Last week, on Thursday, January 28, we had our first opportunity to volunteer here in Heredia. I chose to go to a community center for elderly adults, where there are meals and activities provided for them throughout the day. When we arrived, we were welcomed in through a big metal gate into a medium sized recreational room with a few colorfully decorated tables for meals to the left and a kitchen behind that, four craft tables directly in front of us, and some couches to the right. Most of the elderly folks (there were about ten of them) were women, and I went first to introduce myself to a woman who was sitting with a coloring book next to a man who had a grey (silver) colored pencil. I interacted with the woman first, saying hola and ¿Cómo está? and mucho gusto. Though I do not think she heard much of what I was saying, she gave me hugs and smiled at me a lot. She very much loved to talk!
I do not recall her name, but she started showing me her coloring book, which she had been “coloring” with a popsicle stick. She took me through almost the whole book, saying to me at each ripped page, Vea, vea. Y aquí también, vea. Each time she showed me a new page, she would wait for a reaction, whether it was a look or a nod or a sympathetic ¡Qué lastima! ¿Qué pasó? (What a shame! What happened here?)
She asked me a few times whether I was studying something here in Costa Rica, and although I answered the same each time, I don’t know if she was unable to remember that she had already asked me this same question a few times, or if she never quite caught my response. She was impressed every time that I was studying social work and Spanish, though! This woman had a very beautiful joy radiating from her, despite her inability to hear or to remember what I was trying to say to her. She wanted me to be involved in what she was doing, and she made sure she captured my attention with her multiple vea, vea.
Once we had finished going through the coloring book looking at all the torn pages from people coloring too hard, I turned to the man on my left and introduced myself.
His name was Mario Hernandez, and he spoke very, very softly. I had to lean in close to hear him, but when he spoke, he spoke gently and sweetly: very innocent, like a child. He was coloring each page he opened very methodically, although most of the pages were already covered completely with grey. I asked him if grey was his favorite color, and he moved his hand away from the body of the colored pencil, showing me that it was shiny on the outside, although it didn’t appear on the page that way. I asked him if instead it was a silver colored pencil, and he seemed pleased that I understood that this wasn’t just any color he was adding to every page.
When I turned my focus to Don Mario, The Joyful Woman started taking out all the colored pencils and sorting them by color and size before putting them back in the containers. Then she would do the same thing again a few minutes later. Don Mario showed me with a soft vea that he was coloring each of the pages in a specific way, only ever coloring in circular motions and staying mostly within the lines on the page, coloring in the letter of the alphabet or the number that appeared there. After a coloring a few minutes, he offered me the colored pencil and asked me to help him.
He became my instructor, pointing out each place where he wanted me to draw. When I wasn’t sure what he wanted, I would pass back the colored pencil and ask him to teach me what to do. He did so gladly, softly instructing me with a new vea, vea, and although I wanted to let him color how he wanted to, he was intent on helping me learn how to do what he was doing. After we colored over the first page multiple times, he kind of gave me a little smile and a chuckle and told me we could work on a new page, not just the one page the whole time. I wonder if he was testing to see how long I would keep coloring the same spot without complaint!
Don Mario was a very sweet teacher, complementing me when I did what he asked (even if I couldn’t see that I was making a difference on the one-color picture) and correcting me when my pencil strokes were too small. Halfway through our time together, he started picking out some purple and red colors and asked me to outline the number 4 on the page we were coloring. He loved how the colors mixed together, and he was very happy that he had me to help him. When it was time for me to leave, it made me sad to have to go, because my company was so sweet and so vulnerable.
To practice the corporal works of mercy is the most humbling thing I have ever done. I did not think about it until after I had left, but I was with Christ in those moments, sitting with Him in simplicity, enjoying the colors the Father created. Why do we (especially in the United States) think that the elderly are a burden? How can we think of euthanasia? It makes me shudder to think about the idea of killing The Joyful Woman because she can no longer do all she could do in her childhood! How have we dropped so low so as to imagine that horror? Why do we think that humans who cannot earn money and enjoy sex are worthless? How have we fallen so far?
The term that I keep using, vea, means “see” or “look”. It invites the listener to actively participate in the life of the speaker. My host father says it often, inviting me to look at the door and shelves he has been building every day for the last week and a half after getting home from a full day of work, all so it can be a lovely and useful surprise for his daughter upon her return home from Oregon. He uses it to invite me to admire the dignity and the value of his work, work done out of love of his family, out of a pure desire to improve the lives of those he loves by means of the talents God has given him.
When The Joyful Woman invited me to look, she invited me to share in her joy and laughter. She showed me her heart, her heart which wanted to share the joy, even if she couldn’t participate in the world the same way as she could in her youth. (Yet, her participation in life now is valid, too. It’s still beautiful! It’s still special! She is still human, and she still has immense worth in the eyes of God!)
Each and every one of us wants to be wanted. My time with The Joyful Woman reminded me of the beauty and the humanity of being wanted! She offered me hugs and laughter, despite my inability to communicate with her. In a place not her home, she made me feel welcome with her smile and her laughter! Upon further reflection after my two hours at the community center, I was reminded of a picture I saw at Silent Retreat this past fall:
(I don’t have it on my computer anymore, but it was a painting of Christ laughing, eyes crinkled, smile wide, and this verse scrolled lightly in the corner: I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10. The Joyful Woman’s attitude reflected a life which was lived abundantly despite trials, and I know she lived abundantly because she reflected Jesus so simply.)
When Mario Hernandez, my patient instructor, invited me to look, look, he was inviting me to develop a talent he himself values, and he was inviting me to humble myself enough to receive a lesson from a simple man.
Vea is an invitation to see the human condition in all its frailty and neediness. We are built for community, for sharing our lives with others, for being seen and for seeing others. When my host father invites me to look and see what he has created, it tells me he is proud of hard work and loves to serve his family. When The Joyful Woman asked me to look at the ripped pages in the book, she wanted me to understand that it was a shame that the frail pages couldn’t handle the rough treatment given to them. I don’t know who ripped those pages, but I do know that she was at least frustrated by the destruction. And what a basic human frustration! We humans are always seeking what is whole, or at least what we think might fill our lives. What a frustration when we are offered something partial, something damaged! Is this not the source of so many of our frustrations with others? Our parents can’t possibly understand us: they aren’t “full” of youth, they don’t remember what it’s like to be children. Our boyfriends or girlfriends aren’t whole because they don’t get all the little clues and hints we toss their way. Parties seem to offer the whole package, all the fun and all the distraction from the real dangers of the world, but each time, they fail to fill us. The Joyful Woman’s narrow focus on all the frail, damaged pieces of paper taught me that all in this world is so frail, so easily damaged, so quickly destroyed, so irreparable. On the contrary, it is those things of Heaven: faith, hope, and the greatest, love, which truly fill us. We never can be filled here, so when we ache to be complete, let us ache for God, not for what will pass away!
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12
Mario Hernandez, my attentive teacher, showed me that where many see grey, it is possible to see silver. I do, however, think it’s important to mention that we should not be deceived by things that shine. How often in this world do we think we are doing some shiny, meaningful thing, when really we are coloring the days of our lives with monotonous grey? How often do I pretend my sins are not so important, that if I just keep doing the same thing, it will start looking valuable and beautiful in the eyes of others and of God? How often do I fear the unfamiliar, do I fear adding a splash of color to my life? (That splash of color being listening to God’s will, not my own.) I am as stubborn as my sweet art instructor, so often choosing my way, my way, my way, a dreary grey advertised as silver, when God wants to offer color and life in abundance in the most beautiful colors and patterns.
Still, in this teacher content with his grey/silver colored pencil, I saw Christ my Teacher, calling vea, vea, come see My child, My young soul, whose body is failing him and whose voice is so quiet. Here, I found Christ in the man who showed me love and patience through a coloring book and a colored pencil. Here, Christ the old man. Christ the infirm. Christ the nearly silent. Christ the patient teacher. Christ the giver.
Each time I type vea, I hear it in my head, a soft voice calling to me and directing me where to draw. When I type this, I hear my Papí tico, Oscar, calling me from his daughters’ room, vea, Erin, vea aqui. Casi fin! Vea, y vea aqui, aqui voy a poner la puerta. Entiende? Vea aquí también. Sharing his joy with me, eagerly awaiting his daughter’s arrival, when she will use all the things he has worked hard on to make her life even better.
And all these veas make me think: How easy it is to listen to others. What an honor it is to simply be with someone who is lonely. How easy it is to help. How valuably is our time spent are we when we offer our attentive presence and active participation in the life of another.