16 January 2011

What Do You Really Believe About Development? (Go Home and See...)

Mexico City, six months ago….

It’s been one week now: my sister and brother-in-law, and his mom and my mom, and their German Sheppard Lila, and me, in a tiny three-bedroom house in Mexico City waiting for my sister’s baby to be born.

We thought the baby would come earlier, but it’s in the wrong position and the doctor will have to induce labor in a little less than a week.

So we’ve settled into a routine to pass the time. During the day, when my brother-in-law is working, we run errands, clean the house, do laundry, and plan the evening meal. My brother-in-law’s mom has baked several pies. My mom does crossword puzzles. I work. My sister naps. Then it’s dinner time, and we gather around the dining room table and pass the food and talk a little before clearing it all away and going to bed.

Being with my family is like being suspended in time. My work, my friends—my life—feel as far away as the moon. When I think about them it’s as if I’m way out in the water, straining to see land, drifting farther and farther from the shore.


Each day is like an episode of Survivor, except instead of running around a tropical island in bathing suits, we're dodging the conversational land mines that accompany overly long family visits:

On the highway, on our way to the mall, my sister goes on about how bad traffic is in Mexico. There are no rules here, she shakes her head. People cut you off and run red lights.

—I know what you mean, I say. In Dar, taxis sometimes drive on the sidewalk (where there is sidewalk) or even on the beach to get around traffic.

—Fine! You win, your life is harder than mine!

Or I’m shopping for clothes with my mom and she asks what size I wear. When I tell her, she says: that’s the same size I wear.

—I’m not you mom, don’t you get that!



My mom and I are not close. Relations were badly severed when she left my dad when I was 13, but that separation was only a more intense version of how my parents had always lived. Alone together.

Sometimes I look at my mom, her face gray and drawn, trying so hard to get people to like her, and I feel exasperation and pity. Conversations are always strained. If I say anything that is even slightly funny she laughs hysterically. I cringe.

At lunch at the mall, my sister conceives of a way for us three to bond: she vents about a difficult co-worker. Surely this is an innocuous topic, free from the undercurrents laden in so many others.

—She’s so intense, my sister says! So domineering!

She throws the words out like crumbs to pigeons, expecting us to gather round and feast happily together. But instead of joining in, my mom timidly defends her:

—Well, if I had the kind of life she has had, I might be the same way.

When we get up to pay the bill and my mom is facing the cash register with her back to me, I study her. She’s trying her best with Spanish. She looks small and vulnerable.

Sometimes I feel so much love for her that it almost breaks my heart.

California, six months later…

The pier in Ocean Beach, the little hippy enclave on the edge of San Diego where I grew up, is the longest in California. Walk down and back and you will have walked a mile.

On the morning I'm there, it is, like always, dotted with Filipino fisherman, their lines hanging down into the water like Christmas lights strung over a balcony. A pair of gray and white seagulls are crying and flapping their wings as they fight over some escaped fish bait, and three pelicans are skimming the surface of the water, a salty spray on their bellies. Beyond, a fishing trawler is making her way in.

My dad used to take me here when I was a little girl. Those were the days before he lost his job and my mom, before the tide of depression nearly drowned him and he packed his bags and left San Diego as if his life depended on, which it probably did.

I remember squinting my eyes against the salty wind while he pointed to some islands shimmering on the horizon; poking at the sea anemones growing like flowers out of the crevices of the tide pools below the pier; trying not to slip on the cold, mossy rocks.


It's early evening at my grandmother's house, where my dad, sister, brother-in-law, and little niece and I have pitched our tents for the Christmas holiday.

My dad is out back smoking a cigar and talking in a monologue, the way he always has. He is doing better now and I'm glad for it—there are few things more frightening to a child than to see their parents unhappy—but still. He barely knows us, I think to myself as I pick at some chips and salsa and watch while my sister changes Isabela's diaper.

The really hard memories go underground. A house full of people, but so little is said. When we do talk, it’s like I'm back at the tide pools: trying to keep my balance. Tiptoeing, like a cat through cactus.

Then I hear something outside: a subtle inflection in my dad’s voice. My stomach flips upside down. It’s the same inflection in my own voice. Sometimes, I sound just like him.

A friend told me once how unsettling it is, to go home and realize how different you are from your family. But the even more unsettling thing is when you realize how much you are the same.


We gather in the living room and say goodbye to my dad, who must be up at 4 a.m. to catch his flight back to Seattle. He hugs my sister, my grandmother, squeezes little Isabela. Then it’s my turn, so I hug him lightly and say it was good to see him.

—I sure do love you, kid, he says, and for a moment I think I see a flash of pain cross his face.

I want to tell him that I love him too, that all of it—all the stuff—is okay. Instead though, I promise to get up in the morning to say goodbye. You shouldn't have to leave alone, I say.

But when I hear him shuffling out with his suitcase the next morning, I stay in my room, hidden beneath the covers.


Sometimes I wonder if our business—the development business—is futile. And at no time do I wonder this more than when I am with my family, when I am home. Not because I'm reminded that my family is crazy and will probably never change but because I'm reminded that I'm crazy, and that changing your life—changing stale, self-defeating habits, breaking out of the wreckage of the past, starting over—is really, really hard.

And development? Changing other peoples’ lives? How can we ever expect to make even the smallest dent when it’s all most of us can do to keep our own heads above water?

Mexico City, on the eve of my niece’s birth…

The night is hot and very still. Inside the small, square dining room, a single light bulb hanging above us, the family has gathered to play cards. There’s a dog barking in the alley outside, and like some distant, desolate music, the sound cuts through the heavy air between us.

My sister deals. We hold our cards like fans against our chests and stare back at each other like river boat gamblers. We’re trying not to let each other see what’s behind the little walls we’ve created. We’re trying to guess what each other is hiding. We’re trying to win.

A few rounds go by and I’m losing terribly. My sister leans back, sighs heavily and puts her hand on her belly. She wishes little Isabela (the baby) would turn. Doesn’t she know she can’t get out through the side? Her husband puts his hand on her belly and in an exaggerated southern drawl says: well, she’s not the smartest girl.

And then like a crack in an ice covered pond, like a door blown slightly ajar by the wind, we start to laugh. Just a little at first, but then hugely, generously, rubbing our eyes.

And for a moment, the shadows disappear.


See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up -- do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:19