By: Meeg Conroy, former volunteer from Passionist Volunteers International
“Me blind, but me can still see.”
The simplicity of her statement and the coyness of her remark left me thinking. I had only been in Jamaica three weeks at that point, the first two had been a crash course in everything Jamaican, including hurricane season. We learned how to quickly pack and unpack and repack all of our belongings. Bringing the first epiphany of simplicity – material possessions are overrated, especially when you have to lug them up and down stairs. Elevators were an anomaly here- but sheer strength was in an abundance, something we’d develop throughout the year in physical and mental bouts of determination- a mere emulation of what the Jamaican people demonstrated day in and day out.
“Me blind, but me can still see.”
The third week: a reemergence to civilization, our time to sink or swim in a new culture, new environment, and new mission. Karen, a PVI staff member and a guru of sorts on everything Jamaican, had been patient enough to put up with all my questions through orientation- “How hot is it really? Will we get to use computers? What’s the food like? Can I still go running? Will we get to see some reggae shows?” All questions that make me chuckle now, but at the time were my most pressing concerns, and their answers a little more comfort to an extremely uncomfortable situation. Today Karen was taking me to King Weston, her pride and joy- all the more pressure to take every detail in, making mental notes and pictures of all I saw that day. One of our last stops was Miss Pet’s house.
A cement block resembling a tin of sardines with its lid pulled back, or rather the roof, exposing not fish but deteriorating beams and personal belongings bruised by the weather’s merciless force. I hesitatingly walked behind Karen, unsure of what to see, or rather not really wanting to see, because I could only imagine what the radio never reported. My breath caught in my chest with shame as I cautiously peered into the house. Furniture was upturned, rotting, complimenting stained walls and stagnant water collecting in corners- ashamed of its own presence in such a simple, humble abode, now bowed to the forces of nature. A few tears welled in my eyes as I was again slapped with simplicity- quickly grateful for what I did have- even the barred windows that allowed mosquitoes to come and go as they please seemed ok, it was something. Embarrassed by my naiveté, I wiped the hot water from my eyes, trying to take on some of Karen’s strength as she assessed the situation and what needed to be done, rather than dawdle on the devastation of a situation that could not be changed.
“Now we’ll go see Miss Pet.” “Miss Pet?” “The woman who lives here; lived here.” Again uncertainty crept into my being. What to do, what to say, how to console someone in this situation? My mind raced as we made our way out of the debris to the house next door. My ability to understand patois and the thick Jamaican accent was pitiful at that point, so I merely watched the interaction. Miss Pet, a 90 year-old blind woman sat in a tattered cotton nightgown, her gray hair platted in two tiny braids wrapping a round, worn, and wrinkled face- her eyes shut. Her lamentations were a confrontation to my own concerns and complaints- what I worried about, what I stressed about, what I “needed”.
These are the words I remember from our first meeting, and which always seemed to come up in our conversations- and there were many. For little did I know, but Miss Pet’s house would become one of my largest projects that year, and one of my life’s most important. The seeming simplicity of re-roofing a house, and cleaning it were stripped as I worked on the project for nearly six months, dealing with material and monetary shortages, Jamaican time, and my own issues of insecurity and personal struggle. But in truth- it came through. The final step came to paint the walls robins egg blue, as Miss Pet requested. In blue radiance she turned to me and said. “Why thank you my dear. You know, me blind, but me can still see- and it’s beautiful.”
After returning from Jamaica I decided to commit to domestic volunteer service through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Though entering another year of service after Jamaica may have not been the best financial decision, it was the best personal and spiritual one I could have made. As an AmeriCorps VISTA I was hired to understand poverty through poverty. I often tell my roommates from Jamaica that there we lived with poverty, and now I live inpoverty: A subtle difference, but one that creates very different situations. However, living within the light of simplicity, these different situations are both humbled to humanity. I’ve learned what I need to live is very different from what I want to live with. In fact, my time of service has showed me that my bare necessity is my spirituality. I’ve learned that this is a source of nourishment that is never depleted and always accessible for those who seek its nutrients. It’s as Miss Pet said, “Me blind, but me can still see.” – For it’s not the physical that lights her sight, but the spiritual, a faith that is always burning and enduring.