguay has taught me that tolerance is not just letting people practice their customs in peace. It is being open to learning how people’s cultural practices relate to their lives in general and, more profoundly, what their beliefs boil down to in their simplest form. We all have a lot to learn from people who see the world differently from us. And, we all have more values in common than it might seem at first glance.

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Overheard In Paraguay: Friendship

We sat in a half circle around the grill. The men were cooking large slabs of meat, ribs and some unidentifiable cut, for the mother of the family’s birthday dinner. The husband of one of the birthday mother’s daughters sat by the grill passing one can of beer among the men there. A nephew walked up to the daughter’s husband. The husband was around 30 and the nephew was about 11.

The husband hugged his nephew first with one arm and then the other, squeezing him. The nephew squirmed, and they both smiled. The husband held the nephew at arm’s length and put on an almost serious expression. “Will we always be friends?” the husband asked.

“Yes,” the nephew said.

“Even when I am old and you are my age?” the husband asked.

“Yes, even when you are old and I have kids,” the nephew said.

The husband smiled and pulled the nephew into another hug. The nephew pulled away again and they looked at each other, the husband still squeezed the nephew’s shoulder.

“Even when you are in Heaven and I am old we will still be friends,” the nephew said earnestly.

The husband laughed. “And I will look after you from Heaven.” They hugged again. “And, when you come to Heaven, we will be friends in Heaven. We will be friends forever.”

The boy nodded and ran off to find his playmates.

Incense

My house gets musty sometimes. I have a cement floor and my house has no foundation so the damp seeps in when it pleases. Scented candles are hard to find in Paraguay. I spray air freshener when I think of it. Most of the time my doors and window are open, so the smell is blown to the wild outside. But also, it is only sometimes that my house smells and one gets used to it quickly and forgets.

I’ve thought about incense before, but I haven’t found a smell I like. I’m also very sensitive to smoke, any and all kinds. I haven’t had the motivation to really look for a nice incense.

One day the señora friend who lives close to me stopped by on her way home and invited me over for lunch. She must have thought my house smelled because she gave me a stick of incense toward the end of my visit. I smelled it and found it to be surprisingly pleasant.

I told her that it smelled good and explained how it was hard to find good incense. She reached over and showed me the front of the incense box. The box was green with a drawing of Jesus and his heart with light rays radiating from it. “It says the sacred heart of Jesus, right?” she asked. She didn’t have her glasses.

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s why,” she said. ”Of course it smells good.”

Rain Days in Paraguay Are Like Snow Days in Vermont

I sat down ready to write, propped up against the wall and sitting on my bed. I was working on my first novel. The bedcovers were pulled up over my legs. My mate was set on my bedside chair. My princess canopy, mosquito net was pulled to one side. Though it was cold and I wore a sweatshirt, all my doors and window were open. Cold in Paraguay is fifty-something degrees Fahrenheit. A light breeze made the laundry on my indoor clothesline flutter.

As I poured another draft of mate my mind absently started to wonder to where I left off in my novel. I stared out the window. At that moment, the misty rain was floating down at an angle. It was quiet. The rain started two days before; it brought with it a tranquility beyond any calm possible in the blistering heat that came before the rain. The rain sent people indoors and blanketed everything with a film of water that amplified birdsongs. There was less loud music than usual. Watching the mist fall made me suddenly remember my favorite childhood days. It had been a long time since I last thought of them.

The best days growing up in Vermont were snow days. I would find myself inside drinking hot chocolate and watching the snow drift from the sky. Those gray mornings were lazy, but they marked the calm in the storm. Snow fall followed a crescendo with a climax of me putting on my boots, snow pants, sweater, jacket, mittens, scarf, and hat and then plunging out into the sideways-sailing snow. Sometimes the desire to sled in fresh powder drove me away from the fireside. More often, however, it was my unexplainable interest in the absolute silence that descends on the forest when it snowed. Silence so thick I could hear fluffy flakes stick to the ground after sifting through the barren branches overhead. I could hear the trees groaning under their white burden.

I would sit in the woods or walk noticing animal tracks and the painted fans created by bird wings in the winter crust when they took off from the shimmering ground. I love snow from the tips of my toes to the top of my hat. I always have.

It seems ironic that it took me a grand adventure all the way to subtropical Paraguay to remember. To recall just how much wading through hip-high snow made me smile or how much I laughed when I would accidently dump a tree-full of snow down my neck by poorly selecting which tree bow to grab. But, then again, it’s not so strange I tucked away my memories of snow days and forgot where for many years. I was swept up in a life too busy to stop and listen to the weather happen around me. It is so easy to always doing in America. It is important to do, but we all should take snow days. Without night there would be no day, and similarly without pause we can not see from where we came or to where we are going.

An Encounter With Jesus

“Let’s go for a drive,” the mother of the family said. Her two daughters, a 3-year-old nephew, and his brother got ready to pile into the car. Going for a drive can mean many things in Paraguay. It could be a few-minute trip to the house-front store down the street or it could involve an hours-long journey to another town.

I hurried to the bathroom, the key is to always go before leaving, and asked what we were going to do. “Get the saint,” the mother said. She said it as though it was both obvious and I should have known what she meant. But, of course, I had no clue what “getting the saint” involved. Questions raced through my mind: What saint? Are we going somewhere to pray? Is it okay if I go in the athletic shorts and tank top I’m wearing? Are we bringing a statue of a saint somewhere? Where? How long are we going for? I climbed into the car, and we were off. I decided my attire was acceptable because one of the daughters was wearing a house dress.

“What are we doing?” I asked again.

“Getting the saint,” the daughter in the house dress said.

We stopped at a little store and picked up bread, sugar, and several pastries. I wondered, “Are we going to be gone so long we need food? Is the food going to be some kind of offering?”

We drove down a road on which I used to live. The road wound into a forgotten part of Paraguay and connected my town to another town. It was lined with pink and gold grasslands. We slowed down to let free-range cattle cross the road. Dusk was falling and its heavy light washed over the tiny school and houses we passed. It was strange to journey to no where as night shadows came. Paraguayans tend to stay home after dark.

The mother told me, almost in passing, that the little girl who had lived with them for about a year was gone. The little girl’s mom came with police and a judge and took the girl without warning. The reason the girl was living with them in the first place was because her mother was neglecting her.

We stopped. There were no houses close to the road. There was no visible reason for stopping at that point. The mother and the daughter in the house dress got out of the car, the others didn’t move. The mother said I could stay in the car if I didn’t want to walk. My curiosity was burning. Why so much mystery?

We started to walk on a little footpath. I asked the mother, “What is the saint? Why is it here? What is it for? Where are we bringing it?”

As we wove between the brush and grass the mother finally explained. We were getting a cross with Jesus on it. The mother said that this cross was a special one, a specific one, that was hard to find. A single man was the keeper of the cross and it was passed down to him from his mother. When something bad happens in my friend’s family they come and get the cross and bring it home for a night to pray.

We got to the keeper of the saint’s house after a short walk. He was an old, thin man. He had two teeth and his clothes were faded. His house was one room, with space for a bed and a table where the saint and its alter sat. The house was made of wood slats. Off to the side was a shower and toilet; the painted metal wall around them was starkly modern compared to the rest of the homestead. Two basins with dirty dishes were sitting on wooden planks. The beige sand around the house was swept like a Japanese garden. There was an ax with a new tree-limb handle. The daughter reminded me that the man lived all alone. She commented that he needed someone to break the solitude. Giant trees, like those that inspire poems, stood at the edge of his swept space. They created a canopy. His house stood on a ridge, and below spread the grasslands. It was perfectly silent.

The mother handed the man the bag of food. He pulled together the assorted chairs he had so we could sit. He was a chair short. The mother began to chat. The daughter chimed in at appropriate times. They spoke Guarani. They smiled and laughed. The mother followed the man to the alter to get the saint.

Anyone who has been in a Paraguayan Catholic place of worship knows what I mean by the Jesus cross. The cross is carved out of wood and has a bleeding Jesus nailed to it. He is wearing a crown of thorns. The one we were getting was about one and a half feet tall. It was painted blue and there was a little angel that attached to Jesus’ chest. I thought of vampires, but imagined the angel was supposed to be healing him.

The mother walked slowly as she carried the cross. We returned to the car and went back the family’ home. When we arrived the grandmother came over, she lives across the street. I couldn’t tell if the grandmother was crying, but she kissed the Jesus on the face. “Welcome to our home,” the grandmother said to the saint.

Twenty-Six

Today I am officially closer to 30 than 20. Thirty-year-old guys aren’t too old. In fact, not only are they a good age for a possible significant other, they are basically my peers. I’m almost old enough to be my high school students’ mom and could feasibly be my junior high students’ mother. I’ve seen Internet in my backwoods, childhood stomping ground of Vermont transform from nonexistent, to dial-up with the nightmare beeping, to wifi so fast I can stream movies. I remember when landlines were the only way to invite my friends over for dinner.

I’ve lived in 3 countries and 5 cities. I’ve worked 8 different jobs and 6 internships. I graduated high school and college and then got a job using my degree. I then left that job for Peace Corps Paraguay. In Paraguay, I’ve taught leadership, identifying abilities, goal setting, sex education, and other things related to self-esteem to grades 8-12.

Birthdays are pensive times for me. Not because I’m scared about getting old. I’m more curious than fearful of what I will look like with gray hair, wrinkles, and a schedule filled with doctors appointments. I hope my health weathers the years and that there are not too many doctors appointments. Mostly, my birthdays are a time of reflection because they are logical milestones in life.

I am 26. My toddler self thought I’d be an Indian princess by now. My childhood self believed I’d be a famous dancer or musician. My high school self imagined I’d be a published writer, fluent speaker of many languages, and world traveler. My college self planned I’d be a ballin’ public relations expert, to great to fall, who was married and traveled to awesome places on vacation. My post-college self assumed I’d be a powerhouse for change and a person with a irresistible personality.

Now I know, and I would hesitate to say I am any of those things. At 26 I feel old. I also realize that old isn’t bad and is relative. I’m still a spring chicken compared to some and prehistoric in the eyes of others. Twenty-six is the beginning and end of a chapter, so starts my “post early twenties.”

I used to dream of who I would be. I set goals for my future self, someone who was better than my current self. But, today, I don’t dream of being someone different by next October or any future October. I expect that every October from here on out I will be Jett, nothing less and nothing more, and I am thrilled at such a prospect.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plans. I’m a dreamer and a plotter, and I am not scared of working hard to get to where I think I should be. But, honestly, so far I have never been where I thought I’d be. And, despite the disparity between what I thought and reality, life has been stellar. My 26-year-old wisdom tells me that in the end it’s not the grand title and spectacle of who I am come each October 2nd that is important. What matters is every moment between, all the small presents that come from living life to the max. And so, for year 27 my main mission is simply to seize every moment as an opportunity. I don’t want to worry about what I didn’t do when I remember; I want to smile because of what transpired.