Sunday, October 22, 2017

Whales and Hope

Tomás, his abuelo and his mami were migrant workers from El Salvador. His abuelo made his way to the United States in the 1980's, when life in El Salvador was mostly death. He came with his daughter, Tomás' mami, who was pregnant with him, to the border. 

A kind priest heard their story and led them to an Underground Railroad that took them to a church in Arizona and gave them sanctuary. They were never able to get their papers and become naturalized American citizens, but they began a migration across the country and dropped their blood, sweat and tears onto the ground across the West, Midwest and South until they found themselves in South Carolina.

They were many thousands of miles from where they began, from home. 

They began picking tomatoes and peaches near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.  Tomás didn't know where they would go next, only that they would go. He used to despair about the going until he learned that blue whales are migrants, too. They went many thousands of miles, season after season, year after year, like him. That made his heart feel hopeful.

Tomás knew that if a blue whale's brain were a motor, it would be 2.5 Formula 1 race car engines. He also knew if a human being's brain were a motor, it would be a 1960 VW Beetle's engine. His brain was like the blue whale's brain. 

He could solve complex problems simply. He was a living Occam's Razor. It was the little Franciscan monk William of Occam in the Middle Ages who said, "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one," and Tomás' mind always tended toward those simple, best solutions.

As a matter of fact, when he looked at a problem, any problem, it was as if the problem began to glow with the light of a halo and the answer began to show itself to him in that light.

He understood people in this way, too. When he looked at a person, any person, it was as if the person began to glow with the light of a halo and the essence of that person began to show itself to him in that light.

He always found beauty in the plain, genius in the simple and wonder in the ordinary.

"Whales are the most intelligent creatures in the world," thought Tomás. "And I am like them.

That made him hopeful, too.


William H. Johnson - "Still Life"


Tomás had small ears. Well, they were less than small. They were minute. He used to be self conscious about them. When he stepped into a classroom for the first time his glasses slipped off one of those ears and hung crooked across his face. His ears weren't big enough to hold his glasses.

"We come from a family with little ears but big hearts," said his abuelo one day as Tomás was moping down a row of tomatoes, thinking about the laughter of his classmates. "Good thing you don't talk. You can use your brain for listening. Your ears sure won't help you out much.
As he grew older and fell in love with whales, though, he discovered that blue whales, which are the biggest animals to have ever lived on earth, have ears the size of the point of a pencil. "The blue whales know how I feel," he thought. And that made him feel better.

Tomás really did have a big heart. Literally. One day, when he was a toddler, he fell at the end of a row of tomatoes in his abuelo's garden and bruised his ribs on a jagged rock. His abuelo mami took him to the free medical clinic. His abuelo wrapped his arms around him and placed his giant calloused hand on his chest to keep him still. He took quick, shallow breaths because if he breathed slowly and deeply his whole body hurt. 

When they looked at the x-ray the doctor exclaimed, "His ribs are bruised but, my God, look at the size of his heart! I've never seen a heart so big in a child so small." An echocardiogram confirmed it, "It's rare in children, "said the doctor, "But his heart in enlarged because his heart muscle isn't squeezing well and his heart grew bigger to compensate. The good news is, we can treat him. He can lead a nearly normal life. He'll just have to use his heart in different ways than other folks."

Later, with a book by his bedside, his abuelo said, "I want you to have a listening ears and a big heart, my grandson, so it seems like nature is helping my wishes come true. Don't you worry. I'll always love you just the way you are. You're perfect to me and for the world."

His abuelo kissed him on the forehead.

It comforted him again when he learned that a blue whale has the largest heart on earth. It's as big as a Volkswagen Beetle.

"I have a heart like a blue whale," he thought.

And that made him smile.

William H. Johnson - "Flowers"

Whistling in the Dark

...and their home since then had been tiny spaces of little kindnesses people had shown them along the way. 

"Poor little kid. He just sits over there every morning as the sun comes up. Never says a word. Just sits there watching the ocean and listening to the waves. One time I walked over to him. 'How you doin'?' I asked. 'What's your name?' He just looked at me. Didn't say a thing. I figured he didn't understand me. His grandpa and mom are migrant workers picking peaches here until they move on up the coast. I thought maybe he only spoke Spanish. Finally, he just whistled. It wasn't like a normal whistle with a shrill sound and two notes. Nope, it was an unusual whistle. It had all kinds of sounds in it, all kinds of notes. I've never heard anything like it in my life. It was like he was tryin' to say somethin' to me, but I had no idea what it was. Then he looked back at the ocean and was quiet again. I feel sorry for him. I wonder what we could do to help him?"

Folks had talked that way about him since the day he was born. "Poor little baby," said the labor and delivery nurses at the hospital. "Born on a day like today. And his family has no papers. What could we do to help him?"

His family had just crossed into the United States. They had ridden the train, the beast, all the way from the scorched earth of El Salvador's twelve year civil war to the Mexican - U.S. border. A human smuggler had brought them into the promised land of the United States and had taken them all the way to Miami. His mamí was pregnant and the time had come for her to deliver the baby. The smuggler stopped in front of St. Mary's cathedral, made the sign of the cross, and put them out on the street with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs and the battered shoes on their feet. As a matter of fact, his mamí’s shoes had fallen apart many miles ago so she had no shoes at all.

His abuelo lifted the iron knocker on the church's door and let it fall back to it's iron plate. He did this again and again until a nun cracked open the door to the night.

The nun was a good woman full of wisdom and compassion. She had worked in the city for many years. "I've seen it all," she said many times. Or she thought she had. For of all the people she had seen as an inner-city nun - convicts, addicts, broken people, oppressed people - she had never seen the beauty and suffering in the faces of Gustavo and Maria at the church door that night.

Their eyes were light with beauty, the beauty of being in a land without war, the beauty of bringing a new life into the world. Yet their bodies were heavy with suffering. They were filthy dirty after thousands of miles of migration over the long, treacherous road. Their shoulders sagged under the weight of years of homelessness, for their first home had been destroyed by bombs and their home since then had been tiny spaces of little kindnesses people had shown them along the way. 

They were quiet with the silence of the fear of the unknown. 

The nun was especially struck by the sight of Maria. She was sitting on the bottom step of the church, her bare feet pressed flat against the concrete sidewalk, her arms wrapped around her swollen belly, and her face anguished in the pains of labor.

"Vamanos á la carro," said the nun. "We have to get to the hospital now!"



He’s a genius, but no one knows this about him except me. He looks at the world with a heart and mind full of curiosity. That is how I first learned about him - because of his curiosity about whales. 

"There's a boy who knows a lot about whales," came the word over the water. And he did. 

He drew a beautiful, detailed picture of a bowhead whale and wrote beneath it - "A bowhead whale's blubber is over two feet thick so it can withstand the Arctic cold. The bowhead can create it's own breathing hole by breaking through ice up to one foot thick." 

He drew a blue whale and wrote - A blue whale's heart is as big as a Volkswagon Beetle, but it's ears are the size of the point of a pencil." 

And he drew a sperm whale with these words - "For many years, oil from a sperm whale's head was used to provide light for people. In fact, people measure the strength of light in lumens, which is the light of one pure white spermaceti candle." 

He’s a whale genius.

It’s not his ingenuity that causes me to love him, though. No, I don't love him for what he can do. I love him for what he can't do. He’s ten years old and he can’t speak. He hasn't spoken a single word in his whole life.

When he was two, his mamí talked with him in the language of poetry as she walked with him tied to her back down the long rows of peaches under the South Carolina sun. His mamí reached up to the trees, took the peaches in her hands, and rubbed the fuzzy skin against his soft cheek and whispered,

Amo el trozo de tierra que tú eres
porque de las praderas planetarias
otra estrella no tengo. Tú repites
la multiplicación del universo.

I love the handful of earth you are.
Because of it's meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.

She waited for him to talk back to her in toddling language, to say words like mamí and amo and tú, but he didn't say them. He didn't say anything at all. He only looked at her with his wide, unblinking, brown eyes, eyes the color of the deep parts of the earth, and jutted out his little, bottom lip as if to say, "There’s much I want to say, but I can't. I just can't find the words."

Now, people ask him, "What's your name?" or "How old are you?" or "How are you?" and he answers them with a whistle instead of with words. They ask his abuelo and mamí, "What's wrong with him?" and they simply sigh the sighs of people who have carried heavy loads on their backs and in their hearts and answer, "Dios sabe, God knows." 

I know, too. 

I want to tell you so you will know. 

That's the purpose of life, right? To know and to be known. If I don't tell you his story, if I don't help you hear him, then he might never be known. And that would be sad, because he is someone the world needs to know.

William H. Johnson - "Mother and Child"