Today I am reminded of this truism.
My wife and I have just returned from a trip into Baja California, where we worked together with friends and associates to build a house in a single day. The house—a one bedroom home with five windows, a gravity sink, an eating area, and steps leading to a loft—is for a family of seven.
They will move out of the one room shack they've been living in. A one room shack the size of the small office in which I now sit, typing these words. A shack with bare planks for walls, a lace curtain as a front door.
The squalor is shocking. In the ragged rural backlands of Mexico, these families live without running water, with barely enough electricity to power a single light bulb (200 yards of primitive, un-insulated electrical wire costs $70 US), under a heavy swath of smog which chokes the sun.
The children have never seen themselves in a photograph. They have only heard of the Internet.
Yet the people are warm. Families are tight and, presumably, strong. There's a kind of humor in their smiles and a dignity about them.
The house we built won't make Better Homes and Gardens
. It won't win any awards. It's bare 2 by 4s and plywood, white primer, concrete flooring. But to this family, the house meant everything: the chance for real, solid walls; a sink at which to wash; a narrow flight of stairs leading to a second floor.
It is true such experiences give as much to those volunteering as to those receiving. I expected that. I even expected the emotions that would come, to the family and to me. The tears and the hugs, the graciases and the de nadas.
What I didn't expect was how clean and fresh and somehow renewed San Diego would be to me upon my return, just a short twelve hours after beginning the day and after only an hour drive home through back streets, death-defying Mexican freeways, and the boarder at Otay Mesa.
I was back among pavement. Back among trees and green grass. Back in my apartment with running, hot water. With carpet. With light bulbs and a refrigerator to keep my food cold. My cats meowed for dinner and the fish tank bubbled away. A message waited for me on an answering machine underneath a telephone. Somewhere outside, the Postal Service had delivered mail.
None of this is about being better. It's not even, really, about the greatness of America. It took these simple people and the joy they felt for such a small miracle, to help me see that life is about more than we in America think it is. If I'm lucky, this perspective will stay with me. For that, I thank them.
(R J Woerheide, editor)