Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Pure Presence of Trust

My Dad stopped the little red car in front of a long empty driveway and he said: "I think it’s here. I’m pretty sure it’s here." I opened the door and pulled the large backpack over my right shoulder. "I will see you at home then." I stepped out of the car and closed the door behind me and I watched him drive away. It was a small narrow street and, other than my Dad’s red car already turning the corner, there was no traffic. I could hear the distant sound of TVs and radios coming from several houses, laughter, melancholic orchestras, commercials for soap, cell phones and clothing. It was already getting dark and there were many small trees that lined the sidewalks, making long shadows that would spread over the walls and onto the asphalt like splotches of oil over a flat surface of obsidian. I knew this neighborhood relatively well. It was the same neighborhood I used to walk through on my way to "Satelite", where my old friends lived, back in the days of the civil war, the days of standing in the corner for no purpose, the days of clandestine heavy metal, the days of intentions that formed and vanished without action, like ephemeral figures on a translucent cloud of smoke.
But as with all streets and places in El Salvador, things weren’t quite the same as I had known them years ago, and maybe they had never been as I had once imagined, and maybe if I could walk again, as I am today, down the streets of twenty years ago, the sidewalks and walls and trees would look as different as they did today to my startled eyes.
I took out the small piece of paper from my pocket and looked at the number I had written on it. I looked for a number on the house with the long driveway and I realized that this was the wrong house. I shook my head and looked around me. In the distance I could see the local street guard, with the typical silver shotgun over his shoulder. He might have been looking over at me, wondering who this person was, just standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a big backpack and no apparent place to go. I looked at the other houses and, after examining them carefully, I came to realize that several of them had no number. I looked in the other direction and I saw a middle aged woman talking to someone on the other side of a doorway. A small dog was barking somewhere inside that house. I walked towards them and, faintly smiling, I said: "Buenas noches…excuse me… would you be able to tell me where house 151 would be?" Then I heard the known voice from inside the house: "Juan Carlos, you are here. You are in your house. Come in." I turned towards the doorway and I saw the Old Woman, smiling and nodding. My own faint smile turned broad and sharply defined and I moved towards her and hugged her. She hugged me back and, in an instant of recognition, it was as if all the years of distance and silence had gone by in a blur of disconnected dreams and unanswered questions.
I had met the Old Woman almost two decades earlier, when I spent four or five months in El Salvador, after graduating from college and before breaking my mental patterns apart in an orgy of cathartic psychedelic enlightenment and spontaneous magical invocations. In that twilight zone in between the end of one life and the start of another, I had come to see my Dad and he had introduced me to his very distant cousin who then was also his very close friend. I immediately liked her soft voice and her wide and careful observant eyes. She was small and she was made smaller by her slightly curved back. Her hair was short and black and her skin was a dark brown etched with wrinkles and the subtle marks of a thousand secret battles. Her laughter was gentle and cautious and her words sprinkled out with precision and care, in a kind of soft but secure song that inspired me to listen closely and to answer clearly and with an equal amount of attention. It was very easy for her to become enthusiastic, for her eyes to squeeze tightly into wrinkled lines of happiness and for her smile to explode over her face like a shower of fresh rain over a dry valley, and when that happened, she would start to make suggestions, one after another, in a quick succession of ideas, freely given, without a touch of arrogance or malice. After talking to her for hours, it became clear that she was exploring me as much as I was exploring her and that she was constantly thinking of how she could be helpful to my endeavors and how I could be helpful to the greater good, the purpose which she held above all others. I trusted her immediately and without hesitation or doubt.
Through our conversations, and through tales that my Dad told me when we were alone, I came to learn that the Old Woman, this little wrinkled brown lady with the sweet smile, had been a fearsome warrior of the rebel army not too long ago. Just a few years earlier, she had thousands of men under her command and she had lead them through the shadow regions of the city, the invisible channels hidden in plain sight. In the dusty back rooms of abandoned warehouses, in the empty bedrooms of middle class neighborhoods, in the mazes of dirty huts made of tin and cardboard, this is where her urban guerrillas waited, where they sweated in anticipation, from here they attacked and here they returned to find a place to hide. She had fought alongside people whom I regarded as nearly mythic legends and she had known them as close friends and comrades. She had been cold blooded when necessary, she had been as tough as steel nails when the situation demanded it. She had done things that most people that I had known, most people I would ever know, could never even bring themselves to imagine and she carried all these memories with her, in her curved little body, like a little soft purse full of grains of sand that slowly spill out through the imperfections of the fabric.
I became aware of her own mythical status back then, when she took us to a party of the ex-guerrillas in a low budget hotel in an old decrepit neighborhood of San Salvador, a place I would never have visited on my own. The Torogoces, the official band of the revolution, was the house band for the event. They were playing cumbias and rancheras, the kind of music I would have avoided when I was younger, but here the simple chords and constant rhythms covered the crowd in a translucent sphere of open celebration that glistened with shared memories of victory and sacrifice. Young skinny men with eyes fixed on the future, middle aged women with faces of hardship and endless endurance, girls in tight jeans and loose tops and eager voices like the tinkling of bells, they were all drinking and laughing together, forming little circles of shared attention. Everybody there seemed to know each other and they were very suspicious of anyone that they perceived as an outsider. When I first walked in, I could feel their suspicion in subtle glances and a slight shrugging of shoulders as I passed by. But as the Old Woman introduced me to her closest friends, to other guerrilla commanders, to new political figures and to old men and women who had been with the revolution from the very beginning, they took me in with open arms. They trusted the Old Woman, and by the simple act of her introduction, their trust then extended to me. Later, as I mingled alone through the hall, people talked to me with eyes wide open, and, stepping closer to me, they whispered: "You are with the Old Woman, right?" In the tone of their voice, I realized what she meant to them. I could see through their question the nights when someone would knock on the window and they would find a note under the door that said: "Go to the corner of Boulevard de los Heroes and Gabriela Minstral, at 3pm tomorrow" and they would do exactly as the note said, knowing that it came from the Old Woman, the voice of wisdom somewhere out there in the urban darkness. Maybe most of them had never met her in person during the entire ten years of war, or maybe they had only seen her briefly, maybe another fighter had described her to them, maybe they had only heard the name, maybe she was just the Old Woman and that was all, and that was enough. And their eyes kept on being open and wide, like clear lagoons filled with the waters of respect and admiration.
They all shared the memory of having been true rebels together, in the face of death and horrible tortures. They all shared the knowledge of a time that was unlike any other, a space in their mind that still crackled with the fire of life and which they held close to their chest, away from the eyes of strangers, hoping the fire would never fade away as the years passed slowly by, like an old wooden cart on a road made of rocks, dirt and sand.
It was a time when you would be told that a guest would be coming to your home and you would leave the door open all night, and sometime after midnight you would hear steps, you would hear someone eating in the kitchen, someone going to the bathroom, someone laying down to rest. You were not supposed to know who this was, you were not supposed to talk to them, you were not supposed to see them. So you stayed in your bed and waited. By the time the morning had broken and you came out, the guest was gone and there were very few traces left of their stay. You would never know who had been in your house. You would never know what part this had played in the greater scheme of the revolution. You would never know what came before it. You would never know what happened next.
It was a time when you arrived at a house to get a package and you were handed a plastic bag full of papers and an address and then the door would close. And you would make your way through a city full of soldiers and policemen, all hunting for people such as you, and you would not know what was in the bag, or who you had just visited or who you were taking the bag to or who would eventually read what was inside. You would arrive at another door and hand the package and walk away, without ever turning back. And you would never know who you had helped or what had been the consequences of your dance at the edge of disaster. You would never know what came before it. You would never know what happened next.
It was all trust. Trust and nothing more.
The Old Woman was one of the few that could see the whole picture, she was one of the few that moved the pieces and made the silent tough decisions that could lead other fighters to the gates of destruction and horror. Many of them passed through those gates and never came back. But the Old Woman kept on making choices, kept on moving the pieces, kept on sending out her messages that glistened like fireflies on a warm summer night
I became aware of the cold edge that was still hidden behind her gentleness one night in my aunt’s apartment. It was a small dinner that my aunt had put together. She had invited a couple of famous commanders from the guerrilla army that had turned into political figures after the peace accords had ended the war. She also invited the Old Woman, who had left the guerrillas before the peace had been settled and so she had no official role in the new left wing party. My father and me completed the guest list. During that time I had been reading a small book by a man that had been a rebel commander and was now speaking out against the guerillas and against the reasons given for the war itself. I was curious to see what these people would have to say about him and I committed the indiscretion of bringing up his name and his book. The woman who was a commander turned politician, dressed in a fashionable flowery top and tight silky pants, analyzed his ideas quickly and determined that he was saying some things that were correct but that it was not the right political time to say them, there could be truth in it but it was a truth that couldn’t be spoken of yet. The other commander, wearing a guayabera and newly pressed jeans, just shrugged his shoulders and said that people do different things under different situations and then had nothing more to say about it.
Then I heard the Old Woman’s voice, coming from behind my left shoulder, cutting through the genteel conversation like a machete through a soft ripe coconut: "He’s a traitor." She didn’t say anything else, she didn’t elaborate on the meaning or the implications of her sentence, but none of that was necessary. In the coldness of her voice, in the finality of her judgement, the sentence was clear and it was a sentence of death. In the depth of her voice and in the echo of her words through the apartment, there was no question left in me. The Old Woman would not have hesitated to execute the sentence and she would not have thought twice about it the next day. There was nothing personal in her words. There was no anger, no resentment, no shame. It was a simple description of fact that carried within itself an implied series of consequences.
It was a different time then, a different space from the one that the Old Woman carried around her like an electromagnetic field. Peace had descended onto El Salvador in a modern 747 carrying many Anglo-Saxon men in pristine new suits and wearing dark glasses, men who would write in English the will of a people who would never learn to speak in English, tall blonde men who would then celebrate the triumph of peace and democracy in this little backwards country, men who would return home and tell stories of the good things they had brought to the third world while drinking whisky and playing golf, far away from the dusty roads, far away from the torture chambers, far away from the unmarked graves. Because the times had changed, because the paradigm had shifted, the consequences that echoed in the Old Woman’s voice would never happen. But the mathematics were still clear and sharply outlined in her old wrinkled eyes.
"He’s a traitor." There was a short silence and then my aunt changed the subject. But in that instant, I had seen the dark abyss that surrounded the protected lonely tower of the Old Woman’s trust.
Today I stepped into the Old Woman’s house and the warmth of her friendship was as clear as a tropical breeze blowing across a forest of palm trees; strong, warm and touched by the depths of the ocean. We talked for hours, in a conversation that had no clear direction but resonated with significance in every question, in every phrase, in every word. We sat in her living room and her little black dog tried to nibble at my shoes for a bit and then went to sit under the Old Woman’s rocking chair. There was a guitar in the corner, hanging from a nail, and a computer on a wide flat desk. There were a few paintings on the walls and a couple of photographs. Otherwise the walls were white and empty. Her grandson, a young teenager with baggy pants and a long loose T-shirt, sat with us for a while but he quickly realized he had better things to do and he left us alone. She offered me food but I politely declined, saying that all I wanted was to talk with her. She understood the communication clearly and her eyes widened, she purposefully left all other concerns aside, and she kept on talking, without restraint or a sense of time passing.
She said many things to me that night. She told me of the work she had been doing, writing of the family’s history, she told me of things that had happened a hundred years ago, of crimes that had been left unpunished and untold, of our mutual friend the Philosopher who lived alone in a barren little room with a hammock and no other amenities and who ate every morning at "Mr. Donuts", of her early days in the revolutionary movement, of promises that were kept in spite of the interruption of death, of the mysterious way that she perceived my wedding with Dilcia and the things she had been told about it by others, of my Dad and his path of suspicions and secret judgements, of the silence of years, of American politics and Salvadorean politics and how they came together, of the silent contact with animals and of the verbal contact with people, of the relationship between the young and the old, of learning English in a little school just a few blocks from where she lived. Among all the many things that she said to me, there was one statement that resonated most profoundly and seemed to be the anchor that held our entire contact in place, solid and unshakable:
"I don’t like to speak of certain things with most people. I don’t believe that they can understand. I am afraid that they will misinterpret. I don’t believe in their intentions. But with you, I will tell you everything and anything. You can ask me anything at all, and I will answer without hesitation. Because I trust you and you trust me."
As she had said before, so many years ago, the basis for the old organization was trust, the old organization of idealistic guerrilla fighters that she joined so long ago and which she left when the trust had vanished like cigarette smoke on a windy afternoon. When she left, the trust had disappeared on her side and the trust had disappeared on their side as well. When that was gone, the Old Woman had nothing left to do.
When the strong, decisive man that had fought with her for ten years committed suicide and her superior female commander had been found hacked to death with an ice pick and the truth was hidden and the truth was vague and it was based on half spoken hints and silent resentments, then it was her time to go, it was her time to take the almost invisible doorway that lead away from the ranks of the lost brigade. No longer ready to follow orders but always ready to help and serve, she left behind a struggle that faded into ambition, corruption and dirty politics. But even as she saw the twisted remains of what had been the dream of a million silent voices, she would always carry with her the truth that brought her there, the ideals that inspired her to work without rest or safety, and the basic principles that kept her at her shadow post for so many years.
And the main basis for it all was trust, a trust that is almost unheard of in modern industrialized societies, a trust that overrides all other considerations, a trust that digs inside the primary directives of the body to find an older purpose, a primordial reason to breathe and move and act that stands above survival, above safety, above comfort, above the body itself and all its personal fears and desires. This trust was the glue that formed the giant invisible web of nighttime fighters, the makeshift network that made a strong professional army tremble, it forced the powerful rich men of El Salvador to leave their mansions behind and escape to little apartments in Miami, and ultimately, it forced the hand of the American Empire to look down upon this little lost country, like an elephant looking down upon a fly. From the heights of power, the Empire responded with the might of the gods and the cold decision of a hooded executioner, but the army of shadows kept on pushing forward, with its strange rhythm of creaking old doors and random footsteps in the night. Trust was the fuel for the subterranean movements and it was the basic mass from which the invisible tendrils were formed, tendrils that stretched over the jungles and the barren mountains, into the flaming cauldrons of the volcanoes, and down into the lost passageways of the city and deep into its forgotten alleys of spit and rust and fear. Long and far the tendrils of invisible connection stretched and they were as solid as steel but they had no weight or dimension, their only mass was trust, their only glue was trust, their only hope of remaining in existence was trust. Trust over all power. Trust as the only defense against bombs and machine guns and tanks and warplanes. Trust to slide into the cracks of the oppressive regime and find its points of weakness. Trust, trust and only trust. Without trust there could be no work. If only trust was left, then the work could continue.
I looked at the Old Woman’s eyes, I looked deep into her open pupils that didn’t retreat before my gaze, that didn’t try to hide or take cover, I looked inside and I found the depth of understanding and sacrifice that had been her only fuel for so many decades. More than most people on the planet, more than anyone I would probably ever meet again, this was a being that knew what trust meant, what it implied, what it could sustain, what it could accomplish. The Old Woman knew trust intimately, like a musician knows their scales, like a painter knows the canvas, like an engineer knows bricks and mortar and cement. The Old Woman knew the nature of trust in its most secret chamber and the Old Woman trusted me. I could ask for nothing more.
A call for change in an tense zone
of imminent danger.
To speak was never enough,
to remain silent could never be an option.
Without TV, without radio,
without microphones, without newspapers,
a white wall and a bucket of paint
became the tools of angry poetry.
A plastic bag and a heart etched with fear,
a message from the hidden to the unknowable,
a small contribution to a grand jigsaw puzzle
that his eyes could never see completed.
As I raise my left hand in solemn oath,
I renounce all truths that I have been given,
I take the path that is not spoken,
I step into the jungle and become one of the hunted,
where the night shines with promise,
and all laws are turned on their head.

Proud and decided,
I will accept the Way of Destruction
in the hope that someday
others will come
with strong hands and open hearts
ready to create the new
from the ashes of the old.
In their past was the barefoot wandering
over forests and rivers that were forbidden.
In their future is a wound that cannot heal
and a sudden confrontation with transcendence.
In their present there is sacrifice
and the solid knowledge,
that in a world of slaves and animals,
together, they made one true choice.
In a corner of the world
where nothing ever happens
and nothing ever could,
the secret armies of the night
came and went
without leaving traces of their passing.

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