PRE-POST-SCRIPT // THIS WAS WRITTEN DURING OUR 2013 TRIP TO ROMANIA. WE SPENT A WEEKEND AT A RECOVERY HOME FOR TRAFFICKING VICTIMS. THIS WAS MY FAVORITE PART OF THE WEEKEND.
I had just finished stringing colored yarn across a small white building; a trellace for morning glories when from across the yard, I heard them singing; a little choir with hands in the soil and faces in the sun.
I walked to the garden, where Larissa, the founder of this place, said I might be able to help. Feeling uncharacteristically shy, I was glad for the presence of her small son, who ran along side me singing and showing off every wild thing he found, as I mustered up my courage and made my way for the garden. Translator-less and ignorant, I came up under the trees and to the white fence around the bare dirt. The women worked in easy rhythm with one another, keeping time in the garden as if the work were a song.
I made eye contact with the girl in the first row and gestured to the little spike she was using to make holes for the tiny plant starts.
"Can I help?".
She laughs at me and shakes her head no.
This is not the response I was expecting. Not entirely sure what to do, I just stood there. Had she misunderstood me or was she trying to assure me that I wasn't obligated to help? Maybe she was genuinely hoping I'd abandon thoughts of interrupting their cadence with my efforts.
Which of these was her motive I couldn't say, so I shoved my hands in my pockets and stood there, awkwardly trying to decide what to do next. Not one of the girls looked up as if to clarify, nor did they look at me with curiosity or even annoyance that, despite having been dismissed…there I stood.
Finally, after an uncomfortably long and uncertain time of loitering and indecision, I heard fragments of English walking my way and seized upon the chance to try once more. A woman walked into view, under the branches of the trees that stand like sentinels along the garden. I charged her zealously to make my offer.
"Can I help?"
The newcomer smiled tightly, full of wordless long-suffering. Kind, but tired. She just says "Okay, yes."
Then, she speaks in rapid Romanian to the other girls, who stare at her for a mutinous moment and then wordlessly shift their positions in the garden.
On the verge of being miserably embarrassed and now certain of my suspicion about being unwanted, I determined to be a quick study. I could, despite my ignorance, be a help in the end, I think to myself. So I plaster on a smile, nod enthusiastically and say "Okay, what can I do?".
She gestures to a row of holes one girl has just made and thrusts a bundle of velvety leaves that smell sun-stained and rich into my hands.
"Put hole." she says, indicating the tomato starts. I see that she means for me to put one in every pre-made hole.
I nod. Perhaps too eagerly, because she narrows her eyes at me and says sternly "Just put hole. Only." It is clear I cannot be trusted to do more than just drop it in the hole.
"Only" I repeat, penitent and subdued.
She holds up a glove and wings an eyebrow aloft. A question. I tell her "No, mulțumesc." No, thank you. I've already noticed that none of the others are wearing gloves and I'm not scared of dirt.
I put hole. I gently tuck the lanky legs of tomato roots downward and quietly wish them strong life. I have put hole for five rows when Veo, my english speaking friend appears again at my side. "Put hole more" she says. "All hole, or..." She grasps one little tomato and makes it flop over sadly in the air.
"We have to get them all planted or they will die?" I ask. I see understanding in her eyes and she gives a silent nod. "I'll go faster" I say. "Put hole more" I repeat. This earns me a hint of approval in her look, before she turns to go.
To get the whole garden planted, it means furrowing new rows, work which seems to happen without thought before my eyes. I put hole more, working at a faster pace and soon, I've run out of holes to put. I know she told me put hole only, but I decide to try to help one of the girls as she sets the string line for the next row. I rush over as she pulls the stake on one end and places it a few feet away. I bend down on the opposite side, hand poised to pull the stake and move it parallel with where she's just placed her side. Her unusually low, rich voice stops me. "VWaaait", she says, not loudly, but bracing her hands in front of her like double stop signs. I freeze, crouched there. She bounds to my end of the furrow and measures out the appropriate space, showing me the appropriate length. One stride apart they go.
We move to do the next row and I try to compensate for the fact that her legs are substantially longer than mine with comically long strides. Then, we take hoes and dig rows which line up with the string. We have done two, maybe three, when Veo comes over and in a firm tone gestures to our rows. While I'm not fluent in Romanian, I'm well versed in "this-isn't-right". My rich-voiced friend replied with what sounds like a weak defense, of me perhaps and of having to repeat the work, but Veo replies firmly and strides away. I know we will have to go back and re-measure and then re-dig, because even compensating, our rows were woefully crooked. I wince apologetically. "I'm sorry" I say. My friend on the other end of the line knew they weren't right, but didn't want to hurt my feelings and it's cost her. But she gives me a hint of a smile, shaking her head. "Is okay" she says. I realized I don't know her name, so I ask and she tells me it is Vurica. But she says it low and soft like moss on a stone, something soft over something strong and even though it's a foreign name to me, I decide I love the sound.
We go back to re-do our rows. Each time I go to place my stake, Vurica's soft rumbly voice calls "Vwaaaitt". She leaps to my side to measure according to her own stride. Like a 5 year old, I am allowed to place the stake where she points. I am not saving her any work and I'm costing her time. She is patient and seems to enjoy showing me, but I still wonder if she's just being kind.
Ultimately, I find my face burning. I want to walk away. It's embarrassing to know less than the children who live here about how to do a simple task. As I bend like an obedient child to bury the stake in the ground, I wonder; when is the last time I truly had to be humble. I couldn't think of a time when I'd been as humbled as I felt just then, or when I'd had to learn, without already knowing. At home I am mostly in my own element, at least in some way. Here, something as simple as measuring rows had eluded me. I do not speak their language. I do not understand the lives they've lived and if I did, I couldn't relate to much of it. But that made think about the role of humility in building relationships and how when one person comes empty handed, they're actually a perfect vessel to receive and appreciate the gifts of another, rather than always coming so full of ourselves, without room for anyone else.
So I didn't walk away. I listened as Vurica taught me how to make rows. Instead of trying to just jump in and do, I asked for direction and tried to follow. I tried
After only a short while, though, Vurica glanced at me and said "Time out for you, fifteen minutes"
Stricken, I realized I must still be doing so poorly that she felt the need to give me a time out. I put my hoe down and walked with lowered eyes and fallen shoulders to the edge of the garden. I waited there, trying to breathe calmly and blink back my foolish tears. She looked at me several times, puzzled. Finally, unable to stomach standing there any longer, I determined to leave rather than stand in my abject shame. I turned to go.
"VWaait!" she called. "Going where?"
Feebly, I mimed taking a drink.
"Stay" she said, as if this was obvious. "All girls, time out. 5 minutes!"
I wrinkled my brow in confusion. She gestured to her watch.
"Three." She said in her heavy velvet accent.
"Cafe, Apa, Thè" coffee, water, tea.
I see that her watch says 5 minutes to 3. Then it dawns on me. She hadn't sentenced me to a time out. She was telling me that we all get a break in 15 minutes. I flush bright red.
"You cafe with?" she asks me, gesturing to all the women in the garden, trying not to laugh as she realizes also how badly understanding has failed us.
Relieved but still feeling a fool for having stood dejected by myself no reason, I smile at her and as best I can and nod gratefully. Yes, Mulțumesc.
In five minutes we all walk back to the house. Some of them go arm-in-arm. The wind lifts our hair, ruffling it like the reward for a job well done. I go with them into their living room. All the girls, Vurica, Roxanne, Vera, Veo, chatter like sisters, even with me. As I sit there, in the protected space where they are free, despite whatever they have faced in their lives, to be themselves and at ease, and where they have warmly welcomed me, despite my bumbling efforts in the middle of their work, I know that I am on Holy Ground.
We finish our small rest and go back to the garden. By mid-afternoon I've finally caught on to the rotation of tasks. Making rows, filling the watering can and watering 26 spots. Making the holes with the small spike and dropping in the little fertilizer pellets. Gently tucking the starts into the ground and starting again. Even Veo now trusts me to do more than "put hole" and I am getting occasional nods of approval mixed with Vurica's heady "Vwaaait" preceding her instruction.
She holds up a fistful of mud and says "Vwhat?" "Dirt" I say. I hold my own fistful up. "Ce?" I ask. "Murdărie" She says. And we smile and nod at one another, satisfied. We teach each other every word we can think to ask as we work, pointing and miming, repeating and laughing.
And when Vurica begins, for the first time since I came to the garden, to sing, she sings a song in English.
She sings "Don't Worry. Be Happy"
She throws me a cheeky smile as she add-libs the "ooooh's"
And unable to contain my smile, I sang with her.
Soon, our whole little garden choir was singing "don't worry. Be happy", hands in the dirt, faces in the sun. I felt heavy under the imprint of how beautiful my friends are…how beautiful their patience with me, their grace, how beautiful those few hours in the garden, firmly planted inside of me.
Gifts. Sometimes we are given gifts. And sometimes, if we're not careful, we might overlook the best ones because they come wrapped in lessons about humility, meekness, selflessness or other things which are difficult to unwrap.
But they are so worth it.
Please enjoy these photos of our time in Campina. I didn't take pictures or video of my friends because that was a private, safe place for them.