We were grilling when our friends called: their daughter had a 104 fever and they needed help. I set my six-month-old in her bouncy chair, kissed Dave, and drove to their apartment about five minutes away. Taking the stairs two at a time, I arrived at their door ready to save the world. Or, um, to help my friends.
I remember feeling so proud of myself for no longer breathing shallowly when the smells from a half-dozen nationalities’ cuisines filled the hallway. (Tumeric? Coriander? Ginger? Curry? All?) So proud of myself that this refugee family, these newcomers, had called my family. I know people from Burma: I thought that a lot back then.
In their tiny apartment, the mother held her lethargic daughter while the dad showed me the tiny bottle of infant painkiller he’d brought from Thailand. “Hot,” her mom said. “Hot.” Very.
They knew what I knew: she needed a doctor.
My family’s connection with theirs began in 2012 through World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency newly reopened in our city. We and our church mentored the family who didn’t need a lot of mentoring, but I found it alluring and frightening at the same time: each visit ended with us carrying handfuls of candies and containers of rice and vegetables. Each time we’d have at least one stuttering conversation that had a lot of pantomime, over-zealous smiling, and zero comprehension.
Highly recommend the experience to almost anyone.
The very thought of volunteering made me blabber on to a friend at a Starbucks how “working with refugees could change the whole trajectory of my life.” (To be fair, I was about six weeks postpartum with my third baby; every situation was either horrible or life-altering, there was no medium.) She was kind enough to say, “Oh, Erin,” and believe me.
Then our family moved to Michigan. And I filled out an application to work with St. Vincent’s Refugee Services, never turned it in. The paper fluttered from the top of the pile in one house to the recycling bin in our new one when we moved.
Life-altering, I’m telling you.
And nothing happened. For three, almost four years, nothing. And sometimes Dave would ask if we were going to get involved and we’d forget about it. A photo of a preschool-aged boy washed ashore made me cry — but still, like most people, there were new horrible images to replace the shock of his.
I’d stood so close to the fire, eaten the s’mores. Then I’d wandered so far from it I forgot how warm it was. Now, I kinda miss the smell of smoke in my hair, on my clothes.
So I’m picking up smoking.
I filled out that volunteer application again, the one to be a family mentor to newcomers. Sent it this time. I want to feel at least some heat from the fire, if not the Fire. I want to smell like smoke again.
I won’t defend post-partum Erin’s revelation that being in relationships with refugees would change the trajectory of my life from working for corporate to wearing hemp and being legit. Instead, I’ll simply say I pray this continues to turn my life away from myself. That I’d notice the center of gravity doesn’t come from my own feet but someplace much, much deeper.
I don’t even know what wearing hemp means, by the way.
Oh. Back to the urgent care center: it was a double-ear infection and strep. The pink stuff made her well as it makes other kids well. Within a couple days she was fine. Meanwhile, I’m still becoming well. It’s going to take my whole life.
The $60 I made mowing lawns in August is more than I made writing last month. Living the writer’s reality. Sometimes you have articles flowing like bubbly and sometimes you mow your neighbor’s yard.
Good news: I read a lot of good books.
First, all the Jane Smiley at my library.
Second, a title for fellow broken do-gooders: If you’re intrigued about how to check your motives about loving people who are different from you, you need to read DL Mayfield’s “Assimilate or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith.” (I promise this is not a book about building a wall between our country and any other nor deporting anyone.) Her collection of essays about a decade living in apartment complexes with newcomers (and small children!) follows the arc of “I’m here to save them” to “they’re saving me.” Beautiful and gut-checking.