For a friend


Today I attended the memorial service of a writer friend. It seems apt that the way I am dealing with it, and reflecting on his death, is to write something. I want the love and compassion I felt for him to go somewhere, and what better place than onto an otherwise blank page? We weren’t extremely close. I met him for dinner once, ice cream another time, and a tea a third. Our relationship was more centered around school, and we’d sit together between or after our classes at UNO while he waited for his ride, and I waited for the bus. But he was so gracious in his belief in me as a writer and his interest in me as a human, that his impact was profound. He was the kind of guy that mailed me two cds of songs he had compiled that he thought I’d like. Who uses mail these days? Or listens to cds? He was that kid of guy. And the kind of guy that found a poem in me…

On Sat, Jan 18, 2014 john wrote:

Almost forgot.

One of my favorite parts of a poem:

Usually peppermint
is my first choice
while fear
is my last.

(do you know the poet?)

My response:

Oh my God. I don’t know the poet but I need to!… I feel like you just saw a glimpse of my soul on that page and sent it back to me…Thank you.  It’s the best gift I’ve gotten in a long time.

And his response:

I “FOUND” the poem inside an email YOU sent me a couple months ago.

YOU wrote that!… And of course, my favorite part of this whole thing is your saying that you don’t know the poet but you need to!

Well Florentina, keep getting to know her, she seems pretty awesome to me.


With some people, it’s not about how long you knew them, or how close you were. It’s about how they were there to make your life better in the exact moment when you needed it most.

When I heard the news about John’s death three things happened. First, of course, I cried. Then, after a few moments, overcome with the need to hold close what was still near, I picked up the phone to call another one of my friends to tell him I missed him. In my mind, the connection was two-fold. This other friend was also in the same writing class where I met John. This other friend, like John, had been in recovery. The third thing that happened is that I knew I would never drink again. This last one is a hard one to explain to family and friends who just want to have a beer with me.

I got drunk for the first time when I was about fourteen. The occasion is memorialized in a photograph of me wearing my brother’s orange baseball cap backwards and devouring a chicken wing with a great big silly grin on my face. I remember my family telling me that night, “You seem so happy! We haven’t seen you this happy in forever!” My parent’s philosophy, for better or worse, was that it was better that I drank with them, than when I was out with friends. In actuality, I did a fair amount of both. I liked who I was when I drank: a version of myself that seemed happier and more fun– albeit prone to being a bit of a diva.

I drank a lot for almost two decades after. In college, I went to parties and bars. After college I tailgated and still went to bars. And in Peace Corps in Cameroon, I drank with other volunteers in our houses and at meet-ups in the nearby City. I could write a lot about the bad stuff: the times when I had emotional breakdowns, picked fights, said things I shouldn’t have, consented to activities I shouldn’t have. But I think what’s more important is that there were a lot of times that nothing happened, but I still just generally felt kind of crappy the next day, not just physically but also emotionally. I felt crappy because I knew I hadn’t been my best self. I had been a bit meaner, a bit louder, and a lot more selfish.

The last time I got drunk was with two friends in Capetown, South Africa at a wine tour. I got lost in a bar, fell dancing, and heckled the white tour guide for never having slept with a woman of color. None of these were terrible. To me, the worst actually, was that I had treated my friend badly. I’d refused to leave when she was hungry and then demanded to leave when I realized I was too drunk and hungry to stay at the bar. Again, not terrible. But definitely not my best self. The next day I apologized, and I also made a decision that I didn’t ever want to be drunk again. And that was that.

Over the next several months, it was easy not to drink too much, because I was traveling by myself through Africa and Asia, and I didn’t like feeling vulnerable. But I’d still have an occasional beer or glass of wine with a fellow backpacker. Then, when I came back to the United States, I drank occasionally. But what I was realizing was that my desire to drink was becoming less and less, and my desire to be in environments where there was drinking was also decreasing. The effects of the alcohol were becoming more pronounced in my body. I’d get an almost immediate buzz and simultaneously a headache. And when I wasn’t drinking, I was much more aware of a bar’s stale smell of vomit and the loud, slurred arguments at the next table.

Overall, I think my definition of happiness and fun was changing as well as my definition of when I am happy and fun. I was beginning to prefer a cup of tea at a coffee shop or a walk in the woods. These brought me joy that didn’t compromise my authenticity or my best self. These don’t make me feel crappy the next day. And I’ve realized I am more genuinely at peace, and more in touch with the joys and wonders of life when I am fully aware. I would have stopped altogether sooner, but for a while I drank out of obligation. My friends and family seemed to miss my alter-ego, as erratic as she could be. And I felt like I was making everyone else’s evening less fun by not drinking. Social pressure was subtly real to me.

John’s death was the moment when I committed to being truer to my path, because John didn’t have the choice. I don’t know what array or pattern of genes makes one person more susceptible to addiction or alcoholism than another. It seems so random. But I do know that I have been blessed with the ability to gradually and perhaps comparably easily give up those things that I deem to be unhealthy for me, whether it’s caffeine, or sugar, or alcohol. My decision to not drink is no longer about me. It would be perfectly fine for me to have a margarita at happy hour every two months or so. But I realize that it’s not perfectly fine for a lot of people. It wasn’t perfectly fine for John. My choice to give up alcohol is an act of love for him and others like him, an act that says “I am in this with you. I will fight this thing for you.” Because it wasn’t just in John. It’s all around us. It’s in me. It’s in you. It’s in all of us. It’s in all the ways we seek happiness outside of ourselves, and the ways in which we believe we can end our suffering.

In my experience, I have only found true happiness when I go inward. Which is why I’m so thankful to John for pointing me back towards myself two years ago when I needed guidance. And why today, at his memorial service, I once again felt grateful for his presence in my life and the direction he gave me.


Love Letter to Donald Trump


My Dear Donald,

Often, in America, we don’t want to acknowledge that there is great division and disparities. Yet, it seems you are the message America needs in order to truly see those divisions and disparities. You are voicing the anger, fear, and anxieties that many Americans feel. And without seeing this suffering, we have no opportunity to heal it.

You represent an opportunity to heal our suffering because you embody that suffering, in the anger, fear, anxieties and righteousness in your voice and words. You are symbolic of a deep wound in the collective body of America.   I am also part of that collective body, and so it is my responsibility to treat your suffering as I would a wound: with love, tenderness, and compassion.

So I want to say, I am sorry for your suffering. As an American, I too am responsible for it because I am part of this nation that has created you and the ideas for which you stand, and which we continue to create and stand for. These are ideas based in our acts of consumerism and greed, ideas that allow some populations to be treated as less than others, ideas that hail the individual over the collective. I am sure I have contributed to all these ideas in some small or large way through my thoughts and actions. You have given me the opportunity to look deeply at those ways so that I might change them and transform the anger, fear, anxiety, and righteousness within me.

I also have given you the wrong kind of attention, which has perpetuated your unskillful behavior. Instead of seeing that you suffer, I have met your anger with my own, which has only created more suffering in the world. Moreover, I see how some people laugh and are entertained by your suffering. Others share the same mental patterns that create the suffering. We all deserve compassion for the mental afflictions within us, such as anger, fear, anxiety, and righteousness. You are simply a representation of that which is in all of us, and that which we must overcome.   Yet, through our attention to and belief in your rightness or wrongness we have unknowingly fed your afflictions instead of helping heal them. We have fed them with our own anger, fear, anxieties, and righteousness. But what you needed was the salve of compassion for your suffering. I hope I can offer that to you now.

I also want to let you know I see the good in you. I searched Youtube clips with your name and the word ‘kindness.’ I watched you speak to a little girl with a rare bone disease, and you told her she was beautiful. I also heard a man talk about the generosity you have offered to strangers: paying the mortgage of a couple who helped you when your limousine broke down and offering donations to a Harlem Hoops program for youth. Thank you for this love and kindness. I hope you continue to cultivate those seeds of goodness, because, just as everyone has mental afflictions, everyone also has the potential to recognize and strengthen the love and kindness within them. I hope you see the cycle of suffering to which you are contributing, and instead begin to choose to cultivate more love and kindness in the world instead.

However, I also see it is very difficult for you to cultivate love and kindness without the help of others who can offer these gifts to you as well. So, I am sending you peace, love and kindness. I am sending this out to the world in the hopes that we can seize this opportunity you have created to begin to heal a very old and deep wound. I offer you the beautiful and healing words of Martin Luther King, coincidentally, on the anniversary of his assassination. He truly was a King, one of American’s greatest teachers. I hope we may all realize his words:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

All my love,



Response to the Triathlon at Angola Prison


In response to reading one website’s description of a Triathlon at Angola Prison planned for March  20, 2016 (

Dear Friends at FreshJunkie Racing,

I appreciate your aspiration to help create a unique experience for athletes who want to test their strength and endurance at the Triathlon at Angola Prison, and to help others be “dreamers and doers, believers, achievers and go-getters” as quoted from TRS’s article about the event. This is certainly a noble intention of your company.

I am certain you do not intend to cause division, discord, or suffering with the event. But I am afraid that will be the result with your current messaging, which could be viewed as sensationalizing or exploiting a very dire and sad situation for the prisoners and their families. Imagine it were your father or son who was in this prison. Angola has come under serious scrutiny for human rights abuses and continues to be the cause of a lot of human suffering as well as a symbol for many destructive social systems.

But, there is an opportunity here to foster unity, learning, and healing. You can offer compassion and understanding to the inmates at Angola who also share in this same aspiration to be dreamers and believers, but whose opportunities have been limited in life. You could create a more positive message that brings attention to the fact that the guards and inmates at Angola are also examples of the strength and endurance of the human spirit. You might also consider donating a portion of your fees not just to the museum, but to a fund that benefits the prisoners themselves.

Whatever you choose, please consider finding some way to honor those who are truly being tested.

With love and gratitude.

To and From Honduras, With Love

A young man had been detained by the New Orleans’ Border Patrol at the Greyhound station. He was in his early twenties, with shaggy black hair and a backpack. He squinted down at his feet as if they ached, perhaps to fight back tears. But maybe he was retracing the steps that led to his detention, longing to return to the critical moments that had set his future on this track. How far back might those steps lead him? How far had he come on his journey? How long had he been here in this country, in this city?

Many Latino immigrants in New Orleans are from Honduras, a country that recently has received a lot of national attention as a result of the humanitarian crisis involving thousands of unaccompanied children attempting to cross the U.S. border. The issue has provoked a number of questions of morality: for individuals, families, and for our country. We want to know who is to blame. Of course, it’s difficult to point a finger at a 13-year-old in a Spiderman T-shirt who just wants to be reunited with his mother. But what about the adult the 13-year-old will become, who will maybe one day be detained in a bus station? The issue raises controversial questions about culpability. A clearer source of blame appears to be the parents. Many of us ask: What kind of parent would abandon his or her child?

Honduras has one of the highest rates of poverty in the world and is known as the murder capital of the world—conditions that push mothers to kiss babies goodbye and flee north to the United States. They arrive with the hope that sending money back home will shield their children from the hunger pangs, filthy water, and threat of gangs. They believe the best thing they can do as a parent is to uplift their standard of living.

New Orleans, with its subtropical weather and post-Katrina construction, presents an alluring opportunity to immigrants. The city and surrounding suburbs have one of the highest populations of Hondurans in the United States. Historically, ties between the port city and the Central American country were established because American businesses owned banana plantations in Honduras and imported the fruit.

In the past few years rumors have circulated in Honduras that America is offering a free pass to children crossing the border. The false information is rooted in a mixture of actual immigration policy as well as a market incentive for deception by smugglers. The result has been thousands of children at risk of losing their lives while attempting to cross the desert or losing their limbs as they ride the tops of the railway trains through Mexico. These kids are vulnerable to being robbed, brutalized, and forced into labor or prostitution. Yet, taking this one-time risk followed by the promise of a better life is more appealing than facing the same dangers at home without an end in sight.

A recent murder case involving a Honduran family in New Orleans has gained national attention. A man has been accused of murdering his young girlfriend, Heidi Monroy, who was also a mother of three children, by bludgeoning her to death. As startling as the brutality is, just as disconcerting is the report of abject poverty in which the woman and her children were living. With only a mattress pulled from the garbage as furniture, the young woman relied on the kindness of neighbors for the family’s meager food rations and occasional need for electricity. Her 12-year-old daughter served as cook and the caretaker of her siblings. The dream of “a better life” that surely set Monroy on her journey from Honduras to New Orleans ended in tragedy. Although hers is an extreme case, many immigrants find themselves facing poverty, discrimination, and violence after arriving here.

In Murrieta, a small town in Southern California, the issue of immigration recently came to a head as protesters blocked buses of women and children from arriving at the local immigration detention center. The town’s mayor commented: “It’s not against the immigrants. They’re trying to leave a less desirable place and come to the greatest nation in the world. We can’t blame them for that … What we’re protesting is the product of a broken system.” Yet, a terrified 5-year old would not understand the difference between opposition to policies and rejection of their humanity as an angry mob of protestors shouted “Deport! Deport!”

The situation even stirred compassion in Glenn Beck, a well-known conservative who acknowledged that the immigrants were “caught in political crossfire.” “Anyone, left or right, seeking political gain at the expense of these desperate, vulnerable, poor and suffering people are reprehensible,” he said.

The same day the young man was removed by the Border Patrol at the bus station in New Orleans, a Honduran couple and their son arrived there later that day. The child was about 6 years old, and he had excitedly pointed out everything he saw through the sprawling window of the bus on the last leg of their trip. Miralo—el carro con el perro! (Look–the car with the dog!) he cried out. Miralo, el agua. (Look, the water.) Mira, everything. His observations were as constant as the buzz of the bus engine and pitched with as much energy. Not until he entered the city did the focus of his commentary change. He was momentarily quiet, before asking his mother in Spanish if they had arrived. Si, she responded with a nod.  The boy swallowed a big breath of air before launching into a heartfelt prayer: Thank you God for allowing us to arrive safely on this very long journey. I miss my home. But I thank you for our new country.

In a humanitarian crisis such as this one we naturally look for someone or something to blame. But the truth is these Honduran children, immigrant families, and even our country would be better served by looking for a solution. And humanity would be better served by finding compassion.

Ferguson Case Could Be a Pivotal Moment

This article was published in the New Orleans Advocate on Sept 5, under the title “White community must recognize social injustices.

A demonstrator wearing a Trayvon Martin T-shirt stands with others in Washington D.C. to express solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

We have a human rights crisis in the United States and people are not paying attention. Wait. Let me rephrase that because there is an important distinction. Us White people are not paying attention.

As I write this, an ambulance wails through my neighborhood in New Orleans and I am reminded that Michael Brown is not just one black man. He is one of millions who have died as the result of racial injustices in this country.

The difference is that Brown’s case removes the subtleties of institutional violence so we see exactly how societal power plays out between two individual characters: “The Man” or white male policeman, and black male “criminal.” (“Criminal” of course, is a role forced upon any black man who happens to be in the area when it needs to be filled. And as happened in this case, evidence will be found to support the label.) So in effect, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson became the physical embodiments of a social order, one that is unjust and unconscionable in its disregard for the lives of black men.

However, many white people do not see or understand the reality of this crisis because it does not directly affect them. They are in low-crime neighborhoods where the sight of a policeman stirs a feeling of safety and comfort instead of antagonism and fear. But for black men between the ages of 15 and 34, homicide is the leading cause of death. Moreover, police are not trusted allies to black men, but the enforcers of discriminatory drug policies that target them even while drug use is consistent among all races. Crime, poverty, mass incarceration, diseases and sickness are all conveniently out of the purview of white neighborhoods. In New Orleans, there is a 25-year difference in life expectancy between the predominantly white neighborhood of Lakeview and the historically black neighborhood of Tremé. Inequality is not just a matter of money, but life itself: who lives and who dies in America.

Of course, this injustice affects all of us. We are all living in a country that lauds ideals and principles of freedom and opportunity to which we do not uphold in practice. We are standing by and allowing lives to be lost. We are ignoring the pain and suffering of a whole population of Americans. In sum, white people are suffering from a crisis of their own: a lack of consciousness.   However, these tragedies involving needless death can serve to jolt us from our apathetic slumber. It is time to wake up and decide, “I do not want to live in a country where some lives are less valuable than others”.

The Coming of Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of Breaking the Fast

This morning I awoke about an hour before dawn, meditated in the dark quiet, and ate breakfast while the sky was just beginning to change to lighter hues. My next glass of water and plate of food will be about fifteen hours later, when the sun sets. This has been my pattern for the last thirty days as I have observed Ramadan, a fast intended to help one understand the suffering of others.

My reasons for fasting could be described as “a social cause,” fairly simple in its focus. I decided to fast in an effort to shift attention from Islamic extremism to gender violence. Over the past couple of months, the media has framed the news of the kidnapping of over two hundred Nigerian girls only in terms of a horrific singular act by a certain group of religious terrorists. However, the reality is that every day women all over the world are victims of kidnapping, rape, torture, assault and other forms of violence and oppression, no matter their religion. Moreover, these acts are manifestations of a larger social and global problem—one that harms both men and women, victims and perpetrators.

While the fast started out with this simple purpose, the effects have been much more complex, wide-reaching, and deep.

For context, one should know that if I am even thirty minutes late for my scheduled mealtime, physical hunger melds into an emotional reaction. I traverse a spectrum of irritation and anger, disappointment and sadness. The first days of the fast I was all of these. At the height of my hunger, I felt like a scolded child forced into time-out, sitting with the emotions and unable to offer myself any relief. Even when the hunger ebbed, I wanted to break up the stretch of a long day with the pleasure of a morsel of chocolate or a spoonful of peanut butter as an instant cure for boredom or restlessness. For the first time I realized how I used food to not only meet a basic physical need, but also as an emotional pacifier.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh would call this “running away.” He describes how we use many forms of pleasure-seeking—food, TV, shopping, sex, magazines, conversations, etc—to run away from our self and suffering. The means by which we reach this getaway are as varied as our personalities. But the goal is always the same: to escape pain in all its forms, whether it is only the slightest gale of uneasiness or an emotional monsoon.

Moreover, when I first decided to fast, to “be present for the suffering of others,” I thought that the experience of hunger would help me intellectually understand what people were feeling. I did not expect the level of connectedness I felt with others as a result. My vision of the world shifted from me and my ego as the epicenter to a larger, omniscient pain shared by many. Suddenly, I felt the loneliness, shame, and hunger of a homeless man begging for a dollar in the street. I felt the aching of a woman’s joints as she shuffled forward with a cane. I felt compassion for an obese child’s demands for more cake. All these feelings were there, resting in my gut, and resonating with the pain of others. We share the same inner landscape, even while the heat and cold of it vary in degrees in each of us.

This is not to say there were no failures of compassion within the last thirty days. One day, a bus driver became ill, and instead of feeling concern for her health, I was much more preoccupied with keeping to my schedule. Will you be calling another bus driver? I demanded. In hindsight, I am sure my caustic tone worsened her condition.

Ramadan has taught me that the understanding of another’s suffering does not come from an intellectual process or an external view, however noble the cause. This understanding comes from a deep relationship to one’s own suffering. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be one of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria or a member of the Boko Haram. The extent of that pain is beyond the sphere of my experience. However, having a greater understanding of my own suffering—hunger and craving, anger and dissatisfaction, indifference and callousness—helps me understand theirs. And although I cannot claim to know the suffering of the victims or the terrorists, I do know the suffering itself—from which we both draw, albeit in different measures.

Tonight, when I break my fast, I am sure to feel joy and relief that it is over. However, in some ways, I wish it would never end. While I deprived my body of food, I nurtured it with spirit. I am afraid that a return to my daily routine will dilute the power of insight. Yet, I also sense that Ramadan is about balance—abstention, denial, piety even, during the light of the day and permission, tolerance, and concession during the darkness of night. I can only hope to find a semblance of that balance within the days to come, and I also hope that I will continue my commitment to understanding the complexities of human nature, to becoming comfortable with discomfort, and simply being present for suffering.

The Country with a Smile

My first trip to visit my mother’s family in El Salvador was when I was six years old, during the civil war.  All that is left of my memory of the visit is an earthy scent and the tangy quench of orange soda at the corner bodega.  I’m still unsure whether I’ve invented the memory of hearing the explosions of bombs at night. My parents assure me that I slept through them, even when the war was approaching a nearby town.  I have no recollection of taking a small commuter plane to evacuate the country.

We visited again when I was seventeen years old.  This time, the shock of poverty seared the memories into me like a cattle brand.  I still recall children as young as toddlers, soiled, ragged and begging in the streets of the capitol.  I was shocked by the multi-colored buses that flew around the curves, hurling crammed-in passengers onto each other.  The road conditions themselves, either dusty, boulder-laden, and slow, or a competition of high-speed passing, could make me sit upright with my eyes wide.

Even my family had not escaped the poverty.  In her rural village, my grandmother had dirt floors in her adobe home, and no running water.  We bathed near the outhouse in the backyard, crouching in our underwear with soapy backs as we watched vigilantly for passer-bys.

One day, there was no gas to heat the water, which was rainfall collected in a plastic basin.  My sister, mother and I tackled our bath like a team sport, gathering together in the backyard between two sheets dangling from a clothesline.  Our determined readiness was quickly met with shrieks fit for any childhood game of Mercy.  My mother, who was standing on a rock with her hair shampooed straight up like a troll doll, squealed like a toddler each time the icy water hit the nape of her neck. My sister and I were doubled over not only from the cold water dripping onto our own backs, but from laughter.

However, I was solemn when I returned to the same spot that night, when I scanned the outhouse with a flashlight and watched as cockroaches scuttled into the hole I needed to use.

Without a TV or computer to escape to, I often felt restless during the trip.  At the time I didn’t speak much Spanish, and so I couldn’t ask my aunt, cousins, or grandmother if they were happy.  But I imagined they couldn’t be, not without their own room or even a bed to sleep in, not without a microwave or a telephone.  The day we were supposed to return to the United States the plane was delayed until the next afternoon.  When my father gave us the news, I broke into tears.  The only thing that could appease me was that the airline would put us up in a four-star hotel in the capital.  You can watch movies, have a full buffet breakfast, and speak English, my father assured me.  I forced a nod, wiping the drops from my cheeks.

Yet, in the weeks that followed, as I showed off picture albums to my friends, I realized I missed the fresh orange juice my grandmother had squeezed for us each day for breakfast.  I missed the unrestrained curiosity of my cousins who pet the hair on my arms while we lay entangled in the hammock.  I could even miss the sounds of firecrackers at 5:00 a.m. because they had woken me up to the soft, dewy scent of the pre-dawn tropics.

In those three weeks in El Salvador I had connected with the people, the world around me, and even myself, in a way I had never experienced before.

Decades later, I read a news article with a poll showing that the citizens of some of the poorest countries in the world are also the happiest.   In the poll, El Salvador ranked third among the happiest of countries. Other studies explain this by showing that experiences bring more happiness than material possessions. Reading this, I reflected back on the time I spent there with my family. I smiled and felt the warmth of the memories.

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay I have written reflecting on what I have learned from viewing poverty as an outsider.

Why I’m Fasting for Ramadan

Ramadan began this weekend, and although I am not Muslim, I am taking part in the thirty-day fast in order to honor the kidnapped girls in Nigeria.  A purpose of the Islamic tenet is to deepen understanding of the suffering of others.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was stationed in Mokolo, Cameroon, twenty-five miles from the Nigerian border and 100 from the school where Nigerian girls were kidnapped. The town is peacefully divided between equal proportions of Christians and Muslims.  While there, Islamic extremism was not an issue, but gender equality was. Women and girls face many challenges, such as child marriage, HIV/AIDS, and sexual violence. However, in the past month, the media has focused on the narrow scope of Islamic extremism instead of recognizing that the kidnapped girls are not the only victims of terrorism. Millions of women face gender violence in Africa and across the world.

We can all learn from Ramadan by expanding our understanding of suffering as well as the Islamic faith. Thus, I will not only fast for the girls, but friends in Cameroon, women across the world, and even the men who terrorize and oppress them.

Shut Up! Shut Down

I hated the kids in Cameroon. People think I am some sort of saint for volunteering in Africa for two years, but if they knew how much I hated the kids, they would see me differently.

A couple years ago, when I was living there, I would have said I hated them because they were wild; they had no manners and yelled Nassara (“foreigner”in Fulfulde) at me. They were raw in their need and their demands, yelling Give me a gift! with outstretched hands and mocking grins. Sure, some of them probably just wanted candy or to test the heralded generosity of a white woman. But many of them might have been truly hungry, and I might have alleviated it by giving them a small bag of peanuts or a cup of bouillie, Cameroon’s version of oatmeal. Instead, I would clench my jaw and walk on by as if I hadn’t heard them.

Every day children accosted me with their poverty, sometimes one by one, other times in droves. One time, passing through a rural village on a bike ride, a gang of about twenty dusty children of all ages began to run after me, yelling for a present. I pedaled with the fervor of survival to escape them, but their words echoed in my mind for miles afterward. Give me! Give me! Give me! I hated them for asking.

Recently my best friend asked me why I hated the children in Cameroon. It had been a subject I was reticent in admitting to, but I had confessed to her.  For the first time in two years I felt something shift inside me, perhaps the clarity of hindsight finally giving way. I told her I hated the children because they made me feel so helpless.

A little while later, I was in a meditation group and the lesson was “being present for the suffering of others.” That’s when I fully realized that I had hardened myself to their suffering because I was afraid it would absorb me. Dissolve me. Break me down. So, instead my response was like a Joan of Arc or gladiator movie where heavy wooden gates are cranked shut and the forces prepare to defend themselves. Their demands triggered an agressiveness that felt like defending my survival. I was angry at them for asking because I was angry at myself for not being able to help them.  I filled myself with hate to protect myself from despair.

There were a few children in Cameroon who penetrated my façade of disdain. A couple of them were neighborhood kids who I would pass on the dirt path from my house to the town center.  On market days, they would emerge like emaciated ghosts from the basalt boulders, which must have made their way down from the rocky mountains that surrounded the town. They were a couple of pre-teen sisters, bald and so flat-chested and brittle I might have mistaken them for boys if it were not for the parachute dresses they wore. I would give them guavas or tomatoes, sometimes okra for their mother to cook.

I also befriended a homeless boy, named Pascal, who would beg in the town center. He was known as one of the most troubled kids, possibly huffing aerosol, and annoying foreigners by following them around town with an open hand and an almost mocking grin while whining in a high-pitched voice, “Ma soeur” or “Mon frehr.” His persistence exhausted my defenses, and once he got in, he got just about anything he wanted from me.

So, yes, I hated the children in Cameroon. And yes, I shut down and refused to see their suffering. But, I now see why. I also see that at least I helped a few.  And that helps me forgive myself.