On Letting Go of Our Poverty Myths

Most of what I know about poverty are myths.

What I know about poverty is wide-angles and broad strokes. It’s filtered and fictionalized. I know the story of the good, hard-working, honorable poor, against whom the deck has been stacked. I know, too, the story of the ignoble poor — alcoholics who can’t keep jobs, drug addicts and prostitutes, high-school drop-outs who keep getting knocked up.

I am a white, middle-class girl from an affluent Chicago suburb. I live now in another suburb near Minneapolis, and though my husband and I have, at times, struggled to make ends meet, we’ve never known poverty. The shades of it. The nuances of it. All the secret and hidden feelings; the way it bleeds through all the lines and fictions we use to define it.

I came to Armenia thinking that I understood. I came with my glossy photo of my sponsored child, and I had invented a story of mythic proportions of what all this would be like. The details were fuzzy, but I knew that my fictional sponsor child would be sweet, grateful and a little dirty around the ears. He will love me immediately, I thought. He will be speechlessly grateful over the gifts I’ve brought him. He will crawl in my lap, and I won’t miss my boys so much.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

My real sponsor child, Aleksandr, is five years old — dark haired, dark eyed, and beautiful.

He is also kind of a rascal.

He spends the first fifteen minutes of our lunch meeting on Saturday with his face hidden in his vest, ignoring me in spite of his fathers pleas. When he comes out at last, he is sassy and wild-hearted and not about to snuggle up his brand new World Vision sponsor for a cute photo op.

Aleksandr prefers to bond over faux karate chops, and it does not surprise me to learn that his favorite show is Power Rangers. What does surprise me is to learn that his father spends several months every year in Russia — the only place he can find work — and only sees Aleksandr and his mother for a few months every winter.

I give Aleksandr the soccer ball I brought him, and he kicks it across the restaurant and laughs loudly when it glides behind the bar. “He’s a little bit naughty,” his father says with a shrug and a wistful smile. “My boys too,” I say with a grin.

Aleksandr roundly ignores the plate full of food in front of him. “My children are picky eaters too,” I tell the father, and he shakes his head and gives Aleksandr a woeful look. “Now that Alie’s father is back for a little while, they cannot be parted from each other,” the translator tells me. Every now and then, Aleksandr father shovels a spoonful of something into his mouth, and he sighs and accepts it.

Along with the soccer ball, I give Aleksandr a set of paints and paintbrushes and suggest that he share it with his friends. “ALL IS MINE!” he says, then he does that crazy laugh again. The translator whispers to me. “Aleksandr is an only child. He is still…learning…to share.”

He never does give me a hug, but we karate chop at one another for a while, and he tells the translator that he plans to break my airplane so I can’t leave…so I think that means he likes me?

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Today is Sunday. I spent the afternoon wandering around the city of Gyumri, thinking about myths and poverty and beauty and reality. It’s the first day of Spring here, and the snow is starting to melt, leaving the streets wet and muddy under my boots.

We pass the blown-out windows of an old textile factory, and there are snow pants hanging from a ledge. I wonder if someone lives there, in that crumbling place. On that same street, there is a gaggle of Armenian teenage girls in high-heeled boots and blown out hair. In the park, young boys play soccer, and old men play backgammon on benches, and the lines that define “poverty” for me are washing out, changing, becoming indistinct in this broken, beautiful old city.

The truth is, poverty not a myth, and it’s not a stereotype. It is not the primary definer of a life — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s not just a backdrop of some heroic tale. It’s not a personality trait.

This is not some story about “The Westerners” coming to help “The Poor.” This is a hundred thousand different stories. This is about Andranik and Janet and Nikol and Ani. It’s about Anahit and Vahan and Mariam and Margarita.

This is about beautiful, broken people who are happy and sad and noble and petty. This is about real people who get grumpy and frustrated and ecstatic and sleepy. Who make mistakes. Who spoil their children sometimes. Who give up every now and then…and then get back up and try again. It’s about the ways that the community is learning to come around each other, and the ways that organizations like World Vision are helping with that.

It’s about Aleksandr, who is not a caricature of my imagined version of “poverty” — but a regular, wild, five-year-old boy. He likes Power Rangers and he misses his Dad and he’s going to school for the first time this fall. He doesn’t really know what to say about any of this. A few years from now after a couple dozen sponsor letters from our family, maybe he’ll understand what this day was about and why we were there. But for now, he he karate chops me in the arm and grins and impish grin…and for a moment I am part of his complicated, beautiful, many-faceted story.

It’s a story of poverty and joy and love and hope and life, and my heart fills up with it all as I watch him put on his hat and gloves and walk out the door.

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

Photo by Laura Reinhardt, World Vision

I’m so thankful to be part of the real, beautiful story of Aleksandr and his family. I’d love for you to join us. There are currently 1500 registered children in the Amasia area, where Aleksandr lives, and right now, only 543 are sponsored. Click here to sponsor a child there and join in this beautiful work!

This is How We Survive the Winter

winter

This is how I survive winter:

I run on the treadmill in the basement until the sweat runs down my face and the endorphins kick into my slogging bloodstream and make me feel temporarily euphoric. I make kale smoothies and put heavy lotion on my hands and binge-watch Hallmark movies and, if it’s not too cold, walk the dog around the block.

I survive the winter with extra Vitamin D pills prescribed by my doctor, which I pick up at the pharmacy along with my antidepressants. I use a special light box for a half hour every morning. I cut back on Diet Coke in case aspartame really does contribute to depression like they say. I try to drink more water.

I know that this time of year is dangerous for me. I am prone here, more than any other time, to give in to the pull of depression. So instead, I listen to the thump of my feet against the treadmill and feel the end of my ponytail brush against my shoulder blades. I hold my two beautiful sons close and look long at their faces…and this is how I survive the winter.

flash cards

Today we rode the bus up into the mountains of Amasia where it is still very much winter. I wore two pairs of socks and my snow boots, and still my toes went cold as I walked with our group up steep slopes toward small homes there.

I could not stop staring at the mothers. They were my age. Had we grown up in the same town, we would have gone to high school together. I suppose I should have expected this, but the last time I was on a trip like this, I was seventeen. The last time I stood in front of families like these, motherhood was worlds away, and the women seemed positively old. Today they seem young, young, young. Too young for the hard life they are living.

The second woman we met, Margarita, had fire in her eyes and a missing front tooth and two boys almost the same ages as my own. When we walked into the house, a nature program was showing on the tiny box-television in the corner, and it almost took my breath away, because this is what my boys would be watching too, if they were here. On the wall, there were flash cards carefully arranged in a row, and I thought instantly of the Word Bird full of “sight words” stuck to the wall of my own house in Minnesota.

This is how she survives the winter:

She shovels wood or cow chips into the furnace to warm the room, and then she hunkers down in it with her family. She hauls in the water and warms it on the stove. Then she rolls dough and flips it onto the oven one piece at a time until she has ninety pieces of traditional Armenian bread, which she’ll keep in the back room in a large green pot and use sparingly throughout the week. She’ll holler at her boys to stay out of that room, because the snow is growing wet and heavy on the roof and the whole thing could cave at any moment.

The lambs in the pen outside her house — these will help her survive, as will the work her husband did last summer, collecting grass from the nearby hills for hay. She hangs the wash on the line to dry in the cold; she rations out the last of the canned fruit and vegetables, refuses to cry over the ones that have gone sour. She hangs lace curtains over the cracked window panes and watches as they brush up against the crumbling concrete, letting in the light.

She holds her two beautiful sons close and looks long at their faces, and this is how she survives the winter.

margarita

Here is the temptation of the cross-cultural experience. Here is the cliched, obvious, immediate response:

Look how small my problems are in light of their BIG GIGANTIC PROBLEMS! Look how much I have! I should feel lucky! I should be more grateful!

Compare, contrast.

“Real” hardships versus “first world problems.”

Them and us and guilt, guilt, guilt.

And while it’s an understandable response, I don’t think it’s a helpful one. Not for the strong, beautiful woman in the house with the lace curtains. Not for the strong suburban woman who keeps getting on that treadmill every long winter day.

Instead of comparing, let’s just admit it out loud to ourselves and each other: winter is hard.

The snow stretches into the distance and your toes grow numb in your boots, and we’re all just trying to keep walking. Just trying to make it through.

In the middle room of Margarita’s house, her oldest son, Tigran sits down to do his homework. She reaches across the table to help as we watch. She lets us take photos of her son as he bends over his words, a deep scar on his head visible just above his ear. She lets us see the broken windows, the laundry hanging, the sheep in the pen, the places they sleep. She takes us to the back room with the caving roof and shows us her last two cans of wild pears.

And I think as we follow her that this is how we survive winter: we let each other in.

We choose to open up the rooms of our hearts with all of their struggles and issues and to allow ourselves to be seen. And also, we choose to take a step into the unfamiliar rooms of others’ lives and to sit quietly, listen, take it all in, bear witness.

We huddle together around the stove, surrounded by the endless hills of white. We pass the bread, slice the cheese, wait it out together.

details

Today, two of the members of our team were so moved by the stories of these families, that they chose to sponsor a child right there, on the spot. (My family sponsored a child before I came, and I’ll get to meet him tomorrow.)

If you’re on the fence, I can tell you right now — it makes a difference. And there is so much need. I’ll tell you more about it as the week goes on, but in the meantime, click here to learn more or to find a child to sponsor.

Light a Candle, Plant a Tree

yerevan

This morning, I lit candles in the Church of St. Etchmiatsin — the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The oldest cathedral (according to Wikipedia) in the world.

The sanctuary was under construction. The whole place smelled of sawdust and paint, and men climbed on high ladders, banging around in the ancient rafters of this old place of worship. At the alter, a large tapestry hung heavy with the scene of Gregory the Illuminator receiving a vision: Christ descending from the clouds with a golden hammer, telling him where to build the church.

Other than those tiny white tapers we get every year at the Christmas Eve service that spill wax down your fingers while you sing “Silent Night,” I have never lit a candle in church before. It’s not something we practiced in my tradition of guitar-studded worship songs and inspirational topical sermons. But today I stood in the silence of that dark, ancient annex, and I lit candles for two of my dear friends.

I stood there for a long time, thinking about my friends, remembering their suffering, watching the candles crowded together, burning down to wax in the sand and water. At the other end of the alter, an Armenian priest worked slowly, raking the burnt-out candle nubs gently out of the water with his fingers.

Outside the church, seminary men in black cassocks talked on flip-phones. Old men sat on benches in black newsboy caps, watching us as we walked — awkward and foreign and snapping picture after picture with our iPhones. But inside, my two small candles burned alongside dozens of others — the light flickering on long after we have left the courtyard, passed the beggar woman with the dried pomegranates, and boarded the bus.

candles 2

This afternoon, I laid flowers next to the Armenian Genocide Memorial.

It is a simple, breathtaking concrete structure at the top of a hill overlooking Yerevan. Inside, there is an eternal flame surrounded by pillars where people come to pay their respects, and we lay our cut flowers alongside them in a ring around the fire. From somewhere above, an Armenian lullaby rolled on an endless loop.

This April, the Armenian people will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of that genocide, and most of the memorial’s museum is closed now to prepare for that event. Still, a young woman with tall black boots and sad eyes walked us around a small room of display cases and told us about the day the men were sent away, the day the Intellectuals were executed, the day the women and children were marched off to die in the desert.

Under the glass, there were photographs of emaciated children and portraits of famous strangers. Newspaper clippings in the looping unfamiliar Armenian alphabet. The covers of several old memoirs — stories of survivors.

At the end of her presentation, the girl tells us that 22 countries recognize the Armenian genocide — and while 43 individual states also recognize the atrocities as a genocide, the United States as a nation does not. She says it, and then she looks at us for a long moment. She lets it rest upon us as we stand there, surrounded by the black-and-white horrors of history, clutching our backpack straps and purses.

Outside the Memorial, a tall concrete pillar stabs the underbelly of the gray sky, and there are rows and rows of pine trees. Each one, our guide tells us, is planted by a dignitary from another country when he or she visits. A small act of solidarity. A remembrance.

I notice that there is one from the state of California not far from the pine tree planted by Italy. Rows and row of sharp green memory lining the edge of that eternal flame.

eternal flame

At the end of my first day, my mind is churning, overfull of mixed-up facts about Armenian history and culture and food and language. Try as I might, I can’t seem to remember the world for Hello, so I just keep smiling dumbly at strangers.

But what stands out as clear and haunting as the St. Etchmiatsin bells is the importance of actively recognizing and remembering each other’s sorrows.

This is what the candles I lit in that old church were about. It’s what the cut flowers and the pine trees and the memorials and the photos are about.

It’s saying: This happened. It is real. It matters. 

Tonight, I started to read through the stories of the families we will meet this week in the poorest communities of Armenia. I got halfway through the second one before I was hastily pawing at my tears at the end of the dinner table, trying to get it under control. What can I do in the face of so much suffering?

But then, it’s simple isn’t it? As simple as a flickering candle. As simple as a small, growing pine.

Bear witness.

Recognize the pain. Look it straight in the eye. Honor it, but also, recognize that it’s only part of the story — that there is beauty and strength and hope and love.

Remember. Do not stop remembering.

Plant a tree. Light a candle. Take the hand of one small child.

*

I don’t know what this week in Gyumri will hold, but I know that on the bus ride here, I could see Mount Ararat. It was only the faintest shadow at the edge of fields of snow and rubble. For the Armenian people, is a symbol of hope and pride. History and pain and loss.

And really, what is there to do in the face of something so breathtakingly insurmountable except crane your neck out the window and stare at it? Bear witness.

Watch the mountain disappear in and out of sight as the road bends and curves. Imprint it on your mind as best you can. Watch it fade softer and softer in the white sky until finally, you’ve arrived at your next destination.

ararat

Halfway to Armenia

airplane

On the day I left for Armenia, I pulled the boys out of school and took them to McDonalds for hot chocolate…and then to Chuck E. Cheese to play bright-and-noisy arcade games and hug that creepy rat. I suppose it was yesterday, technically, but sitting in the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris, time is starting to bleed together like watercolors on tissue paper.

I spent the morning getting weepy at the oddest moments — as they rode around in circles on the tiny carousel, as Liam chucked balls down the wrong ski-ball lanes, as Dane grinned in the photo-booth, arm swung around a plastic Chuck E. Cheese. Every now and then, my tender-hearted oldest sidled up to me to squeeze my hand or give me a kiss. “I’m gonna miss you Mom,” he said, more for me than for him, so aware of the anxiety and emotional turmoil I’ve been feeling the last few days.

It was hard to drop them off at a friend’s front door and kiss them goodbye. So much harder than I expected to board a plane headed halfway around the world — nearly 6000 miles away from my family.

Once I was a sixteen-year-old girl with wings on her feet, and I thought the suburbs were too small, too inconsequential, too boring to be worth much of anything. But lately, I’ve been on a journey into the smallness of my own life — each year, the circles of my world getting tinier.

This one small church. That Walmart greeter. These neighbors. This barista. These two blonde-haired-boys and their Daddy.

I have a 9×13 pan with that Mother Teresa quote — Small things with great love — etched on the cover. It was a Christmas gift from my next door neighbor, and it’s perfect since I’m learning the simple beauty of loving others one hot-dish, one cup of coffee, one church-lobby-hug at a time. This girl who once thought she was meant to go, go, go has fallen in love with staying. I am rooted deep in the unlikely Minnesota soil, spread bare and shivering in the winter world I live in, yet still, amazingly, alive — expanding into it all a little more every year.

When I tell you that this trip is “out of my comfort zone,” I mean that I’m sitting at gate L31 at the Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, half-drowned in the enormity of the world. The accents, the languages — a million people, an infinite number of stories, all of our small circles intersecting into some abstract painting that I can’t understand.

I’m halfway to Armenia, and when I say that I’m afraid, it’s because I know that when you choose to open up the tiny circles of your life, there is so much you have to take in. Pain and chaos and joy and sorrow. Poverty and beauty. All of the things you cannot change. All of the things that you can.

Out the airplane window last night (this morning?), I watched the sun dip out of sight in Minnesota and then rise again over a landscape of clouds in France. I sat there with my paper cup of coffee feeling so out of context — a single word ripped from the paragraph of my life.

I hope that the word is love.

The chairs at Gate L31 are hard against my back. The carpet is red striped, and there is a Playstation Lounge next to us from which the varied sounds of video games come tearing through the air.

I’m waiting for the rest of the team, waiting for the flight to board, waiting for Armenia and God and courage and love. Waiting for my heart to split open like the morning sky.

Armenia Bloggers 2015