Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Turning the Page on a New Year

January has always felt like a natural time to reflect.  With a new year passing, something about the cold and ice and snow always inspires a little nostalgia in me.  Although January in Paraguay hardly includes snow and the only ice I see rapidly melts in our terere pitcher, I’ve still spent sometime looking back over the past few weeks.

I have a lot to give thanks for.  Plain and simple, this year my dream came true.  As many of your know--and some can relate to--this dream took a long time to realize.  Frankly, it took longer to realize that I ever expected it could

I started regularly thinking about joining the Peace Corps in the early 1990s.  Yes, my Peace Corps fantasy began when some of my current co-workers spent their days in diapers.  By the time I hit the age where most people start the application process, I already thought my chance had passed me by.  It took years to reengage that dream, further more to make it a reality.

This shouldn’t surprise me, though.  I’ve always come to things a little off schedule.  Whether early (at 11 I swear I heard about my “maturity” on a daily basis) or late (we do not need to discuss the space between my first and final day of college), I rarely make it places right on time.  Lucky for me (and unfortunate for my mother), this never bothered me too much.  I’d like to think I’ve figured out how to go where the wind takes me--but still keep one foot rooted in responsibility.

But how did I get here?  Right now, in this place, as the person I have grown into.

In a word: books.  So much of the person I am today I owe to books.

From a very early age books taught me that the entire world--a world far beyond on the one we see with our eyes and touch with our fingers--lies at our feet.  We hold our destinies in our own hands and we may choose the paths we follow.  We need not travel in anyone else’s footsteps--though we may find inspiration there. 

My earliest memories include my mother and a book.  She always found the time (while working full-time) to read me stories.  I feel grateful that I grew up with books of my own.  In fact, I had an entire bookshelf full of precious, wonderful books that I could look at and hold whenever I wanted.  I even grew up with a library in my town and at my school.  Not only did I get to explore rows upon rows of books, but I had a card with my name on it that allowed me to take my favorites home for a couple weeks at a time.  Through those pages I learned to care for the books themselves, valuing them as objects and for the stories the held.

During my ugliest teenage years my father, who does not usually express his feelings to me directly, would search through Borders to buy me books he thought I would like.  His choices told me how well he actually paid attention during a time when I didn’t think he noticed me at all.  He may not have always agreed with me, but he always gave me the option to arrive at decisions on my own.  Neither he nor my mother censored my literary exploration.  They encouraged me to find my own way and never expected me to mirror their opinions.  As an adult my parents and I hold many differing views and some of the same.  I know that the beliefs I hold are my own and formed through thorough personal investigation.

Even far away, I love that my nephews let me read to them, giving us time--silly and quiet--to share.  I ache for the day when we can sit together again and hope a certain eight month old likes to hear stories as well.

Not only have books given me special time with the people I care about, but they opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities.  Through books, I learned that my life could turn into whatever I imagined, rather than the resonable and obvious possibilities that laid out before me.  Books gave me imagination and showed me a world so much grander than the one in my immediate reach.  I believe in impossible things because I read about them.

Most Paraguayan children do not grow up with this same gift.  Often, publishers and distributors price books far beyond the reach of average people and institutions.  Libraries and schools that can afford to build a collection, rarely lend them out.  When another volunteer suggested that her library move the children’s section from the top shelf (at eye level for an adult) to the bottom shelf, her supervisor replied, “No.  Then the children will be able to reach them.” 

Paraguay reports a 94% literacy rate.  However, I’ve heard that 47% of Paraguayans do not read above a fifth grade level.  Meanwhile, according to the 2010 GDP, the average Paraguayan makes $433 USD/month.  (Given the way authorities calculate this figure, most Paraguayans probably make much less.)  Budgets leave little wiggle room and usually books do not make the cut.  Children whose parents do not read, often do not read well themselves.  We see the same thing in the States.  Reading begets more reading.

Accordingly, many Peace Corps volunteers embark on literacy and library projects.  Volunteers not only read stories and teach the fundamentals of reading, they explain the basics of books.  By not growing up with books, often children do not understand how to treat them well.  At a recent workshop, volunteers learned how to teach kids to turn pages.  Missing this steps often leads to wrecked materials.

Although our story hour will not formally begin until March, we practice on the neighbors.  One afternoon we read the same story about a dragon with a cold three times--in a row.  If we meet half the enthusiasm of our practice run in the classroom, I’ll still call it a win.
Special thanks to the marms for starting our library.  Wendy, Kathy D, Martha, Nancy, Ev, Carol, Mary, Peggy, and Kathy S.: Your kindness and generosity have opened up a new world of possibilities for the children in our town.  Thank you.


  1. Another very well written entry! I so enjoy them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adventures!

  2. So you kinda liked the W. Eugene Smith stuff, and others... HUH?
    Brutally vivid images that evoke enough thought that they keep you from actually doing the brutally stupid things depicted.
    Skewed protectiveness, me, I had to touch.
    First album I ever bought Dylan "BLOND on BLOND"..Memphis Blue Again.. Chorus / Refrain ..
    Oh Mama ..Tell me what price, Do we have to keep from having to go through all these things twice.
    You write better than I, keep it up. Hi to Kevin.